Peter Bromhead: Self-actualisation and the meaning of existence

Cartoon / Peter Bromhead
Cartoon / Peter Bromhead

"Have you ever thought of subjecting your personal management style to a 'self-actualisation' test?" a well-meaning HR executive earnestly suggested to me recently.

I was in the process of employing more staff and had decided to hand over the interview process to a professional sieving consultancy.

"Self-actualisation?" I mumbled defensively. Suddenly, I sniffed something oddly contradictory in the air. I thought I was me who was doing the hiring, not the other way round.

Apparently that's how it is in the brave new world of employment contracts.

Employees want to know if I measure up as an employer, before I get the chance to hire.

"I'm slightly unclear what you mean by 'self-actualisation'?" I continued cautiously, believing this was simply mumbo-jumbo dreamed up by HR gurus, who traditionally tend to hide behind waffle when trying to impress potential new clients.

"You'd find the test results interesting and they present a broader picture for finding compatible employees, to assist you grow your business," I was assured.

As the 'self-actualisation' test involved about three hours, I was able to excuse myself from that particular marathon, promising to report back at a more suitable time.

"What's a 'self-actualisation' test?" I asked the caregiver over dinner.

"Somebody telling you to get real," she suggested.

When I explained that our HR consultants wanted me to undergo the assessment, she dryly reminded me that because I'd spent most of my life living in a state of non-reality, they might find their test criteria unable to measure such an extreme case.

Retiring to my study with her quip stinging my ears, I decided to research the subject and was surprised to find that 'self-actualisation' had been around since the 1930s.

As expected, the term really means "the full realisation of one's potential" and was well-documented and labelled by eminent psychologists at a time when writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Kierkegaard were spouting weighty, unnerving visions of what life was all about.

Sartre's pessimistic view was that we were all hopelessly stuck in some ghastly, mud-filled pit, leading a passive and rather boring acquiescent existence, and unless we understood the absurdity of our situation, we'd never escape and enjoy the full potential of a prosperous and well-ordered existence.

"Sounds like being married with children ..." I sagely muttered - making sure the caregiver didn't overhear my take on Sartre's rather uncompromising beliefs.

- NZ Herald

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