People are on their way to self-actualization when they work to reach their full potential. However, no one ever reaches their full potential since that suggests that no further improvements can be made and things can always be improved upon. So, I like to think of self-actualization in terms of a continuum rather than a destination which suggests some sort of impossible personal perfection.
What self-actualization actually looks like will of course vary from person to person because it is linked to unique characteristics such as one’s abilities, interests, and personality. So to address the title of this post, no, a person does not necessarily have to be self-employed to reach self-actualization. Although I believe many require it and others would be more self-actualized if they were self-employed.
There are some common characteristics of self-actualizers. Abraham Maslow believed they are growth-oriented and tend to have a high degree of independence. They’re often found in creative fields and feel free to pursue their creative passions without disruptive constraint. So let’s compare working for organizations versus self-employment.
People who work for an organization have to deal with politics and are often at the beck and call of their bosses. Some have creative leeway, but far more often they are expected to complete some sort of narrow task which is often repetitive. Many are frequently worried about losing their jobs. All considered, it’s more difficult to be self-actualized working for others but it’s not impossible, again, because self-actualization is a stage or state that is linked to individual characteristics.
From my vantage point it appears that, when considering jobs that involve being employed by an organization, some are more suited for self-actualization than others. Tenured professors come to mind. In contrast to factory workers, for example, they have job security, relatively low task repetition, significant freedom in setting their work hours, and can generally pursue their intellectual interests. But even they have to report to administration, teach at certain times, feel pressures publish, and might feel compelled to focus on areas they may be tired of, etc.
Independent entrepreneurs, writers, film makers, musicians, and artists tend to have more freedom and control. A lot of these fields also allow a great deal of creativity. And it is apparent that a lot of people aspire to be in and are happiest in these sorts of fields because many move into them when they “retire” from other work upon reaching a certain degree of financial independence. The reason why more people are not in these fields is because they tend to not pay very well since many are willing to do the work for little pay or even for free.