01/29/2011 10:18 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Self-Actualization: How to Keep an Open Mind And Your Independence

After forty years of no contact, I recently re-connected with a close friend from my late teens. He commented on how much confidence I had now. When he used to know me, I was always seeking (and not getting) the approval of my parents. I laughed and said it only took me until I was in my 50s to realize that the only approval that really mattered was my own. Self-Approval -- now there's a concept.

They say that with age comes wisdom. Or is it that wisdom comes with maturity? Whichever it is, freedom came for me when I stopped feeling the need to prove myself to other people in order to gain validation. We all want to look good for our friends, families and even strangers. We all want to fit in and be accepted. But should we be willing to give up our freedom to do it?

Think back for a moment to Psych 1A. Remember Abraham Maslow and his famous needs pyramid? Down there at the bottom were the most basic survival needs -- food and shelter. Up on the top was that high sounding, utterly misunderstood, seemingly unrealistic goal of self-actualization. Well, it turns out that Maslow defined self-actualization as "being independent of the good opinion of others." And that doesn't seem so far out, at all. It's okay to listen to the opinions of others, as long as we make a conscious choice to adopt them. And as long as we remain "independent," it really is learning rather than conforming. It looks like freedom's just another word for nothing left to prove.

An important part of that freedom is being open to "try on" new behaviors in order to learn what fits and what doesn't. And in doing so, we ought not make judgments as to whether or not they will work based on where they come from. I think we all wish Congress would be more willing to openly discuss ideas, regardless of which side of the aisle they originated.

Instead of rejecting new approaches simply because they are new (or old ways simply because they are old), it would be great if we all could be open to something that works for us. We call that exercising judgment, which is not to be confused with being judgmental. And all of us want to use good judgment. But here's the rub: Good judgment comes mostly from experience. And experience usually comes from a willingness to participate, even if we make errors in judgment. When we do, we call them mistakes or learning experiences. Without them, we stagnate.

So it turns out that only by choosing and trying to find out what works for us can we learn how to make better decisions. In this way, life becomes one great big experiment, which we can elect to see as fun and exciting, or as cosmic revenge. The choice is ours.

But regardless of how we see it or how long it takes, we alone are the sole arbiters of who we are and how we choose to show it. It's not that we aren't influenced by everything that surrounds us in one way or another. And it's not that many of our behaviors and thinking patterns weren't formed in early childhood, long before we were capable of critical thinking and analysis. But as adults, as we mature, one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is the freedom to be us, "independent of the good opinion of others."