Impact Stories
November 17, 2022 – Science of Liberty

Sam Staley: Why self-actualization is good for students, and society

Sam Staley: Why self-actualization is good for students, and society
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Sam Staley: Why self-actualization is good for students, and society

Sam Staley is director of Florida State University’s (FSU) DeVoe L. Moore Center, an interdisciplinary, applied public policy research and teaching center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy that examines how the private sector can address pressing local concerns. In addition to running the center, Staley teaches upper level undergraduate and professional masters courses in social entrepreneurship, economic development, and more. He is the author, co-author, or editor of five books on public policy. We sat down with Staley to discuss self-actualization and its role in human progress.

Many people aren’t familiar with the term self-actualization. What is it?

Humans are always growing. We’re hard-wired to learn. Self-actualization is discovering who you are, what you want to be, and then working toward that so you can make a contribution. It’s finding where your interests fit in the real world. 

Self-actualization can take on many forms. It can mean being a titan of industry or it can be contributing to your neighborhood or community. When a person is self-actualized, they are able to act and represent themselves authentically. At the DeVoe L. Moore Center, we try to help students understand how to find and align themselves with a mission.

How does a person achieve self-actualization?

That’s a trickier question. There are a few things an individual needs to do. First, show up. Go to class and work. If you don’t, nothing will happen. Second, show up with the intention of improving your skills or your knowledge. Third, be a team player and, as Mark Krikorian, a friend and former collegiate soccer coach says, “Find joy in your teammates’ successes.” This third piece often is often lacking because we underappreciate how important our peers and colleagues are to our own success and what we can learn from watching others doing things well. 

Finally, trust your heart. On its own, this advice would help a lot of students. If you feel like you need to take a gap year, take it, but use it to grow. If you think you’re better suited for another major, pivot. Find where you’re comfortable and where you can establish yourself, and then don’t be afraid of it. As Americans, we’re blessed to be in a culture where people get third, and fourth, and fifth chances. This is an incredible cultural gift and asset. To self-actualize, don’t be afraid to experiment. 

In addition to your advice about self-actualization, what else do you teach your students about how to be successful in life and work?

First, we talk about honoring relationships — not treating people as if they’re expendable or commodities. Second, I tell them to be transparent in everything they do. Don’t try to hide mistakes or be too clever. This is crucial for building trust. Finally, I tell them be sincere and authentic in everything they do. Let’s say a person starts a business and it fails. Then they apply for a job with me. I’m not going to ask them why the business failed; I’m going to ask them what they learned and how will what they learned can add value to my organization. 

So many students are afraid of doing the wrong thing. A good coach, a good educator, a good parent will help a young person appropriately recalibrate risk, recognize the value of their effort, and teach them how to pivot from mistakes toward success. 

What role do educators play in helping students achieve self-actualization? 

It’s a significant one. Our role is not only to impart knowledge, but to coach and mentor and to meet students where they are. The grading system creates fear and anxiety. I use it, but my classroom benchmark for success is when a student stops asking about their grade. That’s when they’re working with a growth mindset, can really be productive, and can make progress. 

Self-actualization requires learning about yourself. As educators, we should talk to students about where they have made progress. Our goal should be for them to say, “I learned how to do something I never thought I could do.” That’s a major step toward self-actualization. It gives students a “why” for their hard work while also creating new benchmarks for success. Educators need to intentionally design their curricula to help students reach these milestones. 

When you came to the DeVoe L. Moore Center 11 years ago, there were no interns. Now there are 33. Clearly FSU students are excited to work with you. How do you empower them to self-actualize? 

We help students transition from being teenagers at home to independent, creative, productive people who add value to their communities and workplaces. We’re a think tank, but we’re educators first, and we try to meet them where they are. We’re not just telling interns to produce papers on topics that are only of interest to us. I might need a paper on land use policy, but I don’t hire interns for their background in land use. Instead, I look for students who are eager and committed to learning, and then we train and mentor them. 

Dignity plays a big part in this relationship. In our onboarding program, we state clearly that every individual must be treated with respect. It doesn’t matter who you are, or if we agree. As a fellow human being, I’m required to treat you with dignity. This mindset helps us look at students holistically, and help students to see themselves more fully. Yes, you might be an economics major, but you also might be the captain of the Quidditch team and have all of these other interests. What does that mean?

We also give students a lot of grace. We don’t get too worked up when things don’t work. Life is much more about learning to recover from mistakes than not making any mistakes at all. We help our interns learn how to recover and pivot. We remember that our interns are students. We’re not training them so they can stay at the our center or FSU. We’re helping them to be successful when they leave. 

What are some barriers to self-actualization?

Broadly, I think the desire for self-actualization is the natural human condition. We are instinctively hard-wired to grow and learn. Otherwise we would have never progressed as individuals, a community, or a society.

Unfortunately, some parents can stifle self-actualization by telling their children to focus on a certain subject without thinking about the child’s own passions, talents, or aspirations. Students also often just try to do what’s expected of them, either by a parent or teacher. There also are students — like people generally — who have been so focused on survival, or who have been deprived emotionally or physically, that they haven’t been exposed to, let alone thought about, the concept of self-actualization. When that happens, educators must do even more to create opportunities for students to self-actualize. 

Why is self-actualization not only good for the individual, but for society?

People who are self-actualized are often happier and more productive. They know what they can do. They know where they fit. They don’t accept when something is not working. They believe in themselves enough to change course. Self-actualized people take responsibility for what they do and are focused on moving forward and making progress. They also realize their fellow humans have an infinite capacity to learn and add value. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

This interview is part of an ongoing series that discusses the principles that unlock human potential. Find links to the entire series here.