Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: less pyramid – more boat

Ben Bisco - Strategy and Planning Director,

If you’ve studied psychology or sociology, done a marketing or management course, or read a self-help book or two you’ll be familiar with the ubiquitous pyramid I’m referring to. If not, here it is:

An image showing Maslow's pyramid of needs

It’s a motivational theory where various stages of human needs are shown in levels. A person must meet each need in turn before they can reach the giddy heights of the pyramid’s peak: self-actualisation. A state of perfect fulfilment, when you are finally you. 

This pyramid appears in all sorts of places, and it’s become a common sight in marketing strategies, behaviour change campaigns and employee engagement programmes. I may even have used it myself. 

But here’s the thing, it’s bobbins. Maslow never meant it to look like this. The pyramid was apparently made up by a management consultant looking for a way to motivate business employees. You see, people will be more productive if they feel they are working towards a higher goal. Whilst there may be some truth in that, it ignores the beautiful nuances of Maslow’s thinking. 

Less pyramid - more boat

Maslow saw life more like a vast ocean, full of adventures and discoveries, but also storms and waves and monsters. His hierarchy was less pyramid and more boat. Security, connection and safety make the boat seaworthy. Then those higher needs – purpose, love & self-exploration – are the sail that powers that boat through the waves. 

A boat with holes in isn’t great for exploring life’s oceans. If lack of self-esteem, connection and safety have punched holes through your hull, you’re going to spend much of your time and energy desperately making your boat watertight, leaving little left for successful sailing. However, even in the worst state of unseaworthiness, that sail gives us potential. With love and purpose we can go  exploring, and that can help build up that self-esteem, connection and safety.  

Maslow's Pyramid of needs reworked as a boat.

Of course, having a perfect hull and perfect sail are ideal, but I suspect this happens only rarely, if at all. Life’s storms and waves and monsters have a nasty habit of knocking holes in your sense of esteem and safety. And never more so than this past year.

And this is the crux of why the pyramid is bunkum.

What Maslow was really saying was “the human condition isn’t a competition; it’s an experience”. It isn’t a game. You don’t beat the end-of-level boss and progress to the next level.

And self-actualisation is not the prize for finishing. It’s a state that comes when the conditions allow. It may well fluctuate as life events rock your boat.

Fundamentally “growth is a direction, not a destination”. And looking after yourself and others is vital if you are to continue it that direction. Sometimes you will go the right way and sometimes you won’t, and that’s ok.

If you find yourself going backwards, or stuck in the doldrums, look to your boat.

Most importantly, make sure you try to enjoy the journey.

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