Climbing Mount Maslow

In his 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, Abraham Maslow introduced a simple principle that has had a profound influence in the fields of psychology and sociology. Namely, he introduce the concept of a hierarchy of human needs which he termed Physiological, Safety, Belongingness and Love, Esteem, Self-Actualization and Self-Transcendence. And Maslow’s big main point here was that it is necessary to first satisfy the basic needs before we can even have the luxury to start worrying about the higher-level concerns. But for me, looking through Maslow’s hierarchy in some detail, it seems that all the cool kids hang out towards the top of that hierarchy. I’ve been there in the past, and am occasionally so fortunate as to touch the top of the hierarchy again from time to time. But I think that I (we) can do better than this! So I determined myself to try and devise a way to “hack” Maslow’s Hierarchy so as to maximize the time I’m spending near the top.

Maslow’s Hierarchy in Depth

Before we plot out how to hack Maslow’s Hierarchy, it’s good to first take a closer look so that we can understand what we’re dealing with! As shown in the figure below, Maslow’s Hierarchy is composed of 5 levels.

maslows hierarchy
(Figure adapted from Wikipedia)

At the base of the hierarchy are our most basic physiological needs - breathing, drinking, eating, sleep, and generally keeping our systems in balance. The next level represents our need for safety in terms of our selves (body and health), our family, and our things (property, resources, and employment).

The next two levels deal with the fact that humans are very social animals. The third level shows the importance of belonging to a place in society; that is, having close friends, having a loving family, and sharing intimate time with our partners. The fourth level then is not only having a spot in society, but having our spot; that is, having an area of our life where we feel highly esteemed and where we can have a sense of confidence in our achievements.

But ah, at the top of the hierarchy, that’s where we really want to spend our time! Having satisfactorily secured our place in society, respect of our peers, and a strong social network; and giving little thought to things like physical safety or animal needs – we have the time and freedom to focus our efforts towards higher things. With our palette in hand, the world is the canvas of our creativity. Confidently, we are able to react spontaneously to events as they come. And unencumbered by egocentric biases, we are more accepting of facts upon their face value and able to more quickly find solutions to challenging problems. At the top level of Maslow’s hierarchy, our typical modes of operation are creation and exploration. Yes indeed, there is a reason that this level is the apex of the pyramid.

Lowering the Apex

When Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest, I bet it never occurred to him that the easiest way to reach the summit might just be to pull the summit down towards him. This is silly of course, but when you’re mountain is made of ideas, you should consider this as a real possibility! So, let’s look at our approach in conquering Mount Maslow.

Let’s start at the bottom on the Physiological level. Obviously you’re not going to get very far by cutting out breathing, eating, and drinking. And I’ve tried at several points in my life to cut out sleep, but this doesn’t work for long! Rather than cutting things out of this level, I think we can bolster ourselves here so that we’ll be better prepared for the rest of the trek. The answer is simple: do things that promote physical wellbeing. Make wise decisions regarding the food you eat. Stay hydrated. Sleep.

Next up, Safety. You might be thinking that it’s unreasonable to skimp at all on safety, but I think that the average middle-class American has an unreasonable level of risk aversion. Sometimes our understanding of risk and failure is even backwards from what it should be! Consider a friend of mine; we’ll call him Bill. Bill had worked for most of his career in a narrow field of engineering and almost all of that time was spent at the same company. Back in the economic downturn of 2007, his company had a major round of layoffs leaving Bill unemployed and actually rather unqualified for finding a new job. To my knowledge Bill has remained unemployed ever since. See what happened here? Bill chose the risk-averse route and stayed at a “nice” job – until he got canned. Bill did not realize that his aversion to risk and failure had prevented him from further developing his career. Rather, Bill’s aversion to risk had set him up for the the risk of catastrophic failure which was finally actualized in 2007. The lesson for me is that it’s actually quite important to embrace a measured level of risk. So long as the failure doesn’t destroy you – Mom was right – it really will make you stronger. And with risk often comes reward.

There’s another big boat anchor hiding in the Safety level - possessions. It is important to maintain control of your resources and property; but the more property you have and the higher lifestyle you embrace, the more you will be stuck worrying about things. See how cool that guy looks driving his 2013 Corvette Stingray? He feels considerably less cool every month when writing the check to pay off that beast. Do you have a 50 inch plasma screen TV? Get rid of it! The shows you watch are taking your time and turning your brain into cottage cheese. And the news is crap too… just wait until the news gets to you and you’ll be fine. In the past 10 years without a TV I don’t think I’ve missed a single news story that was actually worth hearing. Instead of investing in things, put some money aside so that when that rainy day comes, you’ll at least have enough money for a big umbrella and some shiny rubber boots. This way, you can spend much less time worrying about how to make ends meet.

Finally, regarding health and bodily safety. Here again is a point where we can focus on health habits so that we won’t have to worry as much about these points in the future. Take time for physical activity. Maintain a healthy diet. Don’t drink too much. Quit smoking. (Except, if you smoke a pipe. An occasionally bowl of tobacco is just fine ;-D)

The next level of Mount Maslow is Love/Belonging. Here again, like the first level, I don’t think there’s really much to remove. Your family and friends are a defining and important factor of your life and they are your safety net when my “embrace risk” recommendation above goes south on you. You need them! But again, there are things you can do to bolster this level so that you’ll make it the rest of the way up Mount Maslow. Show your family and friends that you love them. Take time for them and make them feel special. And above all, don’t get involved in petty disputes, they’re a sure fire way to hold you back. Rather, settle your issues quickly and strive to live in harmony with those around you. And if that doesn’t work, find new friends!

At the next level, Esteem. Again, there is plenty for the average middle-class American to cut out. All of the items listed here, confidence, achievement, respect, etc., are indeed important, but we tend to overemphasize their importance. Why does it really have to matter what others think of our situation? Why do we need their respect? Rather than feeling bad because we’re not “keeping up with the Joneses,” what would happen if we just set aside those concerns, and followed our pursuits out of a sense of creative curiosity. I think at that point we actually find ourselves at the peak of Mount Maslow, in a state of self-transcendence. So my personal goal for the Esteem level is to minimize the importance of self. Rather than following pursuits for the sake of others’ recognition, isn’t it better to follow pursuits that will actually help others?


So what do you think? In reading back over this post myself, I think my regular use second person pronouns might come off as a bit pretentious. It’s as if I’ve already arrived at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy and am giving you my wisdom. But in actuality, this post is really a sort of pep talk to myself. I’m interested in the idea of self-transcendence, but I’m often pull away from this goal by my own fears and self-centered interests. But in writing these ideas down, I think the path forward is at least a bit more clear. Going forward I will focus a little more on lessons learned. Among these:

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.

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