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Adaptive Actualization: Surviving and Thriving in Uncertainty

Stop waiting for the epiphany and start finding more meaning in every moment.
“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.”
On Becoming a Person, by Carl Rogers

Seeking a Path to Navigate Liminality

So here you are, trying to navigate a liminal space. Unfortunately, finding your direction and way through liminality can still be difficult even when you have all the necessary resources, especially when you sense multiple forces pulling you in different directions. 

You've probably found your way through one or more challenging life experiences. Perhaps you got a big promotion, took on an impossible project, or lost your job. Maybe you went through a life event like the birth of a child, a divorce, disease, or death, and you started showing up differently. In our society, rarely are we taught to process these constructively and with self-compassion. And even if you found your way through this in one part of your life, the territory and roadblocks will often appear different when you find yourself in another liminal space. 

One of the common refrains on how to make yourself feel better in situations like this might be to show gratitude for the resources and people you have in your life. You can see that some or many of your basic and psychological needs are being met. It's good advice: a consistent gratitude practice can help you minimize catastrophizing a situation and reduce your anxiety and stress response, giving you additional adaptive capacity to tackle the issue. Alas, gratitude for fulfilling our more fundamental needs, while necessary, is insufficient for addressing the sustained sorrow and grief of seeing your potential unfulfilled, and when taken alone, only delays the inevitable work that actualization entails. 

Standing on the Actualization Escalator

There's a reason why people think this way. A common strategy toward self-actualization is rooted in a "bottom-up" orientation of Maslow's Hierarchy (Figure 1). 

Picture of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Figure 1: Maslow's hierarchy of needs. (2024, February 6). In Wikipedia.

A common misconception of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is that self-actualization only comes AFTER the underlying needs have been fixed and fulfilled. I call this way of thinking the Actualization Escalator modeled after the Relationship Escalator concept from Amy Gahran. 

Riding the Actualization Escalator has its issues: 
  1. You'll have a harder time with stressors and missed expectations. Looking unidirectionally and expecting continuous forward motion will make any loss of progress along the escalator harder for you to handle.
  2. Suppose you stay too fixed or brittle in a given strategy. In that case, you're likely to push quintessential but unfulfilled needs into your shadow to preserve the current state, leading to self-denial, self-suppression, and survivorship bias toward others.
  3. You think that since we're all "supposed" to go through this, you're supposed to know what it takes to understand your potential and don't need to talk about it. 
  4. You may find yourself evaluating your and others' worthiness of self-actualization based on their progress of needs fulfillment, which often leads to power dynamics and oppressing others based on socio-economic status. 
  5. You may imagine self-actualization as a foregone conclusion, such that you don't try to understand your potential, lose valuable self-knowledge, or expect an epiphany.
  6. Your linear escalator ride will end without a landing. Every day, the news reveals evolving forces—political, economic, social, technological, legal, and environmental (PESTLE)—that present opportunities and (more commonly) threats to fulfilling our needs and potential. 

If you want to step off the Actualization Escalator, you'll need to expand your view of the experience of actualization. 

Actualizing Individually AND Collectively

One of the most important things to remember is that actualization is a basic human need for all collectively, not just individually, but this is quickly forgotten and overlooked in more individualist societies. I learned in the last few years that the Blackfoot Nation informed Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; they had a more expansive concept of actualization (figure 2) that positioned self-actualization at the base in relationship with two other elements:

  1. Community Actualization: people supporting each other across their needs AND bringing their full potential together for the greater good
  2. Cultural Perpetuity: the sustainment of a culture, both holding and adapting, over time and dimensions of reality

This slide shows basic differences between Western and First Nations perspectives, as presented by University of Alberta professor Cathy Blackstock at the 2014 conference of the National Indian Child Welfare Association
Figure 2: Image of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Informed by Blackfoot Nation ALTA)

From this perspective, you can see that your self-actualization journey is affected by and affects your community and culture. You and your actualization in the context of the PESTLE forces are part of an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) ecosystem. So, when you're trying to fulfill your potential in this world and don't want to leave it to chance, you should learn how to use the dynamics of ecosystems as a model for supporting your actualization experience.

Learning to see actualization as an adaptive process

The Resilience Alliance describes the adaptive cycle (Figure 3) model as being "...derived from the comparative study of the dynamics of ecosystems. It is meant to be a tool for thought. It focuses attention upon processes of destruction and reorganization, which are often neglected in favor of growth and conservation. Including these processes provides a more complete view of system dynamics that links together system organization, resilience, and dynamics."

Adaptive cycle from Panarchy, edited by Lance H Gunderson and CS Holling

Figure 3: The Adaptive Cycle, from

Look at how ecosystem dynamics apply to your actualization. The adaptive model is a good vehicle for stepping off the Actualization Escalator and instilling that your actualization is a continuous experience, not an event or linear path. In that, you've undoubtedly found yourself going through all of the phases:

  • Growth or exploitation (ᴦ): learning and evolution with a focus on specific opportunities or outcomes
  • Conservation (Κ): managing and saving your energy, time, and money
  • Collapse or release (Ω): like breakdowns, setbacks, and other positive disintegrations
  • Reorganization (α): major, if not complete, shifts to the way you think about and interact with the world

Now, take a moment to recognize that you are both an agent in an ecosystem AND an ecosystem of your own. This concept represents a nested hierarchy of at least three adaptive cycles. These represent a panarchy (Figure 4).


Figure 4: Panarchy: from

As an individual, you are part of broader ecosystems like your family, community, team, company, culture, region of the world, our broader civilization, and part of this planet. They provide for you, and you provide for them. You are on your self-actualization journey and part of these communities' actualization cycles. You remember and apply or use a collective value or resource for your needs, and you can spark revolutionary change in how your collectives are organized and operate.

Learn to perceive yourself as an ecosystem, too. Look inside, and you'll realize that you manage many complex and dynamic life domains—including but not limited to your finances, vocation/profession, hobbies, intellect, wellness, and spirituality—each helps you fulfill your breadth of needs. Within each domain, you have varying degrees of passion, momentum, and meaning you make in them, along with different kinds of influences and resources available. You'll find yourself remembering essential facets of a more integral sense of self that you bring to a specific domain. You'll also find that advancements in some domains cause a revolt where your integrated self-concept changes due to a more narrow development. 

Practicing Adaptive Actualization

Now that you know these concepts, let’s implement the adaptive cycle and panarchy into an adaptive actualization practice so that you can actualize better

Let’s start by tailoring the language of the adaptive cycle model to be a better fit for actualization work. The adaptive actualization cycle (Figure 5) is a tool for thinking about the actualization experience more personally. 

With this, you can better self-identify the current phase of your experience, diagnose the issues you’re facing along the journey, improve the quality of discussion about your experiences, prepare yourself for increasing change, and offer better support for others.

Adaptive Actualization Phases-1

Figure 5: the Adaptive Actualization Cycle, a tailored model of the adaptive cycle for actualization

Walk through the cycle as if you were starting to find yourself in a liminal space and going through the adaptive actualization cycle mindfully:

  1. Having been settled for a while into how you’re making strides in your life, you notice a change in momentum or passion, perhaps feeling overwhelmed. You greet it warmly and with curiosity because you’ve been anticipating change as a part of life.
  2. You have also developed your sense-making ability, so you are catching this change before it could become majorly disruptive or catastrophic. Your senses are sharp and tuned to reveal new or different information about yourself and your environment as they arrive. You acknowledge the good, bad, and in-between of how well you’ve been executing so far, how you’re feeling, and what you’re discovering about changes in your world. You feel informed and wise.
  3. As part of reframing, you explore what might need to change in your model of the world. Your heightened and open self-awareness and -knowledge from the previous phase create a brave space and container to explore how you might deliberately challenge your self-concept, beliefs, and values to meet the changes. You are excited to see and expand your sense of potential. You also recognize where you may need additional capacity to meet the changes fully. You feel ready for the journey.
  4. In focusing, you develop and express your revised humanistic vision of the world and your part in it. You see the opportunities present not just as means to fulfill your needs but for and with others to create positive, purposeful impact aligned to your individual and collective potential. You channel your excitement into tangible theories of change.
  5. Closing this iteration through the cycle back to stride-making, you gather and deploy your resources efficiently to meet the world on these new terms by building scalable habits, systems, and even products to start achieving your desired impact without being everywhere all at once. You feel every effort is effective and impactful.
  6. In the event of more revolutionary shifts and disintegration from the reframing experience, there are moments when you find your spirit in a new light, shifting from one level of meaning-making to another. You enjoy greater joy and peace of mind, entering the adaptive cycle again in the focusing phase of this cycle with a new sense of spirit.

The more conscious, deliberate, and skillful you can become in your experience of adaptive actualization, the more you can make meaning in every moment. 

Stay tuned to learn how to use this cycle to create your Actualization Flywheel, a self-sustaining platform for reaching your potential.

Want to learn how to practice adaptive actualization while becoming more productive overall? Download our FREE Actualization Self-Assessment to see how well you're doing, or contact us now to get a sense of your actualization strategy. 

Kraig Parkinson

Kraig Parkinson

Kraig is the founder of Integral Productivity LLC. For 25 years, Kraig has been helping enterprises, teams, and individuals to align purpose with performance, enabling transformational changes that create more humane business impacts, environments, and experiences.


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