Understanding Our “Big S” and “little s”

Maslow called Self-Actualization the “growth need” because human beings’ need to self-actualize obliges us to go beyond our individual, limited selves and fulfill our true potential as human beings. Today, people in every generation want to experience self-actualization in their day-to-day life, including and especially while they work.



Modern Psychology tells us that humans have four basic needs to be in homeostasis: certainty, novelty, significance and connection. When we don’t experience these needs being met, we feel off. We also have two spiritual needs, growth and contribution, again which Maslow referred to as Self Actualization. Did Maslow lead us astray or was the interpretation of his work translated in a way that had us believe self-actualization was to be realized during retirement or at the gates of heaven. The quest for self-actualization is blamed for the Great Resignation, and there may be more to it. As humans we continually sidestep between living from our human spirit and living from our human animal. The animal is what helps us survive, and the spirit is what helps us thrive. The animal is represented by little s, and the spirit, by Big S.

We all have an amazing ability for internal knowing, innate wisdom, and inherent intelligence; and it is always available to support us in maximizing our potential and leading authentic and purposeful lives. This is the Big “S” Self.

We also have an amazing, or crazing, ability to be taken over by feelings of separation, agitation, anxiety and fear. These serve us when in real danger, like when a Sabretooth tiger is chasing us, because they help us stay safe and survive. The only problem is part of our brain thinks anything we are not comfortable with is a Sabretooth tiger, and that gets us in trouble.

Big S is the side of us that knows the next best step to take even when little s wants to take the path of least resistance. Big S is the part of us that sees the big picture and helps us to self-regulate in service of it.

little s isn’t all bad after all, it has been driving us most of our life. Because of little s’ power for survival, we get up and go to work. Because of little s, we stay long hours, earn extra money, set goals and can afford to take vacation. little s has a job, and it is an important one. To keep us alive by making sure we always have enough food, safety, shelter, acceptance and love. Our survival instincts, come from our little s.

Stepping into Our Big Self

Big Self quietly endures the discomfort of feeling angry or scared without dumping on others. On the contrary, little self habitually seeks to release their own pain by acting out through any means possible.

Big S has us tap into our hearts, really see people and their humanity and compassionately work together through challenges to fulfill common goals. little s shoots itself in the foot and then makes itself wrong for doing it. little s has trouble with self-compassion and therefore compassion towards others. little s has us sacrifice relationships, partnerships, joy, and fulfillment, just so it can be right.

Big S guides us to see, and hear each other’s experience with little to no filters, judgements, projections or transference. Big S is an amazing boundary setter, which gives us the power to discern. Big S speaks with clarity and love.

When little s Takes Charge

little s is fighting insecurity and making decisions with an unconscious bias towards keeping itself safe. little s, when out of control takes us off track.

Opportunities come our way all day long, when they do, we make micro or macro choices so quickly that quite often we aren’t present to the choice we made or the real opportunity at hand. Depending on our level of presence (self-awareness coupled with self-management) our choices can come from our Big Self, based upon love or our little self, based upon fear.

Big S realizes that their personal choices determine the situations they find themselves in, and therefore they do not cast blame. little s blames everyone around them to avoid the work required to make amends or improve the situation. The very act of taking full responsibility for their actions gives Big S a feeling of worthiness and peace. little s, on the other hand, only feels self-pity when they realized they are off track. The more we connect with Big S the stronger our tendencies become for positive action.

Big S gives us clues for how to self sooth when our little self is on a survival rampage. Big S, is somewhat of the governor of our being and when we lean in, Big S can help us deal with the tough stuff with grace and ease.


Recognizing the Differences

Noticing the difference between how Big S and little s impact our lives requires a willingness to grow in the area of self-awareness. Self-awareness is fundamentally about being aware and awake to what is. Specifically, what is with the Whole Self. The best way to grow in the competency of self-awareness is to have a conversation with the person in the mirror. What do you like about that person? What annoys you about that person? Two easy first steps to understanding your Big S and your little s. The next steps get a little more challenging. Ask others around you, how you are showing up. Take an inventory of the quality of your relationships at home and at work? Ask yourself, your peers and your boss, how your work positively impacts the organizations’ Vision? Once we become aware what works and does not work about ourselves, we have a choice to make.

If little s is on the job, we may hold on too tightly to the negative feedback we got, or we may pretend we didn’t hear it. little s, is our anxiety and fear and when we stay there too long it triggers a shame pattern, narrows our perspective and turns on stress hormones. And the vicious circle ensues.

However, we can avoid the whole spin out when learn to harness the power of Big S, and not let little s run the show.

Choosing to have dominion over your reactions is choosing to be Response Agile. ResposeAgility requires just as much self-management, as self-awareness.

When we become aware to our self-limiting beliefs, behaviors and patterns and we catch ourselves before act, we consciously make the choice to shift from being in a state of anxiety to being in a state of courage. As we make new micro choices, we begin, even if only at a sub-or semi-conscious level, to contemplate our bigger picture. The more times we make choices from our Big S the closer we move to self-actualization.

Moving Closer to Self-Actualization

Self-Actualization has a lot to do with learning to harness the power of little s and redirecting it to bigger and better ways of being, relating and operating with others.

Many people had breakthroughs in self-awareness during the pandemic, because they were forced to be alone with themselves, and during that time they tapped into Big S. The solitude, introspection and reflection had millions realize that their career or the company that they were working at was not leading them to self-actualization. These folks have been part of the largest max exodus in the history of the workforce. The Great Resignation has spurred an explosion of attention towards organizational culture improvements.

However, what most well-meaning CEOs are missing is that no amount of cheerleading, structure or culture guidance will make up for people stuck in their little s energy. Unfortunately, only a small minority of people ever self-actualize because self-actualization calls upon uncommon qualities such as awareness, self-management, courage and agility. One of the best investments an organization can make is in self-awareness workshops for their leaders so the leader can get responsible for leading in a way that shapes intentional, healthy and high-performance organizational culture.

Emergent Culture is culture where high achievement is the norm. In emergent culture people are awake, aware and operate in congruence with their highest selves. The leaders and employees celebrate the human dimension of work, take ownership for their impact and collaboratively solve problems. Innovation is the result of emergent culture. The challenge is that emergent culture requires a high amount of attention and intention to shape and flourish. For most, emergent culture is a wish, a hope or too far out of reach to want. Without the intention of something different what most organizations get is an entangled culture.

The reason most people think work sucks is because almost everybody is operating on top of a little s stress response to the increasing pace of workplace demands; and almost no one is aware that it’s happening; and beyond that, getting in their way. Signs of dis-ease in an organization are in-fighting, opposition to systems and controls, high turnover, internal competition, conformism, stagnation and pathological problems robbing people of time, effort and happiness. Too much dis-ease causes disease. In other words, when human beings are triggered by external forces of stress, they take on the energy as if it was their own. Think of kids at the dinner table when mom and dad were not getting along. The energy of entanglement is pervasive. When consumed by thoughts and feelings associated with stress, an individual unconsciously brings their survival instinct, little s; or entangled energy to the organization. Each person on the team taken hostage by their own little s, basically brings their lowest version of self to work then interacts with their peers, little s to little s.

So while the boardroom may see extremely high financial gain from lots of little s on an adrenalin high; the damage to the health, welfare and functionality of the organization will likely derail long term growth.

Entanglement, of the individual, group or organization is the root cause of personality conflicts, inefficiencies and poor quality, and lost market share. Entanglement slows down progress, thwarts strategy and causes high levels of fear and frustration throughout the organization. Entanglement is little s, metastasized.

For some Big S is a concept, like some god light that lives outside of the human experience, for others it is perceived as a utopia that is only reached after death, and then there are those who are wishing for something Big S like when they retire. However, there is about 15% (and rapidly rising) of the world’s population that this is the way they think, play and live. People who chose the path of the Big S don’t give up their self-expression or desire to achieve. They don’t stop living abundantly or sharing their wealth with others; as a matter of fact, those who have tapped into this innate superpower give more, live more and contribute more. By not falling prey to every trigger of the external world Big S gives these 15%ers a unique competitive edge in life.

Every person with a heartbeat has the same innate superpowers; the only thing in the way for most is the internal chatter, that they think is real. It’s easy to see and even fun to have a lively conversation about perception bias when innovating a product or discussing a car crash from four unique vantage points. However, it’s not so easy or even fun when proposed with the challenge of examining one’s own perspective bias. Some will deny they have any filter on their thoughts or experiences, they are convinced that what they see, and experience; is the way it is.

Imagine if we lived in a world where it was flipped and 85% of the people in the world lived through their Big S. A world, and workplaces, where human beings were in touch with their innate intelligence, wisdom and power and brought this level of intentionality and engagement to life and work every day.

Work would be fun again.