Maslow and the Paradox of Personal Growth

I should have been over the moon.

I had just experienced my biggest ‘success’ with The Weekend University.

We had moved our ‘Sleep & Dreams’ event to a new venue, sold all 320 seats, and had three great talks.

Normally, we have a ‘pub social’ after every event where attendees get a chance to meet each other and share different perspectives on the lectures. I also use this as an opportunity to catch up with old friends in London I don’t get to see during the month.

But for this event, there was a mishap with the pub, the social was cancelled, and the friends I usually catch up with weren’t able to make it.

So here I was, having just organised an event for 320 people, eating dinner alone.

By objective measures, I should have been pretty happy. I had moved to a new venue, broke a record in ticket sales, and helped to create a memorable experience for everyone involved.

But I was far from it..

I thought: ‘Why am I doing this?’ ‘What’s the point in achieving success, if you don’t have anybody to share it with?’ ‘Why bother with all of this hard work when the end result is sitting here, having a meal by myself?’

This experience seemed to reflect a larger, more sinister problem in my life.

I was chasing ‘success’ (and sometimes getting it), at the expense of other more important things.

I don’t know where it came from, but somewhere along the line, I seemed to have picked up the belief that in order to grow as a person, I would have to ‘go it alone’ and sacrifice social relationships in the process.

In this post, I’ll explore why this is fundamentally not true, and offer a new paradoxical view of personal growth.

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist best known for creating Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

In his 1943 paper: ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, Maslow argued that human beings have five different sets of needs:

  1. Physiological –food, water and sex.
  1. Safety – a safe and stable environment.
  1. Love and belonging – an intimate relationship, positive friendships and family.
  1. Esteem – a solid sense of self-esteem, a positive reputation and the respect of others.
  1. Self Actualisation – personal growth, ‘peak’ experiences and contribution.

His theory suggests our needs exist in a pyramid-like structure with the basic ones (food, shelter, belonging, etc) at the bottom, and self actualisation needs (personal growth, contribution, etc.) at the top.

Crucially, you have to start with the bottom of the pyramid first, and work your way up.

In other words, you’ll not be able to focus on self actualisation, if you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from (1), if you’re not in a safe environment (2), if you don’t have strong social relationships (3), and if you don’t value yourself or feel valued by others (4).

Only when our basic needs are met, are we able to start thinking about the top of the pyramid.

Humans want to get along and get ahead. And they will become whoever they need to be in order to do so.

Will Storr

Often we chase success or personal growth for the wrong reasons.

We’re not striving for a goal because of an intrinsic desire to realise more of our potential.

Instead, we do it because we unconsciously believe it will help us satisfy lower, more basic needs on the pyramid that aren’t currently being met.

We think; if achieve ‘X’, then I’ll get the love and respect that’s missing in my life.

So we spend all of our time working, and sacrifice the very thing we’re really after in the process – human relationships. As a result, we become increasingly isolated and our quality of life plummets.

Worse still, we might actually achieve our goal, and get to the top of the mountain we’ve been climbing, only to realise when we get there, we’re more disconnected and miserable than we were when we started.

So, we set a new goal, and begin the cycle again.

How then, do we get around this?

How can we balance our need for social connectedness (getting along), with our need for self actualisation (getting ahead)?

You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

Jim Rohn

In his book: ‘High Performance Habits’, Brendon Burchard attempted to identify common sources of meaning in self actualisers’ lives.

To do this, he interviewed 1,300 high performing individuals, and found that across the board, they placed a high value on their relationships in life and work.

These people were excelling in their careers, while at the same time, enjoyed positive relationships and had a strong sense of social connectedness.

So how were they pulling it off?

What separates self actualisers from everyone else, is that connection for them is more about challenge, than it is about comfort.

In other words, they deliberately seek out a peer group that challenges them.

They surround themselves with people that inspire them, with similar values, and who pushes them to realise more of their potential.

By doing so, they create synergy between multiple levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy – their need for belonging, their need for esteem, and their need for self actualisation; providing them with both meaningful work and meaningful relationships in the process.

Paradoxically, Burchard’s study found that high performing people don’t succeed in spite of their social relationships, they succeed because of them.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

John Donne

The paradox of personal growth is that there’s nothing personal about it.

As Maslow’s Hierarchy demonstrates, it’s not possible without meeting social needs first.

And as Burchard’s study shows, if we do want to achieve excellence in our chosen field, we’d be wise to surround ourselves with people who challenge us, and who want the best for us.

Otherwise, you might find yourself achieving ‘success’ like I thought I did that day, only to realise that its real value is being able to share it with others.

Picture of Niall McKeever

Niall McKeever

Writer and Founder of The Weekend University. Passionate about making great ideas more accessible.

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