One of the things that has surprised me during my Summer adventures as an entrepreneur is some of the vocabulary that gets used in the business community. In several of the lectures I’ve heard, and several of the books Jenn and I have read, Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” is regularly referenced.
At first I thought it was just another piece of the overly patriarchal culture that is the start-up community. I mean, we are all happy that Maslow started talking about the fact that people have other needs than just physical ones, but why is this old washed up theory still bouncing around the business community when it is a relic of the 1950s in the academy.
I well remember laughing about it as an undergrad. How wonderfully systematic Maslow is without really telling you much. I mean, for Maslow, you aren’t allowed to start working on your relationships until you’ve filled in the bottom of the chart. He never really does tell us how much food you have to eat before you are allowed to fall in love, but no matter, the point is to work through the steps until you get to self-actualization. Of course, when you get there, it gets complicated too. All Maslow does is give a list of characteristics of people that are self-actualized, and then he says, “Well, just because you have the characteristics that are on the list, it doesn’t guarantee that you are really self-actualized.” I suppose ultimately, you would have to ask him if you were cool enough to be in the club.
Now the interesting thing is that the business folks are using it by saying something like, “People aren’t just motivated by money, they need to have a sense of belonging and ultimately a sense of calling.” I pushed the issue the other day in a discussion for a moment and later decompressed with Jenn. Finally, I realized what is happening and why I keep seeing the Maslow chart so much.
The business people who keep referring to the chart have never actually read Maslow. They are using it as a reference point to give weight (and presumably some sort of academic cred) to their point that people are motivated by more than just money. Of course there is no empirical research to back up Maslow’s theory, and when I was trying to explain something, someone said, “But, you don’t have to wait to work on the meaningful parts of the triangle until you have finished working on the physical parts of the triangle.” I said, “I agree, but that’s not Maslow.”
It’s an interesting world. I spend my academic life in discussions where people are referencing thinkers and traditions in order to summarize large fields of thought quickly. When someone says Maslow, they mean Maslow. It is the great strength and weakness of the business world that the overarching pragmatism can mean creating a short hand without ever consulting the original source material.
Again, for all the textbooks that use the hierarchy of needs chart, I think they are well meaning but have picked the wrong theorist for their point. It’s all good though. As for me, I’m going to keep eating so that I don’t slip down the chart, fall out of love, and have to start all over again.
I wonder, in reading your piece, if you have ever read Maslow. By that, I am referring to Towards a Psychology of Being; The Farther Reaches of Human Nature; Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, and his last pieces, published after his death in Future Visions. If so, you would not be caught up in the pyramid (which I don't think was Maslow's doing) and could adventure the provocative spaces associated with Peak and Plateau experiences which at the heart and soul of his work and legacy.
When I first heard Maslow's theory it helped me to understand my reality in a different way. I have never really been deprived of food, never really worried I might not have a roof over my head, or fresh water flowing from my tap. I didn't see the Pyramid as a black and white rigid ladder of human development. It helped me to understand why my grandma was furious when I chased her chickens and being traumatized, they wouldn't lay eggs. She did not care that my self-esteem was crushed by her correction and disapproval. She was responsible to keep me alive and not once asked me how I felt about eating a meal after all the men were filled and back to work in the cotton field. Their efforts of physically surviving with 7 kids through the Depression took all the energy they had and left them no time or ability to value platitudes or attitudes. In the heart of middle America, in this age of information and mechanized labor, I live in luxury they could not imagine. One of my mother's greatest joys was to look at the soft palm of my hand and not see any scars or blisters. My grandmother would not have understood the satisfaction of this, but my mom was more self-aware, more conscious of personal pain and personal opportunity. I am aware of myself in this place because I am not consumed with physical survival. I know my personality type, my strengths, my favorite brands, and how to start my car with a remote control. None of this will make any difference if I have to dig a well – But I bet I could fall in love with a big strong person who could.
Ok, everyone. I was definitely having some fun at Maslow's expense. I have read Maslow, but it hasn't been since I was an undergrad some 20 years ago. However, I will say that the rigidness of the pyramid and the idea that you have to fulfill the lower levels before you can move up is a fairly standard criticism of Maslow in academic circles. This is what I was trying to poke fun at, Cat. You might not have thought of it as a rigid ladder, but I think Maslow did, and there are better models. Barry, am I wrong about this? Please let me know if I am.