A wise person once gave me some good advice: Know Your Maslow.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is this theory proposed by psychologist Abraham Maslow that establishes a ranking between five categories of needs, starting from basic physiological needs and ascending to true self-actualization. In the context of the advice given to me, this basically means to understand that before people have the needs of their current level met, they’re not really capable of thinking seriously about the next level. In other words, people don’t care about the respect of their peers if they’re struggling to even eat on a day-to-day basis. If you understand this, you can predict a lot of people’s responses to things and understand their behaviors better as they connect to their circumstances.
Ultimately, we all want to climb this hierarchy. If we don’t even have the basic survival elements, we want them. Once we feel we’ve got a handle on food and such, then we want a relative level of safety, security, and stability. After we’ve got that, we want people – a society, a group of peers, interaction. Once we’ve got that, we want status; esteem among those peers. And once we feel like we’ve got all that, we want true internal happiness.
People are all different, so it’s certainly possible to imagine some Buddhist monk who achieves true self-actualization without having any of that other stuff (except maybe food and water), but Maslow is probably right about 99% of people, which means it’s a good template to understand others. And probably yourself.
Which is where the challenge can come in. Think of your life path like a ladder. While I don’t know if I can judge whether some life paths are “better” than others, I feel confident claiming that some are a better fit for you than others might be. When you first pick a life path, it’s a lot like putting a ladder against the side of that pyramid and starting to climb.
But if Maslow’s right, then one of the features of this system is that it’s hard to see the top from the bottom. While you’re scrambling for enough money to both pay rent and eat, it’s hard to think about whether what you’re doing will ultimately lead to true inner satisfaction some day.
So you might discover that the particular way you’ve chosen to live your life has gotten you to, say, level 3. You’ve got enough money to comfortably pay your bills, you have a stable environment, you have some friends, etc. But that’s as far as the ladder goes. For whatever reason, you discover that this ladder isn’t tall enough to get you to levels 4 or 5; your unsatisfying career is never going to make you truly happy, and it probably isn’t earning you much respect, either, so you’re stuck. You don’t want to just be at level 3 forever, so what do you do?
Well, lots of people try to jump from one ladder to another. But if you’ve ever tried to do that in real life, you know it’s not very smart, and the analogy holds. There’s a lot of danger there. Someone tries to switch careers without losing a single inch of altitude, and suddenly they hit all sorts of stumbling blocks and they might lose their job, have disaster strike, etc. It won’t always happen, but it definitely can.
The smarter thing to do is much, much more emotionally challenging. It’s climbing down the ladder. But everything in us pushes us to climb up Maslow’s pyramid, not down it – if we have a peer group, we don’t want to give it up. If we have stability, we don’t want to sacrifice it.
But what if that’s what it takes? What if the ladder that goes all the way to level 5 is way over there, and you can’t jump to it, but you can reach it from the bottom?
In practical terms, this might mean that in order to find that life path that takes you all the way to level 5, you might have to sacrifice the esteem of your peers, because they’ll call you crazy for giving up your great but soul-draining job as a corporate lawyer. Then you might have to give up that peer group entirely, because you’ll be too busy focusing on learning new skills and improving yourself to put in the time with them. Then you might even have to sacrifice stability, because you can’t afford that Manhattan penthouse any more, and soon you’re a broke college student again at 45 barely paying rent and living off a rapidly depleting savings so you can focus on your studying full time.
But then, from the bottom, you build back up. You get your survival needs handled. You find a new role in your new vocation that you love, and you’re more stable. Your new peer group shares your vision of the future and you connect with them better than you ever did with that old group. You earn their respect and admiration from the amazing things you do for the world. And looking back upon what you’ve accomplished, you’re truly happy. Your ladder went all the way to the top this time.
That’s just one of a million ways that could play out, but the theme is the same – sometimes to get to the top you have to go back to the bottom. Don’t be afraid of it. The top isn’t going anywhere, and if you climbed once you can climb again. Even if you have to try out a dozen ladders, that’s okay. That just makes you better at climbing, stronger and lighter. You’ll get to the top, if you know your Maslow.