A Cynics Guide to Human Flourishing

It’s very easy to be cynical about things especially when someone talks about ‘unlocking your potential’ or ‘being the best that you can be’. It’s also pretty easy to be cynical when many of the problems we face today are deeply rooted in systemic issues bigger than all of us. Recently I trained as a Gallup Certified Strengthsfinder Coach. The very essence of this course is quite simply put ‘a cynics worst nightmare’. Here, I invite cynics to test the assumptions that fuel their disbelief in the idea of these horrible phrases.

Before we get too carried away let me make some definitions clear

Cynic: a person who believes that people are motivated purely by self-interest rather than acting for honourable or unselfish reasons.

Human Flourishing: is like the idea of health, which has both a restrictive meaning as the absence of diseases that interfere with ordinary bodily functioning, and an expansive meaning as robust physical vitality. Then the expansive idea of flourishing refers to the various ways in which people are able to develop and exercise their talents and capacities, or, to use another expression, to realise their individual potentials.

The latter definition is taken from Erik Olin Wright’s book ‘Envisioning Real Utopias’. Wright goes on to define Human Flourishing further.

The expansive idea of individual flourishing is not the equivalent of saying within every acorn lies a mighty oak: that with proper soil, sun, and rain the oak will flourish and the potential within the acorn will be realised as the mature tree. Human talents and capacities are multidimensional; there are many possible lines of development, many different flourishing mature humans that can develop from the raw material of the infant. These capacities may be intellectual, artistic, physical, social, moral or spiritual. They involve creativity as well as mastery. A flourishing human life is one in which these talents and capacities develop.

Wright also makes it clear that in order for this flourishing to happen, our basic needs must first be met. Abraham Maslow, famous for ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’, offers a psychological theory laying out the essential needs of humans from the most fundamental needs for survival, to reaching an individuals potential.

Starting at the bottom, these are the physical requirements for human survival, such as food, water or shelter. Safety is next, including everything from financial security to personal safety. Love and Belonging consists of friendship, intimacy, and family. It’s the healthy community many of us want. Esteem has two levels; respect and recognition from others, and respect and confidence in yourself. This leads to the last and most potentially cringe-inducing need in the hierarchy — self-actualisation, or in other words, someone ‘reaching their potential’.


This is where many people struggle, and this is where I think there might be an assumption that isn’t on point, but I may be wrong.

Disclaimer: This article isn’t about proving to you that I’m right, it’s just an idea and I hope someone will help make it a more mature one by critiquing it.

So what’s the assumption?

The assumption is that ‘self-actualisation’ (or whatever you want to call it) is a load of bullshit for people who don’t care about others that are not having their fundamental needs met (shelter, food, physical/emotional health etc). You know when you jump online and you see a picture of a sunset with a cheesy quote on it that makes you shiver? ‘The power is yours’, reaching your potential is ‘in your hands’ just Google ‘motivation’, ‘life’, or ‘reaching my potential’. It’s a scary corner of the internet. Focused solely on the individual, ignoring any kind of situation someone might be in or external factors that may be preventing them from having their needs met. ‘You’re the only barrier in the way to reaching your potential’.

The idea of ‘reaching your potential’ has become toxic. It’s been tainted and it sucks butt.

This isn’t anyones fault, but it does make the idea of pursuing self-actualisation, or actively seeking to reach your full potential, extremely difficult. Well, personally I find it does.

This could lead us to conclude that the morally superior path would be to focus primarily on getting everyone else to meet their basic needs before we can focus on reaching our full potential, as individuals and as a society. In other words, whilst poverty and injustice exist, it would be selfish to put your energy into pursuing self-actualisation. This is a completely reasonable logic but behind it is another assumption — we cannot work towards justice and equality and ensuring others have their fundamental needs met in a more effective way if we take steps to first realising our own potential.

My belief is that yes, the pursuit of self-actualisation could be selfish and self-centred if we fail to situate it within our wider context, in which major issues of injustice, inequality and poverty still exist. So what’s the ‘but’? For me the ‘but’ is that by realising our ‘full potential’ as individuals and developing specifically our strengths and natural talents, we are able to more effectively and rapidly address systemic issues that affect the poorest and those most in need. Also see ‘self-transcendence’ from Maslow’s later years which supports this idea.

I’m sorry. There is no benefit that comes from being cynical. We have to get past the horrible language and cringe factor of ‘self-actualisation’ and realise that we can develop ourselves and our natural talents and strengths while in a way that will enable us to more effectively help others.

It is this belief that made me decide to recently study to become a Gallup Certified Strengthsfinder Coach. Coaching is the role that assists people to develop their natural strengths. It is grounded in the idea of Strength Based Psychology. Strengthsfinder is a tool that creates a language around each of our individual strengths. It is heavily data driven and grounded in decades of research with proven, measurable results. I strongly encourage anyone to take the online assessment, especially those who have particular interest in fixing the broken systems our world runs on. I hope to gradually bring change to this tainted perception of ‘self-actualisation’. Because the most important thing about it is not our own development, it’s how we can be our best in order to help and serve others. I will leave you with a simple but important quote from the Father of Strengths Based Psychology and Founder of Gallup, Donald O. Clifton:

We only develop in relation to another human being.

If you are interested in being coached as an individual, team, or manager, using this Strengthsfinder model, please get in touch and I would be happy to line up a chat.


Thanks to Jes Hoskin for doing the illustrations and Ruby and Sam Hale for helping me speak somewhat proper English.

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