Self Actual Engineering
Design for the top of Maslow's Hierarchy, rather than the bottom.
I’ve been organizing more of my writing around a new a concept that I call Self Actual Engineering. The term is a reference to the famous American psychologist Abraham Maslow, who described a theory of human motivation that placed something called “self actualization” at the top, as far back as the 1940’s. The simplest way to describe it is as a desire to realize our fullest human potential.
The problem is that nobody knows what that means.
Taking Maslow as a point of departure and updating his Hierarchy somewhat creates an informative guide to the different desires that drive our behavior or motivate us to improve our lives.
At the base of this updated hierarchy are the physiological needs (sleep, food, water, shelter), and just above them the hedonic pleasures (sex, entertainment). These two levels of the hierarchy belong to the Freud, for whom all human motives are driven by the will to pleasure.
However, just above these levels we find interpersonal relationships, which we all can understand are powerful drivers of human behavior, too. According the Adler, all psychological problems are interpersonal problems. Thus, for Adler the higher motivation is not the will to pleasure, but the will to power.
Maslow went further up, placing his “self actualization” at the top. Here, I’ve associated actualization as the development self-efficacy, including mastery (e.g., expertise) and the freedom from control that comes with autonomy.
Nevertheless, I believe there is an even higher level. In his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl was inspired by his experiences in the Nazi death camps to observe that human beings can survive almost any deprivation at the bottom of the hierarchy when they believe in a reason why.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Daniel Pink offers a summary of the hierarchy in his book on human motivation Drive. He claims that when the basic needs like salary are taken care of, workers are motivated by three things: autonomy, master, and a sense of purpose. So we can see how Pink assumes satisfaction of the physiological, sidesteps the question of relationships and status, and focuses his attention on those motives placed at the top of our modified Hierarchy of Human Motivation.
The difference between science & engineering
The traditional purview of the engineer is found at the bottom of the Hierarchy. For example, Civil & Environmental engineers design buildings, water systems, power systems, roadways, and the infrastructure that provides for the physiological needs of civil society.
Most engineering professions are defined as the practical application of some underlying body of science. For example, Chemical Engineering is the practical application of chemistry and Mechanical Engineering is the practical application of mechanics.
The implication is that knowledge of the science comes first, and practical application follows — but this is a popular misconception. The fact is that engineering exists at the intersection of reality and imagination.
Scientists describes the world they way it is. For example, the meterologist will measure the clouds and count the rain drops. The hydrologist will track the resulting groundwater and river flows.
The engineer builds a dam and reroutes the river.
That is, engineers imagines a different world, and use their knowledge of science to conforms the existing world to the designs in their imagination.
In this way, engineering provides the bridge between science and fiction.
Moving engineering up the Hierarchy
Given that we can imagine redesigning our lives at all levels of the Hierarchy of Human Motivations, it is perhaps curious that engineering design has confined itself exclusively to the bottom.
But the infrastructure provided by engineering design can only be understood as a means to achieving higher ends. For example, no society builds a highway just for the sake of having the highway. The purpose of the highway is to allow people to move around with less expense of time and money. In fact, to acheive this purpose, drivers give up some of their safety and security by risking traffic crashes, because the enjoy the drive, or want to visit the beach, or reach their jobs, or visit their loved ones.
Making a more meaningful contribution to the quality of our lives requires engineering to operate on higher human motives, including relationships, self-actualization, and meaning-making. In this respect, the object of engineering becomes the self, rather than the environment and materials in which the self in embedded.
Self actual engineering requires the same jknowledge prerequisites as other engineering disciplines:
Self knowledge — i.e., a realistic description of the current condition of self, including physical and psychological health, personal and organizational relationships, and skills.
Self fiction — i.e., a vision of an idealized future self in the imagination.
Practical knowledge - i.e., knowledge of the processes required to traverse from the current state of self to the imagined future state.
For example, a person who is obese (as I once was) who wants to lose weight must have an accurate description of their current metabolic state. They must have a fantasy or vision of a healthier, leaner future state. And they must accumulate the practical knowledge necessary to lose weight and keep it off.
The last part is often the trickiest, because our practical knowledge of metabolism is fraught with serious misconceptions about nutrition and exercise.
What’s different about an engineering approach to health and well-being (compared public health policy approaches like the food pryamid) is that engineering proceeds by experiment. When working towards a designed vision of the future, the engineering approach demands a series of adaptive experiments — small scales at first, and then ever-increasing and ambitious experiments that accellerate learning. In this way, engineering is a praxeology, or a study in discovering what works (and what doesn’t).
The modern meme for an experimental approach that requires guessing, testing, failing, and guessing again is called hacking. An entire generation of adults raised on video games has discovered the power of failing and starting over that hacking allows, and the internet has connected hackers in all different sorts of applications so that they can share and accellerate experimental results to build new communities of knowledge.
In contrast to health hacking", health policy proceeds in accordance with politics. That is, public health policy is an extension of political ideology, rather than a praxeology. And the data on public health is enough to convince me that current ideology of public health is not working.
Welcome to Self Actual Engineering
This publication is the first to apply engineering principles to the aspects of life found higher up the pyramid. In the articles published here, you will find new hypotheses, knowledge, experience, and science that inform your approach to designing ansd actualizing a closer approximation of the life you want to have.
Putting that knowledge into practice will require you to obtain a better understanding of who you are, what pleases you, the quality of your relationships, the direction that your decisions are taking you, and the skills necessary to make changes. Consequently, you’ll receive articles about psychology, love, business, interpersonal communication, creativity, money, entreprenuership, health & wellness, ethics and moral philosophy.
You might decide that you’re only interested in a few of these topics right now, because there’s only so much you can focus on in your life at once. However, you will soon discover that they’re all inter-related.
It is impossible to improve you finances without changing your health. It is impossible to build new skills without changing your self-esteem. It is impossible to improve your relationships without changing your health.
These changes might be positive or negative.
Unlike typical self-help literature that focus on just one thing, like money, or weight, our goal in Self Actual Engineering is to work on our lives as an integrated system.