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Maslow Was Wrong (And So Was I)

H. Les Brown

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At least when I was in school, almost anyone who was ever introduced to psychology heard of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. Needless to say, I was one of those. Additionally, anyone who's read The Frazzled Entrepreneur's Guide to Having It All or who has coached with me knows that I've found Maslow's Hierarchy to be an important contribution to the search for personal life balance. If, as Maslow suggests, we all have these needs, and they create a sort of hierarchy (so that we need to fulfill some before we have the opportunity to fulfill others), then, to actualize our fullest potential, we ought to be climbing that pyramid, always building upon our earlier work.

There's a lot of truth still to be found within Maslow's insights. At the same time, there's plenty of disagreement on how the pyramid should be constructed. Are there five levels? six? eight? My preference was for the eight-tiered pyramid that appears in The Frazzled Entrepreneur's Guide. At the base of this pyramid, we find physical needs; then we progress through security, interpersonal (social), self-actualization, and self-transcendent needs. Spiritual needs occupy the capstone of the pyramid.

That seems very cool, because we humans do seem to start with a preoccupation with the material world and grow into an appreciation for the social, cultural and spiritual concerns. Theoretically, that should work. In practice, it just doesn't. For a while, I've had a feeling there was something wrong here, and just now I've discovered that I've been right in my dis-ease. I was interviewing an author, Elaine Winters, last night on my internet radio program (The Frazzled Entrepreneur Program that can be found at Her experience of coping with her husband's sickness and death brought her to new depths of spirituality. That means something important that has too often been missed: Maslow's pyramid us upside-down!

When a human being is deprived of everything that makes life bearable - by tragedy, by disaster, or by inhumanity - all that he or she is left with is a spiritual connection to the Divine Spark within. Instead of the results that we might predict from looking at Maslow's hierarchy (that, deprived of physical sustenance, spirituality would be the last concern of the dying), in fact, experience teaches us that the opposite is true.

Our experience with addiction since the 1930's has taught us that, even in cases where people have every advantage of wealth and power, a spiritual illness will reduce an otherwise successful individual into a pitiful wreck of a person. Similarly, restoring a person's fortunes will do no long-term good unless the spiritual roots of the addictive personality have been addressed first.

Society and humanity are not, as we might have thought, secondary needs, but, after spirituality, they're also foundational. On one hand, infants, otherwise well-cared for, but deprived of human contact and affection, will wither and die. The physical yields to the social.

On the other hand, the experience of inhumane deprivation throughout the ages seems to have left the door wide open for both self-realization and self-transcendence. The young Greek philosopher, Epictetus, a slave to a wealthy Roman family, found his true freedom inwardly. Even in the death camps of World War II, people, deprived of everything imaginable, still found ways to fulfill their higher human longings. For many, no amount of pain or suffering - not even death - could rob them of their more profound needs.

From now on, my (anti-) Maslow's Hierarchy will have spirituality at the bottom, and physicality at the top. That's not only the way it ought to be, that's the way it is. Things like knowledge and understanding, art and culture, creativity and spirituality can no longer be seen as some sort of ‘icing on the cake’ of life. They're the substance of it. This realization allows us to take a whole new perspective on that famous quote from the Christian Scriptures: “What does it profit someone to gain the entire world, and lose their own soul in the process?"

H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
ProActivation® Coaching

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Copyright © 2008 H. Les Brown


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