Blowing Off Maslow
I was having breakfast with a friend and we were talking about Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” You know, the pyramid with food and shelter at the base and self-actualization at the apex. My friend was making the case that before we can take a shot at fulfilling the needs at the top of the pile, we have to have taken care of our other more basic sleep-and-eat needs at the bottom.
I respectfully disagreed. I understand what Maslow was saying. He’s absolutely right—and his insights are brilliant and original.
But what about you and me as we enter this new year? How are we gonna write our novel or start our new business or pursue our artistic calling? Do we first have to have a house? A job? Love? Security?
Do we have to be organized? Disciplined? Emotionally stable?
We do not.
I know, I know. This blog advocates all of the above—professionalism, focus, intensity, perseverance. That’s all true and it all counts.
But the making of art is a weird little enterprise, and the Muse visits the wicked along with the just. A writer, a woman, sent me a note the other day reporting that, at age fifty, she was moving back in with her father. What I loved was that she wasn’t complaining or laying any kind of shame trip on herself. She’s working on a book. So she’ll skip a few bricks in the Maslow pyramid.
The starving artist is not a cliche. Henry Miller was broke; Charles Bukowski drank up his salary from the P.O.; Dostoevski went without sleep; Van Gogh had to borrow the knife to saw off his own ear. (I’m making that last part up, but you get the point.) They all chose to do their work as artists and blew off such “indispensable” needs as security, family, property, even health.
An artist can choose to do without. She can be unconventional. She can skip the middleman. She can shoot from the garret straight to the stars. For many of us it’s a conscious (or nearly conscious) decision. We’ll sacrifice creature comforts. We’ll do without dental. We’ll trade the necessities for what to us is the ultimate luxury: time.
Time to work. Time to learn our craft. Time to get better.
Again, I’m not knocking Maslow or his great work. All I’m saying is, as we head into the New Year of 2014, if we have to move in with our dad, so be it. If we have to get up at five in the morning (like Shawn does), if we have to work two jobs, if we have to couch-surf like Llewyn Davis, we’ll do it. That’s the price we pay and we’ll gladly pay it.
I used to torture myself in my days driving cabs and living in the back of my Chevy van. What’s wrong with me? Am I a hopeless loser? How come all my friends have jobs and families and respect and I’ve got nothing?
I didn’t realize it at the time but I had made a choice and, to this day, I stick by it. I chose time and I gave up everything else.
Did you see that article by the actress Maria Bello a few weeks ago in the New York Times? The nutshell version is she acknowledged that her personal life, her living arrangements re love, child-rearing, etc. were “unconventional.” The mail came flooding in. Thousands wrote, “You go, girl. My world is just as not-normal as yours, and it works for me too.”
We’re choosing. We’re jumping to the top of Maslow’s pyramid—“morality, creativity, spontaneity,” etc.—and skipping some of the indispensable stages in between. Who needs ’em?
Steve, I started laughing when I saw the title of this article. I have read of Maslow’s pyramid ideas for decades and always found them annoying.
I am still, at a late date, coming to terms with the choices I have made and admitting to myself that I have always put art first, and that is who I am. It is a scary thing to admit, and difficult to defend, even now.
Thanks for this post, it is hilarious in a way that truth can be.
I have to agree with you on this one Steve. Many of us spend our entire lives trying to get right the foundational “needs” on Maslow’s hierarchy. We’re so busy being practical we never get to the “fun” stuff, therefore never get to “happy” never get to feeling “accomplished,” never get to a peaceful state of mind, never get to follow our muse, never have a sense of doing the unique, sacred work we are ultimately here on earth to do. Thanks again for providing your perspective. Happy New Year.
Very Inspiring Steve. I had never heard of the “hierarchy of needs”. But yes, I often think of morality, creativity and spontaneity. But at the end of the day, what matters is the fulfilment of getting my work done. It does not matter how much money I saved today or how well I behaved in front of my boss.
But, I also realise that I need to wear different masks and play many roles in the day before I sit to write in the evening (or do something that really matters for me).
Thanks Steve for the insight.
“I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston, whose birthday it was yesterday.
Yeah, being poor IS a choice I’ve made. I could have done so many other things. Why didn’t I study medicine? I certainly had the grades for it. Why weren’t I born to thrive in a corporation? Argh. But there it is. There is no escaping it.
Those brave enough to make the choice you made to live in your Chevy van are such an inspiration to me. There are far more paralyzed artists fooled by Resistance into thinking they can’t possibly start writing that book now because first they “need” to wait until (fill in the blank): the kids start school, the kids graduate, they get that new Mac notebook because they can’t possibly write on this three-year-old PC, they move into the bigger house, they get that promotion at work, they retire, they get back from vacation, they divorce their spouse, blah, blah, blah. Thanks for helping all of those people out Steve – and I count myself among them until I jumped out of that boat six months ago and cleared a space in my life to do the work. But I still need to be reminded, which is why I keep showing up here every week.
I can’t help but wonder how Maslow would react to the evolution of our culture in the forty-plus years since his death to see how warped the separation between needs and wants has become, e.g., the morning news reports there is – gasp – a Velveeta shortage! Oh how will we live through the rest of the football season?
I agree with you Steve. I also wonder if some of the great artists had had more “normal” lives, if their work would have turned out to be as great as it did. I doubt it. Maybe something about dire personal circumstances extracts from deep within us our greatest creative potential. Or, if you prefer, maybe the Muse is more apt to make continued appearances to those in such situations.
This is my first comment here, which means it’s required of me to say (as many before me have) that you’ve been a huge inspiration for me. You’ve opened my eyes and perhaps aided in altering my life path for the better. I can only say that about a few people. Thank you.
For me, the Maslow thing works top down.
First, I need to get some good work done.
Then everything below that just falls into place from there.
Part of me agrees wholeheartedly. Are you going to decide to devote yourself to the craft, or are you going to decide to, I don’t know, buy a winter house in Florida.
But this argument gets tricky when you’re the family breadwinner and children are involved and you’re a mother. The artists you mention above are all men. Maria Bello is a highly paid actress. She can afford to be unconventional. In my case, I’m my family’s main breadwinner. I can only afford to be an artist part-time. And for me, that part time is two hours in the very early morning. And because I have to work for money anyway, I also choose to make sure I’m doing work that doesn’t just pay the bills, but also buys my family the security and comfort that, if up to my own solo devices, I could probably do without. For me, this means that my artistic development takes longer than if I could throw everything I’ve got at it.
I think the “sacrificing one’s own comfort to the altar of art” is useful as a guiding direction, but has to be worn loosely if you are among that fast-growing group of moms who are bringing home the bacon.
I agree Eleanor. I understand the concept and importance of “going for it”, but Maslow’s hierarchy is a totally valid concept. There ain’t nothing romantic or honorable in doing your art while you or your family is cold and hungry. That’s a slippery slope that can end ALL attempts at self-actualization.
“Going for it” requires ones immediate situation to be considered. Though I do think that so many people will use that “well I’ll follow my dream when…” as an excuse to never attempt in the first place. And of course that’s a life disaster.
2 concentrated hours every morning? You’re a pro! You may not even be able to concentrate longer than that per day, if you had all day! That’s my tops of quality writing per day. You’re full time.
When it comes to Maslow’s pyramid, Resistance is like gravity, holding us down and making it harder to work a we ascend to the heavens. But here’s the thing, a pyramid is a primitive structure, a structured pile of rocks, really. With some clever thinking and a lot of hard work, you can build a skyscraper that’s taller than the tallest pyramid. With a Skyscraper of Needs, the base is still there, the gravity is still there, but you can build the upper floors while the lower floors are still under construction.
I love it. A couple of years ago I was asked to sit on a panel about Afghanistan. All panelists were like the ‘Three cups of Tea’ guy, good-hearted people building schools over there. I was the lone Soldier, and an intelligence officer at that. The question was about the future of Afghanistan. I answered that nations were like people, and Maslow was pretty close the the truth. I do not want to read Tolstoy if I’m afraid of getting my head chopped off. I’ll be interested in the beauty of the Hindu Kush after dinner, not before. My summation of Aghanistan was not optimistic…and I wasn’t the most popular panelist.
I think both Maslow and you are correct. The needs are not necessarily ordinal. I first read of these needs in Psych 101 back in 1987. I thought at the time, “Hmmm..probably 30 is when I’ll be self-actualized…” I laugh out loud sometimes at my unbridled optimism and youthful ignorance.
I think that in the pursuit of self-actualization, there are times when we must shun the lower needs. Double-days in August are not for fitness–they are to build a team. There is a salvation, an actualization in suffering. It is how, in the oddest moments (0300 in the rain w/ the pig and a 80lb ruck, I am stuck by the beauty of Soldiering) happiness and contentment arrive out of the blue.
You address this brilliantly in Gates of Fire. The Spartans are in the middle of the most miserable training, and yet they are laughing. That is what Maslow missed–but Viktor Frankl nails on the head. Meaning, purpose. Those are the ingredients of self-actualization–and they can be pursued with an empty belly.
Children must be provided the needs in order. Adults, by choice, can pursue greatness, their self-actualization, most easily by shunning them. Counter-intuitive. The lack of comfort, food, security all are fuel aimed at the higher order needs. Without suffering, meaning is hard to find. It is the cost. It is why we struggle with it so deeply.
I like Brian’s post, as well as Eleanor’s two entries above. I wonder if all the starving artists would have made more progress towards artistic success had they also had a little more income, a solid support network and made sure their physical health was attended to. How much great art is lost or never realized because the artists don’t incorporate the other half of the equation – solid business skills to market and sell their art? Three things i’m left pondering:
1. Reciprocity – we are all connected, and in an ever increasingly complex world, we rely on each other to meet specific needs. I imagine all of us pursuing diligently our “art” and then wondering why we are all starving and sick because no one is out in the fields gathering the harvest or skilled at healing the sick and wounded.
2. What is ART? – to write a great story? To produce a stunningly unique and beautiful painting? To teach children extraordinarily, where all of them are inspired and filled with awe and excitement to learn? To design a safer car, a more efficient heating system, a better way to correct vision? Maybe, to express ourselves in the context of the entirety of Maslow’s hierarchy redefines what ART means?
3. Hierarchy reality – I appreciate Steve’s point, along with many of the comments – waiting for the rest of your life to be perfectly balanced and all your adult responsibilities met before you pursue a dream or an artistic work is not the answer. Its a fallacy that proves destructive for any life, because the universe doesn’t do perfect. But, starving or sacrificing health, friends or other basics of the hierarchy are not likely to help in your endeavor. I might argue that focus and determination are far more important, along with self control and discipline, and that it may prove helpful to have the basics in place to get where you want to go. My experience is that most creative work( artists, inventors, performers, entrepreneurs ), is realized when the hierarchy is as developed as possible. I also wonder how much of Steve’s “extra time” was just wasted…..
Brian, maybe the continuum from childhood to adulthood as it relates to needs is more like a reserve – the stronger you build your hierarchy’s lower needs, the more you have to draw from as you climb higher and you much leave those needs unmet for a period to reach the summit of your endeavor? I’m not a soldier, but i’ve played football at the highest level, and i’ve been an entrepreneur, and a husband and father and climbed a real mountain or two, and you are 100% right – the ability to pursue the goal under great duress and overcome fear, hunger, loneliness, exhaustion and uncertainty are what make the pursuit so incredibly fulfilling, EVEN when you ultimately fail (Teddy Roosevelt’s fighter in the ring). BUT, none of those endeavors would have had even a fighting chance of starting, much less finishing, had it not been for at least a fair amount of training, sacrifice, planning, focus and hard work that relied largely on those lower needs resources being in place.
Now that i think about it, how you build your foundation is largely predicated on the heights you want to pursue! A point made by John, Steve and Walt, and maybe others.
Thanks Steve for inspiring the conversation!
Well said. As I usually think best ‘out loud’, I begin this without a clear understanding. That base, the reserve does matter–and I think it is best learned as a child. Since this is the real world and not the Disney Channel–many adults may need to nurture the lower order while striving for actualization–or the novel, the business, the spiritual growth mission Steve highlights in War of Art.
I wonder, as I’m thinking–if–even on a low fuel tank of food, security, love, if reaching for the higher order may fill those tanks. I’m sure we’ve all experienced moments of a ‘second wind’, an ability to surge through without food or sleep–that may be the Muse, giving us fuel when/where we need it.
Maybe the best way for adults to ‘heal the inner child’ is by relentlessly pursuing their passion, this is the best way if one’s reserve or foundation is less robust.
Gladwell makes a similar claim in his latest book about the over achievement of kids that lost a parent. 12 US Presidents lost their father in their youth. 25%! Sense of security shattered–maybe the only way to find it was chasing their own path.
Interesting discussion. Glad to have ‘virtually’ met you. I think I’ll likely find numerous people from my tribe here.
I’ve painted in tiny kitchens and well lit garages. I have worked on my craft till 4am. I have chosen to buy oils or clay to sculpt with, over health insurance and a tidy office job. I regret none of it. It feels little enough to give to dine with a muse.
My friend Del says you will be and accomplish what you settle for.
A popular song, Nights in white satin, says ‘Just what you want to be, you will be in the end.’
I take those thoughts to mean the same thing.
Steve says Do the work. Again, GIGO or nothing in, nothing out.
Choices. How hard will you try and what will you settle for?
Live out of a back of van with no guarantee of a payoff?
Kids/responsibilities. I have six dogs and XXX number of cats.
I didn’t go buy them, they found me and by the time their relatively short years are gone, another will find me, probably. Their lives and value are no less important to me than my neighbor’s kids are to them.
I like the story about the guy who walks along the beach after a storm. The beach is strewn with thousands of stranded starfish as the tide goes out. He picks them up, one by one, as many as he can, he tosses back into their life-giving sea. A friend who accompanies him on this day’s walk asks him, “What does it matter? There are thousands of them and you’ll only save a few?” The man, with a starfish in his hand, turns to his friend and says, “Well, It matters a hell of a lot to this one!”
Sixty percent of the U.S. population are1.3 weeks away, 1.3 paychecks away, from a shelter and I don’t think shelters take dogs and cats. Not the size of my crew. I work part-time at a paying job to get by. No savings. If the septic field stops working or the water pump dies, my truck croaks, etc… I’m screwed.
Somehow things turn up, so far, but I feel like I’m tempting fate. It’s a scary choice, but living an unfulfilled life isn’t a very good choice either.
I’ve come to see doing both making money and pursuing passion is not for the lazy (I’m lazy) but being happy seems to require both, unless you’re born of wealthy family or marry into it.
Something in the middle with focus and hard work (Shawn’s up at 5am for example) in order to have the finite bugger: TIME, to do the work.
I know it will take great focus and work to do right by my family and right by my muse.
“Man sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future, that he does not enjoy the present moment. As a result, he does not live in the present or the future, he lives as if he is never going to die, and then he dies having never truly lived.”
-The Dalai Lama
“So I always ask the question: What would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life? Well it’s so amazing as the result of our kind of educational system, crowds of students say ‘Well, we’d like to be painters, we’d like to be poets, we’d like to be writers’ But as everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way! Another person says ‘Well I’d like to live an out-of-door’s life and ride horses.’ I said ‘You wanna teach in a riding school?’
Let’s go through with it. What do you want to do? When we finally got down to something which the individual says he really wants to do I will say to him ‘You do that! And forget the money!’ Because if you say that getting the money is the most important thing you will spend your life completely wasting your time! You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living – that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing! Which is stupid! Better to have a short life that is full of which you like doing then a long life spent in a miserable way. And after all, if you do really like what you are doing – it doesn’t really matter what it is – you can eventually become a master of it. It’s the only way of becoming the master of something, to be really with it. And then you will be able to get a good fee for whatever it is. So don’t worry too much, somebody is interested in everything. Anything you can be interested in, you’ll find others who are.
But it’s absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like in order to go on spending things you don’t like, doing things you don’t like and to teach our children to follow the same track. See, what we are doing is we are bringing up children and educating to live the same sort of lifes we are living. In order they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children to bring up their children to do the same thing. So it’s all retch and no vomit – it never gets there! And so therefore it’s so important to consider this question:
What do I desire?” - Alan Watts
I don’t think I’ve read a better description of love than Maria’s.
It reminds me of what I think of when I read Thich Nhat Hanh talk about a sangha, although he may mean something different,
John, I found your post enjoyable. But, I really love your website. I too and passionately compassionate about animals! I loved all of the quotes. Thanks for compiling them.
Steven – Loved the post. Forgo the status quo!!!!
This is great! The whole hierarchy of needs issue has always bothered me because I felt I was being less than human by ignoring them or mixing and matching the order.
Thank you for writing this.
I often forget to eat I must admit when I’m in the zone. I have begun to find the need to feed myself annoying and almost burdensome.
When I was working on my first degree , I was assigned a paper on Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” and motivation. It sat on my desk for five years before I finished it. That about says it all.
“Do we first have to have a house, a job, love, security? Do we have to be organized? Disciplined? Emotionally stable?”
My painting professor in college, a noted artist at the time, told me women never make it as artists because they end up having families, etc., to which I said “Oh yeah? So what?”
I am an artist first, with a family and the house. Life happens.
Which doesn’t mean I am organized, disciplined, or emotionally stable either, nor did I need those things to continue to persue art. It does mean I still have to fight and argue with Resistance just like the rest of the artists out there, if not harder and longer.
If I win that battle laundry may not get done, dinner could be late, or not happen, and there may not be any milk in the refrigerator.
But wonderful work does happen.
What level of existence do we accept, what minimum level, to do what we truly want–art, business, etc? Maslow’s hierarchy is a template, but like all templates, it needs to be tuned to the individual. Make your stuff, however you must do it!
Love the pyramid. Falls right into what I did regarding my networking marketing in home business. Being totally out of the box of what is the norm in NWM I turned the pyramid upside down and created my own Get 3. What has happened for me with Steve’s books and the Writings Wednesday is that I have applied the technique and methodolgy to “doing the work” for what I want to achieve with New Earth. IN FACT, I have FINALLY been able to “get with it” and do a Power Point Project that I have been wanting to do for years. I started with the process that Steve recommended to write a novel. I am on it’s final leg. Then will need to learn how to Post it on Facebook. Guess I’ll do a google….Thanks SP Team…
I don’t know Steve, Maslow’s Hierarchy, seems to me that rather than “skipping” a level or two we must replace the wording with that that suits us. Conventionality is well aligned with Mr. M’s Hierarchy and those of us who live unconventional lives and pursuits often clearly don’t put importance on the same set of needs.
If we don’t use, need it or have it in our lives…what’s it for then other than not for us…
Thank you Steve, great blog, Be well
The problem with Maslow’s hierarchy – and the reason so few people ever reach the summit – is that the bottom layers are infinitely elastic. The more money we have, the more “essential” become the flat screen TV, the smart phone, and all the other sources of distraction, diversion, and Resistance.
I love Writing Wednesdays!
Good thing I never read Maslow. 🙂
Perhaps it’s a matter of definition: Our needs are very few. Our wants (both senses of the word) are many. We need food- but how much? We need sleep – but how much? Some may move up the hierarchy – appear to skip a step or two (or three) – because they have minimal needs, or because they don’t let a need become a want (as in, want more).
People get stuck and substitute. TV becomes a substitute for creativity. Etc.
The needs are there. But they’re as individualistic as the needy person, and his or her Muse.
The starving artist is not a cliche, but it’s also not a necessity.
Maslow’s pyramid is descriptive, not prescriptive. We write our own prescriptions. Let the muse prescribe for the soul.
I don’t disagree with Maslow’s pyramid or with your observations. I think they are both by degrees. I have gone through very lean times to pursue opportunities that paid little monetarily but gave me the chance to help other people. Yet, I still had to provide for my family so we could eat and have a place to sleep and they would feel loved.
I think a lot of people get mixed up on the level of fulfillment on the basic needs so they never focus on the higher needs of self fulfillment.
But your point is well taken that just because you are not driving the latest car and living in a big house doesn’t mean you can’t pursue your art.
I had a beautiful synchronicity this afternoon coming across Chip Conley’s translation of Maslows pyramid in regard to business (via Leo Babauta) and enjoyed watching his TED talk. Have a google, I’m sure you’ll like it 😉
I guess it’s true. We’re must of us just “hanging on in quiet desperation,” as Roger Water’s wrote.
1. I suspect that the Muse is largely indifferent to me as an individual. She views me as an instrument for her purposes. Heaven and earth are not humane, Lao Tzu cautioned.
2. Is the Muse sometimes a Siren? We don’t hear much from people whose alluring creative vision turned out to be a life-blighting illusion, but I suspect they’re out there. While some of them were defeated by Resistance, I’m pretty sure that some of them should have taken the road more traveled by. (Yes, in part I am expressing my own self-doubt, and, yes, I remember that Steven has written that self-doubt is a good sign.)
3. Thanks to Steven, and to Eleanor, Brian, Joe et al for responses of the same caliber as the post. One of the best ever.
Thank you for setting me free 😀
Where do I start? I read a lot of good points and quite empowering. Abraham Maslow pointed the basic structure, as how I understand it, of human’s emotional and psychological life. How advanced we become and most of the commentors here reached the self-actualized stage. I believe that when we decided to trade off the basic necessities, we already reached the higher levels of the pyramid. The choices we made has elevated us to reach for what Maslow had theorized in the first place.