Saturday, December 6, 2008

Maslow’s pyramid

Most people complaining that “work sucks” do so because they picked the wrong career. Instead of following their dreams, they followed a reliable (or convenient) market path.

When we reach adulthood, popular opinion encourages us to discard the fantasies of youth and pick one of the prefabricated career paths available at the local university or trade school.

But popular opinion is wrong. Following your dreams is the surest way to happiness, and I’m going to spend the rest of this article telling you why.

Maslow and Herzberg

In the middle part of the 1900’s, two psychologists published theories that greatly influenced the way I think about career satisfaction: Abraham Maslow and Frederick Herzberg. In my opinion, their most important discovery is that any sustainable and advancing career path will eventually lead to one ultimate question: Are you happy with your work in and of itself?

I want to direct your attention now to a diagram that will help you visualize the hopeless treadmill of any career not based on personal fulfillment. The left side of the picture below illustrates Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (published in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation), and the right side is an overlay of Herzberg’s Motivational Maintenance Model, which applied Maslow’s earlier theory toward the world of work.


The basic concept is that the needs at the top of the hierarchy only come into focus once the lower needs have been met.

On the left side of the pyramid, you can see that a starving man will be completely and utterly fixated on satisfying his physiological need for food. That’s all he’s worried about — not safety, not social status, not love, not anything except finding his next meal. Only once he has become comfortable with his ability to feed himself will he begin worrying about less immediate matters.

Now look at the right side of the pyramid, where Herzberg contends that salary and the quality of life outside work are the most basic job concerns. Job hunters chase after money the way a starving man chases after his next meal. In fact, many people are so preoccupied with salary when they choose their career that they neglect to consider whether the career will ever satisfy higher needs.

And what’s waiting at the top of the pyramid? That’s right — the work itself. So if you’re working in a career that will never inspire you, you might as well stop climbing the ladder of success, since whatever need you feel in your gut right now will simply be replaced by a new need as you advance. That’s the point: If your work does not inspire you, it will never satisfy you.

At the beginning of your miscast career, you might worry about your paycheck. Later, you might complain about your boss. But there will always be a new complaint right around the corner because you’ve placed your ladder against the wrong wall; you’re climbing in the wrong direction.

Before we go any further, it’s important to note that the Maslow and Herzberg models are not universally accepted; arguments abound, and alternatives exist. Many find the models to be too linear and suggest that there is no single, clear-cut progression of needs. In my opinion, the fuzziest, least certain part of the model (especially as it applies to career advancement) is the middle, wherein a person might find himself concerned with many of the hierarchical layers simultaneously or switching back and forth between them. But the model is still an excellent vehicle for understanding the path of enlightenment.

Whether or not you agree with Maslow and Herzberg, it’s easy to see that basic needs must be met before higher needs can be satiated (or even fully considered) and that the inward journey of self-actualization increases in importance as one achieves greater levels of success in terms of external factors, such as money, relationships, and respect.

My Personal Journey to the Top

The Maslow and Herzberg models resonate with me because they mirror my own work experiences:

  • Level 1 (Money):Money may not have been the only consideration that led me to major in computers, but it was the biggest. Throw in the fact that I wasn’t sure what to do with my life and had always been good with computers, and the big dollars of an information technology degree became even more appealing.

  • Level 2 (Job Security):Once my first programming job satisfied my income needs, my biggest concern became proving my competence so I could keep the good thing I had. I wasn’t trying to be a rock star — I was just trying to prove I deserved to be there.

  • Level 3 (Relationships):After a few months, earning the respect of peers and supervisors became critical. I worked feverishly to establish a sterling reputation with my boss and took on several high profile efforts to garner the respect of teammates.

  • Level 4 (Advancement/Recognition):For the next 5 years, my primary focus was advancement and recognition. I put all my energy into climbing the company ladder, earning big raises (not because I needed the money, but because salary increases were evidence of progress), and gaining higher profile positions.

  • Level 5 (Work Itself):And after 6 years with my company, I looked around and found myself balanced just below the summit of Maslow’s pyramid. I was making good money, had earned social status and respect, and had advanced as far as I cared to. And after all that work, it finally hit me: the work itself was not fulfilling; sometimes enjoyable, yes, but not self-actualizing.

Now I’m not saying that my job was terrible; it was not. I was very good at it. My co-workers and business partners respected me. And I was well compensated. And on some days, these simple satisfactions were enough. But on other days, I’d remember my love for writing, communication, and helping people; my desire to make the world a better place through the unique application of my gifts. And despite the fact that I knew I would probably continue to work in software development for some time (after all, I have bills to pay, just like you), my heart longed for something more.

The call of self-actualization at the top of Maslow’s pyramid is hard to ignore; that call is the primary reason I started this blog.

Consider the Top of the Pyramid Before You Start Climbing

Doesn’t it make sense to know you’ll be happy at the top of the pyramid before you start climbing? Of course, it goes without saying that it is very difficult to know ahead of time what will make you happy because we see darkly through the looking glass. But I contend that it’s better to peer darkly through the glass than to ignore it.

Whether you’re a college freshman trying to pick a major, a mid-life professional planning his next move, or a guy looking for new challenges, you find yourself at a crossroads. You can follow your dreams — choose a job you truly believe in — or follow a proven market path through an fulfilling career.

As you stand here at the crossroads, remember Maslow’s pyramid. Beyond a certain point, advancement will cease to provide meaning unless you love the work itself.

If you need help finding the right career, read 4 Steps to a Fulfilling Life Mission. If you don’t find inspiration there, look elsewhere — most importantly, look inside yourself. Do you have a dream? Is there any way to turn your dream into a business opportunity?

Take a good look at this fork in the road before you decide which way to turn. Your dreams lie to the right, a practical job to the left. Veer right, my friend. Following your dreams is the only way you’ll ever love what you do.


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