1954, a book was published that changed the landscape.
It pushed psychology into the mainstream, into conversations that happen from middle school through middle age and beyond. It draws from sociology, physiology, and philosophy (specifically the ideas behind the shape of the tipi from conversations with Blackfeet Nation Elders), to give a succinct yet expandable model of what drives our decisions.
I talk of course of “Motivation and Personality” by Abraham Maslow, building off of his ideas from “A Theory of Human Motivation” published in the Psychological Review in 1943. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” has influenced everything from school food programs for children to rehab programs to the corner office. It has helped prevent crime and produced champions, and a review thereof can illuminate why we do what we do and how we can make better choices to ultimately fly free from the base tendencies that keep us grounded in a bad way.
If we were to break the Hierarchy of Needs (HON) into three main strata they would be Basic needs, Psychological needs, and Self-Fulfilment needs. These needs must be met in a progressive order: you can’t beat the final boss in a video game without getting through the first group of levels. But we play video games not to dork around in the fun and cool but fairly meaningless side quests but to acquire the skills and resources and experiences to become more powerful, to level up and face the more difficult challenges that produce the greatest rewards. So too in life.
For most of human history we have been fighting to meet our Basic needs, the lowest level of the HON. These Basic needs are twofold: physiological needs (food, shelter, warmth, water, sleep) and safety needs (protection and security). Getting enough calories to not starve, fire, clean water (still a concern in much of the world, click here to help), not getting killed by large predators or other people. These are the fundamental needs of all humans, whether in the Rome of Marcus Aurelius, Mongolia during the era of Genghis Khan, or the slums of Tijuana and Bangalore today. As a species we still have work to do here, but the advances of the past fifty years have pulled billions out of the worst of poverty and every day we bring the Basics to more and more across the globe.
The definition of Basic needs has evolved too. My mom did not have electricity on the farm as a kid, now the entire US has it and cell phones too. Being content with less in this space does not make us poorer (a five thousand square foot house won’t make you twice as happy as a 2,500 square foot one, and two watches instead of five still meets the need) and has been an on-going challenge for the more technologically advanced groups since the earliest recorded histories. Knowing when to say “enough” not only keeps your waistline under control, it frees resources for the higher level pursuits that have driven societal evolution and ultimately benefit every person.
These Basic needs are sometimes called “Deficiency Needs”, in that if there is a lack of them there are observable effects. A dehydrated person exhibits physical symptoms, and an IV can literally and visibly correct most of them in a few minutes. Once these Basic needs are met, once we know where our next meal is coming from and that we can sleep safe at night, we turn to our Psychological needs. These are sometimes also referred to as “Growth Needs”, as they lead to the growth of individuals and societies as opposed to merely surviving.
As parents, educators, and leaders it is our duty to look out for those we protect, serve, and love to give them the mental tools to function in our society and grow as individuals. Love along all six of the Greek dimensions:
- Philautia (Self Love)
- Eros (Sexual)
- Philia (Deep Friendship)
- Ludus (Playful or Bantering Love)
- Pragma (Longstanding) and
- Agape (Universal Love)
encapsulate the first level of the Psychological needs, and is all too often where people cap out on their climb up the Hierarchy of Needs as they are not getting the love and connections that they need, be it from others or themselves. Addressing these Growth needs is one of the main drivers behind the philosophy and psychology of the past few hundred years, and making sure all people have access to these non-physical needs is an ongoing challenge.
One of the things we can do for our clients is to model some of these aspects of love, be it Pragma (longstanding as evidenced by our service to them, our willingness to take time for them even if there is no direct economic payoff) or Philia (deeply discussing their needs beyond the Basics and helping them evolve up the HON), even Ludus for those of us with that sort of personality that gets emotionally charged from making others smile and are willing to take the risk to make it happen, even when our clients or friends are in rough patches and might want to punch us in the face for trying to fill their Psychological needs that aren’t being met elsewhere. If you were to focus your time with your clients not just to meet the Basics but concentrate in this Growth space, you would likely see a huge jump in production, greater retention of clients, and an uptick in your Introductions as those you help will want to share you with others to assist them in their Psychological needs.
Once we address the lower psychological level of connections/relationships, self esteem needs can be dealt with. People need their ego stroked, recognition, and respect. Respect from others and self, which has been an issue since the turn of the century and is reflected in the workplace in many ways. An insidious concern is that those who lack proper emotional nurturing early in life often pass this deficiency on to the next generation. These needs can not be suddenly met with an IV: inadequacies must be dealt with over time and in some situations can never be made up no matter how much effort is expended. Sticking a needle in the arm to find love or self esteem does not work. Some people can not evolve beyond this level because they are so damaged from previous experiences and for whatever reasons do not expend the time and energy (or do not have the direction and consistent support) to compensate for earlier lack.
Many people are struggling today because of the pandemic, with unemployment at a level we haven’t seen in decades and stress levels high with little outlet. Many of us tie our self esteem to external factors such as our job, our relationships or social settings, and other externalities that have crumbled in the past year. Even if everything were to open tomorrow, the lasting psychological effects will carry forward for over a generation, as we saw with the Spanish Flu a century earlier. We as professionals can assist our clients by helping them clarify the WHY behind many of their goals and decisions, by helping them focus their anxiety in positive directions, and strengthening our networks by proactively reaching out to our people and ensuring that they know we are available to them on multiple levels. By talking about our own fear so they know they are not alone, and by being present for them beyond the Deficiency Needs planning we usually focus on.
Focusing on others’ needs will help you as an individual summit the pyramid of Needs and achieve self-actualization, to embody Nietzsche’s Uber Mensch by truly living as what Jim Collin’s called a Level 5 Leader. Those who do so are happier, more productive, and have a much broader impact on their environment on a sustainable basis. How you get there is beyond the scope of our discussion today: individuals spend decades discovering what is their highest calling and how to bring it forward for the good of others.
Understanding your own metamotivations though will decrease your need for accountability or coaching in that those that are self actualized are internally driven to their particular excellence in a way that external forces cannot push. Furthermore, they can serve as inspiration for others that are still climbing the Hierarchy of Needs and can act as a beacon in the night for those struggling, an archetype to strive for that we can benchmark our decisions and actions against. The WWJD litmus test is an example of this. So too is Napoleon Hill’s “Imaginary Council”, or the bust of Lincoln sitting on many a leader’s desk. As it is “self” actualization not “Joe” actualization I can’t presume to tell you what to do, only help point the way like Bruce Lee’s finger towards the moon. I can merely point the direction, you need to climb the pyramid on your own.
So as we all struggle on the journey in the new world, look back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a model of what you as a professional do for your clients, and ask yourself how you can help others climb higher. Maybe it will help you reach the pinnacle, both professionally and personally.