Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and Success

06/02/2015 09:35 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016
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I used to have a boyfriend who would bounce around on his toes a little when he got excited about something. One of the things he bounced about was a list of five basic needs he liked to recite: food, clothing, shelter, friends, work... and something else. I forget. It doesn't matter. I wasn't one of them, and that is all for the best. But I thought of him and that list the other day while listening to a TED podcast on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Was this where he got that list? Not from an NPR* podcast, because those didn't exist, but from reading about Maslow? Maybe I should have listened better back then. It might have saved me some time, or at least some uncertainty.

Readers, this podcast got me thinking (for the umpteenth time) about why I am pursuing this question of success, and what value this pursuit may have. Occasionally, and by occasionally I mean regularly -- daily -- I am beset by anxiety that my pursuit is ridiculous. I have wondered, from time to time -- OK, day to day -- if this quest for success is some kind of frivolity, some kind of navel-gazing, masturbatory exercise that I only engage in because I'm a privileged person, not scrounging around for my very subsistence.

It turns out, no it is not. In Alain de Botton's book Status Anxiety, he says that we need to redefine success. And Alain de Botton is not the only one who says we should be redefining success. Arianna Huffington says so, too. Arianna has devoted an entire section of the Huffington Post to it -- The Third Metric. And not just because Arianna says we should be redefining success. Although it is helpful to hear her say it. I say it, too. But I feel justified also because Abraham Maslow said it, also. Well, sort of.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote a paper about these needs in 1943 called, "A Theory of Human Motivation." He studied motivation -- what drives people. He described a set of universal needs and arranged them into a handy diagram, with a pyramid shape because they depended one upon the other. The more basic needs had to be met before the higher level ones could be.

These are our motivators, these needs. Needs drive behavior. They are essential to our being. They are fairly self-explanatory. Well, guess what? One of them has to do with the search or drive for success.

If I look back on the genesis of my project, I see that I was struggling with those needs. The move from NYC to the 'burbs of Albany and our changing financial situation really upended any hard-won sense of safety I had. I kind of got stripped back down to the bottom level. While in reality, I had food, clothing and shelter, my sense of safety and security was shot. It was pretty unstable to begin with, I think, which is perhaps why I had such a hard time actualizing my dreams. Friendship and love and so forth were much more important to me than work, which is a big source of self-esteem for many people. I was so busy shoring up those lower levels that I had no energy to drive towards the higher levels. I'm going to blame it on losing my mother at 14 months and having a less-than-ideal connection with my stepmother. Maybe people who grow up feeling secure in their homes don't have to take as long to move up the hierarchy of needs as those of us who -- didn't. Just a thought.

So, once I felt more secure in our new surroundings, had a social network, was able to feel love from and for my family again and belonging to a community didn't seem so far-fetched, then I was bombarded with those higher level needs. I moved on to that drive for esteem.

Esteem. Here it is, right under that top of the triangle. Look at that. A need for esteem. Meaning the esteem of others and self-esteem.

And what else does the drive for esteem lead to? That was the shove off from the dock on this cruise around the world in search of success. That question of feeling successful was driven by this need for esteem.

In other words, I can stop asking, "Why success?"

Seeking success is not frivolous, it's natural and essential. It's a building block towards the highest goal of self-actualization. Some people say there's another level beyond Maslow's tip -- transcendence. In any case, a drive towards self-actualization and/or transcendence makes us look outside our lives and help others. It leads us to consider the bigger picture and what can improve life for the poor, etc. This makes me think of the Hindu and Buddhist idea of enlightenment. You work towards Enlightenment and Nirvana, but once you achieve it, you return to help others on the path. Nirvana isn't the end goal so much as the way to help others also reach it.

So. Where does this leave me? Not fully self-actualized yet, apparently. Certainly not transcendent. Surprise, surprise. However, I am in good company. Arianna and I continue on our quest not hobbled by uncertainty.

Does that mean I'm hobbled by certainty? Hmmm.

*I love NPR, and often when I listen to NPR I remember a different boyfriend I had who loved NPR. He once said that turning on the radio to NPR was like falling into wide open welcoming arms. Well, I had no idea what he was talking about then, but I do now.