You’ve no doubt heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Described in A Theory of Human Motivation (first published in 1943), Maslow names a series of needs that human beings strive to fulfill. They are:

  1. physiological : food and water
  2. safety
  3. love
  4. esteem
  5. self-actualization

Maslow’s theory is that people work to meet these needs in order, and the higher order needs may not even emerge until the physical needs are met. The paper he wrote is very short, it’s worth taking a half hour to read and consider.

And somehow, I find the theory lacking.  This idea of a hierarchy of needs is well established and accepted by smart people, but it doesn’t really reflect what we observe in real life.

The question I find myself asking is this: it appears that people who are ‘self-actualizing’ consciously and willingly give up on some of the lower needs- particularly safety. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Peace Pilgrim. Self-actualizing people, who recognized that in order to continue on what might be called a life-mission, lower needs could no longer be protected in pursuit of their social or societal level projects.

Think too of reporters and humanitarian aid providers in war zones, think of explorers, think of extreme athletes.

Similarly, there are people who are self-actualizing through creative or technological or inventive projects who also willingly give up safety or esteem.  Most entrepreneurs let go of safety more than once in their lives, and some do it over and over, constantly putting all the chips back on the table.

What is ‘giving up the safety’?  It’s putting oneself in physical danger, by vocalizing controversial opinions. It’s taking material risk in order to build a project.  It’s confronting a broken system. Giving up ‘esteem’ means taking intellectual risks.

The whole thing leads back to this tipping point: when the need to self-actualize appears, a person willingly gives up protecting their lower needs in order to pursue the self-actualization.  And thus, this ‘highest of needs’ really does not fit the pattern at all.


Posted by:Brook DeLorme

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