February 10th, 2010

Maslow's Pyramid: the Video Game of Life

Usually when we’re introduced to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the purpose is to give project managers another tool with which to manipulate or control – oh, sorry – “motivate” team members. I have a completely different reason for my love affair with Maslow’s model. In order for me to lay the groundwork for upcoming posts involving people such as Johnny Cash and Mark Knopfler (I’m dead serious), I’d like to introduce this powerful model from a more interesting point of view.


Maslow's pyramid of needs is the video game of life

Maslow’s theory is based on the premise that we are motivated to fill certain needs in a certain order: once those needs are met, we move up the hierarchy to the next level of needs.  The first four levels are deficit needs: once we acquire them, we no longer crave them, at which point they cease to be motivating, and so we move up to the next level.

It’s rather like a video game, such as Super Mario Bros. Starting at the bottom, you play the game one level at a time. When you complete the level (or acquire the need), you move up to the next level in the game.

Something magical happens, however, when you get to the Fifth level: self-actualization. Unlike the other four levels, self-actualization is a Being Need.  This means that the more time we spend on this level acquiring this need, the more we feel the craving for it. This is what makes this level so special: the more we play it, the more we need to play it. And it’s never the same game twice, just like Super Mario Bros (or so my 13-year old daughter tells me) where there are many worlds, each of which contain many levels. The Fifth level actually contains infinite worlds and infinite possibilities of levels and fulfillment of needs. It is a powerfully addictive level, except that, unlike other addictive substances, it’s actually good for you. Go figure.

It’s good for you because the Fifth level, also known as the growth level, is all about fulfilling your potential, being the best possible “you”. As Maslow himself said: “What one can be, one must be.”

So what exactly does self-actualizing look like? Based on a biographical analysis of certain figures in history and some that he knew personally, Maslow was able to assemble a list of the following characteristics of self-actualizing individuals. (Note that I have paraphrased the definitions in my own words.)


Diagram from Dr. C. George Boeree's article, see link later in this post

  • Reality-centered: really high “BS” detector, very little tolerance for lies and hypocrisy
  • Problem-centered: life’s obstacles are just problems to be solved rather than opportunities for whining and complaining
  • Different perception of means and ends: the journey is just as important as the destination, the means becomes the ends, the “doing” becomes more important than “getting it done”
  • Interpersonal relationships: deeper relationship with fewer people
  • Autonomy: don’t really care what other people think
  • Solitude: enjoy their own company, self-starters
  • Resistance to enculturation: don’t care about social norms, tend to be nonconformists or “rebels”
  • Sense of humour: hostile humour is not funny, will not laugh at someone else’s expense
  • Acceptance of others and of self: “as you are”, “as I am”
  • Spontaneity and simplicity: what you see is what you get
  • Humility and respect: democratic values, appreciation for the talents of all, regardless of “class” or “hierarchy”
  • Freshness of appreciation: an ability to see beauty and art everywhere, can count and appreciate the basic blessings in life
  • Peak experiences: also known as “flow”, or “being in the zone”
  • Human kinship: an affection for all human beings
  • Strong ethics: clear definition of ethics; spiritual, not necessarily religious
  • Creativity: inventive, original

If you’d like more detail, or Maslow’s original terminology rather than my colloquial rephrasing, please see this article, or listen to this free webcast: both are excellent.

It’s worth noting that reaching Maslow’s Fifth is actually a lifelong journey. I feel like I’ve only barely arrived here myself. However, regardless of where you find yourself on Maslow’s pyramid at this particular point in your life, I strongly feel that there are powerful lessons that can be learned from self-actualizing individuals: whether those individuals are fictional or real. (Notice how I worked TV and movies in there? Clever of me, eh?) These are the lessons that I have christened “Maslow’s Moments” which will be a regular feature of this blog.

I know what you’re thinking: what the heck does self-actualization have to do with project management?

The answer is: everything. Of course.

Being a good project manager is about leadership. You cannot be a good leader, a good “anything” without self-awareness. Self-awareness leads to self-actualization. My favourite quote from e. e. cummings says it best:

“It takes courage to grow up and be who you really are.”

But it’s not just about us, is it? Project managers are, after all, leaders of teams. We should be striving to be the best possible leaders for the teams that we manage. Well, what is leadership, anyway? Stephen Covey eloquently phrases it in The 8th Habit:

“Leadership is communicating to people their work and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves.”

As you can see, it always comes down to potential: exploring your own and helping others to explore theirs.

I hope you’ll join me for the fun…up here on the Fifth.

3 comments to Maslow’s Pyramid: the Video Game of Life

Have something to add? Leave a comment!