Using Maslow’s Pyramid to Harmonise Goals with Our Innate Motives

Our desire to make life better turns needs into goals. But our motives determine those needs using our emotions. What do we consider important?

As I started out aged 21 in my first full time job after education, work was a giant part of my life. Like many people, I was single, didn’t own property, or even a car, and most of my possessions would fit in a couple of large suitcases. Starting work provided an instant boost to my income so life naturally morphed into the structured 9-5 office life to finance rungs on the possession ladder.

There’s always more and at age 21 I was very ambitious so inevitably discovered goal setting from self-improvement books. Pretty handy and very much taken at face value. I dreamed of the future, wrote it down in the prescribed format and maxed out the effort to get there. Many goals were successful, some lost their relevance as life unfolded and new ones came along.

There are certainly no regrets (plenty of mistakes and sometimes a lot of fun) but no regrets. But, goal setting is pretty nose to the coal face and can lack perspective. Looking back, how could I have helped myself? Perhaps by realising that a good understanding of your motivations and core personality type really helps steer you towards constructive and beneficial aspirations.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In 1943 Abraham Maslow proposed his hierarchy of needs to visualise levels of human motivation as a pyramid. It starts with a physiological level which is basic survival (eating, breathing, sleeping, shelter etc.), moves to safety (health and security), then love/belonging (friends and family), on to esteem (importance, status, recognition etc.) and finally to self-actualisation (realising our full potential).

Well, not quite finally because later he theorised adding self-transcendence to the top of the pyramid i.e. doing things for the sake of others.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s levels also approximately relate to age so as we’re just starting out we need to feed and clothe ourselves, keep ourselves healthy with a place to live. Similarly, as we age, maybe because the basics are working out better, motivation often turns to self-actualisation, such as being the best you can be, social status and helping others.

Scrutinising Goals Against Needs

Let’s look at goal setting again. Thinking in meta terms as we set goals gives great insight into our motivation and therefore our desire. For each goal, an honest appraisal of motivation alerts us to distractions or wrong turns – In my case, in my 30s I wasted buckets of money buying things and spending it on hobbies that, looking back, were to persuade me that I was happy and doing fine. With our jobs, we can categorise our motivations hence appreciate the value of company culture and team spirit as well as more traditional measures like salary or opportunity.

At its core, motivations compatible with our innate personality are worth fighting for so we tend to persevere and frequently succeed. Goals incompatible with our values are prone to self-sabotage and are often rationalised away. Like quitting a course after a couple of years hard work or arriving late to an interview for a job someone else wants you to do.

We all have our own unique aspirations and values so there are no rights and wrongs but if your métier is farming then a job in city finance is unlikely to fulfil. Equally, if you’re city born and bred, check your motivations carefully before chairing a rural local beekeeping society. This may seem very obvious, but it can be shrouded by the flow of life, the impetus of your social circle and the ambitions of others.

I try to match goals with motivations based on my core values. These ‘feel right’ and make sure the hard work goes on what matters most – to me. It makes for a happier life, so whether you’re planning a major life change, or something just doesn’t sit well, a quick review of your motivations could save you from sitting on the World’s Most Boring Committee or jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Other stories you may enjoy How to Free Yourself From the Fear of Decision Making or The Misdirection of Self-Improvement

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Writer & Coffee Drinker. Authenticity is the new zeitgeist.