Maslow’s Hierarchy


A friend of mine recently shared a picture and a question as a sort-of think-piece. Think-post, anyway. The picture was of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The question was about whether we’ve collectively shifted downwards a bit. I.e. A little bit away from actualization and a little more toward basic health and safety needs.

As a quick refresher, the pyramid is arranged with basic needs as the foundation and self-actualization at the tippy-top. There’s an intuitive logic to this; we can’t concentrate on art or meaning when we are struggling not to die. Even stepping on a brick of Lego (which I do regularly) seems to pull the airbrake on all higher function.

So, the original question is a good one. And it makes sense in a peri-pandemic world. But there’s also a problem with it: Maslow never created a hierarchy. In fact, Idealistic Abe never so much as sketched a triangle. 

The pyramid shape came from a management guy and later got traction when it was published in an article about money as a motivator. Different vibes to be sure. Since that article—published in 1960—the pyramid shape has just stuck. And I think it’s done Maslow’s work a disservice.

The original idea was that we can be in multiple places at the same time. Even when we chronically struggle, we are still able to experience many moments of brief resolution. And—in those moments—we can embrace higher and deeper aspects of who we are.

Guess what this guy just stepped on

Some alternative shapes have been proposed. A ladder, for example, since we can put our feet and hands on different rungs.

Or a sailboat. Modern humanistic psychologist (and mensch), Scott Barry Kaufman imagines fundamental needs as the hull of the boat and our more positive emotional and philosophical drives as the sail.

Image credit: Transcend by Scott Barry Kaufman

Personally, I like donuts. I imagine physiological and safety needs as the structure. Cooking/frying binds the proteins together to form a matrix. And that matrix contributes to—and holds—all of the flavour and experience.

What about sprinkles, GG? Well, I’m glad you asked. Those might be moments of peak experience in any one of the domains encased within. Or maybe they’re just sprinkles.

My sense of the world right now is that we are all more driven toward finding meaning. Even those who are struggling with more foundational needs are frequently looking up and beyond. In those moments, they are asking important questions about how they live, how they work, and what they believe. No linear progression required. 

We’re values-driven folks here at Bang. So, while there have been many years where it felt like we were swimming upstream against fitness culture, things feel different right now. A lot of folks find us because they are looking for meaning within the practice of health and fitness. It’s not how I would have designed the shift—but I’m glad it’s here. It’s why we’re here.

P.S. More recently, I’ve been thinking about is the donut hole. Maybe it’s just an empty space. But maybe it exists in those moments when all of our needs are met and we exist—even for a brief flash—as our truest selves. Chew on that.

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