One of the most common lamentations I hear when I talk to people is that they feel like they are moving through life in “survival mode”. That they are kept so busy with what they consider to be non-negotiable obligations and responsibilities that they simply don’t have the time to create the life they want for themselves. In many cases, they have lost sight of what that ideal life even looks like.

Having experienced that feeling myself for a number of years and worked my way through it, one of my favorite things is to help others see the possibilities all around them, and make their own journey from surviving to thriving. I’ve put together a kind of “CliffsNotes” on this process so you can see what it takes, and start taking action in your own life!

I have to confess that I cringe just a little bit whenever I use the phrase “surviving to thriving”. In some ways it feels like a cliché – something appealing and idealistic but without any real substance. And yet it so succinctly summarizes a shift that many people desperately want to make, but don’t know where to start.

With that in mind, let’s consider what it really means to survive and to thrive. A useful model is Abraham Maslow’s heirarchy of needs, originally published in 1943 and still used widely in academic and organizational settings. The heirarchy is often represented as a pyramid, with the most basic needs which meed to be met first at the base. It is widely understood that the heirarchy is more flexible and situation-dependent than a simple pyramid diagram would suggest, however the model is a great tool to assist in understanding what we really mean when we talk about surviving and thriving.

Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs – Image: Shutterstock

The four needs that form that base of the pyramid are referred to as “deficiency needs”, in reference to the fact that they cause stress and become a primary focus (read: obsession) when they are not being met. Starting at the bottom of the pyramid, they are:

  • Physiological needs such as food, water, sleep and other biological requirements which our physical body would die without.
  • The need for physical and economic safety.
  • Love & belonging – this is where things start to go off the rails for most people at some point in their lives. In a world that is more technologically connected than ever before, we can find ourselves missing a sense of real human connection, the sense of community that is so important to our psychological wellbeing. A lack of fulfillment of this need is something I often see as a source of career-related stress. People can fall into a trap of working long hours, which compromises their family and other social relationships, but also experience feelings of isolation at work because they have little in common with their colleagues.
  • Esteem – the need for respect and recognition. Many people seek to fill this need through their career or involvement in other groups.

If we consider the fulfillment of these four deficiency needs as the bare minimum for surviving (remember, we haven’t even touched on fulfilling our potential yet!), it is easy to see why so many of us get caught up in the survival game. There is a lot to keep up with! Yet at the same time, those of us fortunate enough to live in societies where we have ultimate control over the fulfillment of these needs have developed a preoccupation with moving beyond them.

The final piece of the puzzle – the peak of the pyramid in Maslow’s heirarchy of needs – is self-actualization. This is all about understanding our greatest potential and setting out to fulfil it.

Think about this concept for a moment.

Your highest potential. What is it? Are you on a path to fulfilling it?

If you don’t know, or you’re not on your way to fulfilling it, you are in the majority. But you’re also missing out on truly thriving.

So what can you do to move up the pyramid and get to a point where you are thriving instead of simply surviving? I’ve broken it down into five steps:

1. STOP.

This is the first, critical step and for many of us the most difficult. We are so caught up on our daily hamster wheel that we can go days, months, even years without taking a moment to pause and reflect on which needs are and aren’t being met in our lives. This is easiest if you can make it a part of your regular routine – I like the morning pages described by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way as an effective tool for finding out what’s going on under the hood.

2. Attend to Any Deficiencies

As I mentioned earlier, if the first four needs are not being adequately met, they will become obsessions. Don’t try and supress these obsessions – they will only grow larger. Instead, take what you have learned from your reflection practice and make a plan to address any outstanding items. Often we need help to work through these in the form of a friend, coach or therapist, as it can be hard to see exactly how we sabotage ourselves and move forward.

3. Define the Peak of Your Pyramid

This is the fun part – starting to understand what self-actualization means to you. Maybe you have unfulfilled creative dreams, or want to combine your love of adventure and passion for sustainable development into an international non-profit organization. Perhaps it means completing a deeply personal quest (read Chris Guillebeau’s The Happiness of Pursuit for inspiration), or leading a large organization to great success. If you get to this stage and it seems overwhelming, Peak Wellbeing Solutions have developed an innovative process called Map Your Peak that can help you get focused.

4. Make a Plan

This is where the rubber hits the road. You can have the grandest vision in the world, but without a plan it will remain just a vision. Beyond just actions and timelines, you need to spend some time considering what you need to let go of and anticipating what could come up to throw you off course. Map Your Peak was also designed to help with this step of the process.

5. Small, Consistent Action

Just like any goal, your path to self-actualization will be comprised of thousands of tiny steps. Intermittently switching focus between the next few steps and the long-term vision can help strike a balance between inspiration and action. Try to take at least one small step toward your goal every day, and record those steps somewhere so you can look back at how far you’ve come.

Moving from surviving to thriving doesn’t happen overnight, but your commitment and diligence will be rewarded in a way that no other pursuit can come close to as you start to live life as the best version of yourself. Many consider self-actualization to be a lifelong journey (for those lucky enough to even get to that final piece of the pyramid!). Self-compassion and a strong support network are critical to your success.

Are you ready to start your journey towards thriving? Check out any of the linked resources in this article to get started, or for a full immersion weekend that will kickstart the process for you, join me at the Rediscover YOU! Retreat in Colorado in February 2016. I would love to see you there!

Retreat Flyer V4

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