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How to define a successful career

19/06/2019
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What does a successful career look like to you? And how do you define what success actually is? Without a clear definition it can be difficult to know what actions you need to take to achieve success. But there is a framework that can help you define success and work towards it. Here’s how the concept of ‘self-actualisation’ can help you define success and succeed in your professional life…
How to define a successful career

Understanding self-actualisation


The concept of self-actualisation has its roots in various psychological movements of the early-to-mid twentieth century, but it reached popular attention thanks to the work Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist who is today most-well known for his hierarchy of needs theory (a theory which incorporates the framework of self-actualisation). The theory was developed by Maslow in his 1954 publication Motivation and Personality in which he defined self-actualisation as:

“The desire for self-fulfilment, namely the tendency for him (the individual) to become actualised in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”

To put it more bluntly, self-actualisation is about achieving one’s full potential.

In these terms success is synonymous with self-actualisation.

But before you can reach for self-actualisation, you must first ensure that you have the necessary foundations in place to enable you to then concentrate on fulfilling your true potential.
Laying the foundations of career success: Fulfilling your hierarchy of needs

Laying the foundations of career success: Fulfilling your hierarchy of needs


The most publicly recognisable aspect of Maslow’s research is the idea that before one can achieve self-actualisation, one must first ensure that the basic needs of humans are met. Maslow defined these needs as:

  • Physiological needs: These are needs that keep us alive such as food, water, shelter, warmth, sleep and rest.

  • Safety needs: The need to feel safe, secure, stable and unafraid.

  • Love and belonging needs: The need to develop friendships and relationships and to be part of a community.

  • Esteem needs: The need to feel self-esteem based on your own achievements, as well as the need to feel respect and recognition from your peers and others.

  • Self-actualisation needs: At the top of Maslow’s pyramid sits the final step, self-actualisation. The need to pursue and fulfil your unique potential.

  • Maslow points out that someone may have the inherent potential to be a great engineer, artist or scientist, but if they must spend their waking hours focusing on attaining basic needs or the other steps on the hierarchy (e.g. food, safety, love, self-esteem) then they will not be able to achieve their true potential.

    Whilst higher, self-actualising needs, are not generally pursued until the lower needs are met, Maslow pointed out that a need does not have to be completely satisfied for someone to move onto the next need in the hierarchy. Rather the point is that these lower needs must at least be partially satisfied, meaning that it is possible for an individual to work towards all five needs simultaneously.

    It’s an obvious point, but one that’s worth making nonetheless. If you want to achieve career success, you must first ensure that you have your basic needs fulfilled and not in a state of flux. Having a stable, fulfilling personal life will set you up for career success.

    But you must ensure that your career is aligned with your true nature and capabilities.
    Become what you are through self-actualisation

    Become what you are


    Maslow states that self-actualisation involves the development of what is ‘within the individual’. (In Self Actualising People: A Study of Psychological Health Maslow asked the reader to imagine it as the ‘intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism… self-actualisation is growth motivated rather than deficiency motivated’).

    In order to define what career success means to you, you must embark upon self-reflection. 

    What is it that you are truly capable of achieving? Does this align to what your employer defines as career progression? For example, you may have an inner talent and ability to invent new technologies or ways of engineering things. But if the only career progression that your employer offers is a better job title and more money but not the freedom to pursue your inventions or engineering ideas, then you are not in the right career to achieve self-actualisation.

    It’s important to note that self-actualisation is a deeply individualistic framework for the definition of success. Everyone has different values, desire and capabilities. And thus, self-actualisation will manifest differently in different people. It’s why you should not look at social media gurus, entrepreneurs and others of their ilk as examples of how to achieve self-actualisation. Your true potential is an internal ability which needs to be brought to fruition through your work.

    To reinforce an earlier point, the strength of using the self-actualisation framework to define career success is that it is immensely practical. In contrast to the social media gurus and the like who will often suggest you ‘follow your dreams’ (often with no regard to the consequences of what happens if said dreams don’t work out), the framework of self-actualisation recognises that you must first have fulfilled basic material and social needs before you can achieve your true potential.
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    So, if you have taken the time to engage in self-reflection and have come to recognise what you are capable of achieving, you should now have a better idea of what a successful career looks like for you.

    A successful career will be one in which you are able to self-actualise and ‘be all you can be’. In this way, you can use the framework of self-actualisation to decide whether you are actually in the right job for you, and if it’s time for a career change…

    Time for a more fulfilling job?


    Then register your CV / resume with Fircroft today and we’ll alert you to the latest job vacancies that match your skills and experience as soon as they become available.
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