Abraham Maslow: The Jonah Complex and the Fear of Greatness

The overwhelming majority of people fail to achieve a life even close to what they are capable of. Discovering why there is an innate pull or tendency towards mediocrity is essential in overcoming it, and cultivating a life conducive to one’s individuality and personal growth.

Abraham Maslow posited the existence of a psychological condition inherent in human beings which sabotages their dreams of greatness, and relegates them to live in mediocrity and conformity. He called this condition the Jonah Complex after the Biblical character Jonah who attempted to flee the fate God had decreed upon him. Below are some great passages from Maslow’s book, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, that help to shed some light on what appears to be a ubiquitous and unfortunate condition among human beings:

“We fear our highest possibilities…We are generally afraid to become that which we glimpse in our most perfect moments, under the most perfect conditions, under the conditions of greatest courage. We enjoy and even thrill to godlike possibilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before these very same possibilities.” (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Abraham Maslow)

“In my own notes I had at first labeled this the “fear of one’s own greatness”, or the “evasion of one’s destiny” or the “running away from one’s own best talents”…It is certainly true that many of us evade our constitutionally suggested vocations (call, destiny, task in life, mission). So often we run away from the responsibilities dictated (or rather suggested) by nature, by fate, even sometimes by accident, just as Jonah tried – in vain – to run away from his fate.” (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Abraham Maslow)

“The person who says to himself, “Yes, I will be a great philosophers and I will rewrite Plato and do it better,” must sooner or later be struck dumb by his grandiosity, his arrogance. And especially in his weaker moments, will say to himself “Who? Me?” and think of it as a crazy fantasy or even fear it as a delusion. He compares his knowledge of his inner private self, with all its weakness, vacillation, and shortcomings, with the bright, shining, perfect, and faultless image he has of Plato. Then, of course, he’ll feel presumptuous and grandiose. (What he doesn’t realize is that Plato, introspecting, must have felt just the same way about himself, but went ahead anyway, overriding his doubts about himself.)” (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Abraham Maslow)

When Maslow asked his students which among them would write a great novel, be a great composer, or a great leader…

“Generally, everybody starts giggling, blushing, and squirming until I ask, if not you, then who else?” Which of course is the truth…If you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life. You will be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities.” (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Abraham Maslow)

For inspiration on the attitude and steps required to achieve greatness, check out our video: Creativity and the Pursuit of Excellence.

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