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This Old School Theory Can Help You Understand YOUR Motivation

This Old School Theory Can Help You Understand YOUR Motivation

Did you know that we are hardwired to want to become our best? Yep, as long as you and I are alive, we will want to do some type of self-improvement, set goals, and make resolutions.

We will want to improve our health, our relationships, do better at work, and learn new things. We will want to improve ourselves because that is what it means to grow and move forward. It is the very point of being alive. This “actualizing tendency” is inherent in all of us, and it would be great if you learned to harness it.

There’s an old school theory that can help: Maslow’s theory of human motivation.

In the 1940s, the psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper called A Theory of Human Motivation,  and it was the viral sensation of its day. Even today, it remains a popular framework in sociology research, management training, behavioral therapy, psychology studies, and other disciplines. The theory is usually depicted as a five-tier pyramid because that’s an easy way to demonstrate the hierarchical path Maslow thinks our needs take. Maslow believed that in order for us to be motivated to work on higher needs, our lower needs must be adequately satisfied.

Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation

I was doing some research to help me understand my own motivation when I came across Maslow’s theory. It wasn’t long before I came to really value it. Although it’s not a perfect explanation of all cases of human motivation, it can still help many of us understand our own motivation. It helped me understand mine. It helped me understand why certain things might be more challenging for me and what I should be motivated enough to do.

I am going to try and explain Maslow’s theory using the hierarchical model above as a guide and I’ll share along the way, takeaways (insights) I got from this helpful theory of human motivation.

Physiological needs

Maslow thinks our physiological needs are our most basic. These include our need for:

  • Breathing
  • Water
  • Food
  • Sleep
  • Clothing
  • Sex

When our bodies and cells don’t get what they need at this level, it’s hard to focus on anything else. Can we expect a homeless man to think abundantly? And can’t we understand why kids who go to school hungry have a harder time paying attention in class.

Safety/Security needs

According to Maslow, once a person’s physiological needs are relatively satisfied, safety and security needs take precedence and become the reason they do most things (what motivates them). When you have a “safety and security” issue that’s urgent, you’re also not going to be motivated about goals higher on the hierarchy. You may have a little more resources than the hungry child and homeless man but still, you’re running near empty. It will be very hard for you to stay committed to an exercise program, for example. These urgent needs take precedence:

  • Personal security
  • Emotional security
  • Financial security
  • Health and well-being

Those who can stick to their exercise program and have healthy relationships are usually not struggling with safety/security needs day in and day out.

Social/Love and Belonging needs

The third level of Maslow’s theory is about our social needs. Here is where we crave and need…

  • Friendships
  • Intimacy & romantic attachments
  • Family
  • Community
  • Social groups

According to Maslow, humans need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance. Feeling loved, connected, and accepted makes us feel secure and motivated. We get this need met when we have good relationships with co-workers, belong to religious groups, are on sports teams, gangs, and have some type of community. On a more intimate level, we need family, spouses/partners, mentors, colleagues, and confidants.

Without support and acceptance, most of us don’t feel grounded. So it’s easy to understand why it’s difficult for emotional eaters to stick to their better-eating program and why so many stay in unfulfilling relationships. If you need something, an unhealthy version of it may seem preferable to nothing at all.

Ego/Esteem needs

Esteem needs are concerned with getting recognition, status, and respect from others, and guess what, it’s natural for even spiritual people to have this need. There are two types of esteem needs that Maslow described:

  • “Lower” level esteem
  • “Higher” level esteem.

The “lower” type is the need for status, fame, and prestige. The “higher” type is our need for self-respect. We satisfy this type of esteem by setting standards for ourselves, having self-confidence, independence, and freedom.

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What a man can be, he must be.” This sums up our innate need for self-actualization. Once our basic needs met, we start looking toward self-actualization. These are some of the things we’re looking to achieve on this level:

  • Our full potential
  • Personal growth
  • Peak experiences
  • Become everything we’re capable of becoming

One of the criticisms of Maslow’s model is that people do zigzag through the pyramid, and don’t generally work on one single level at a time as the model suggests. Despite the criticism, even the valid ones, there are some helpful takeaways from Maslow’s work.

Key Takeaways from Maslow’s Hierarchy

  1. It’s important we meet ourselves where we are, and
  2. Do what’s most important/most beneficial for us NOW
  3. A solid foundation is critical to staying on track
  4. Having help and support feeds our motivation
  5. When we feel good we’re more motivated


You cannot argue with any of these insights into motivation, can you? There are two understandings from Maslow’s theory that bring hope and understanding to the question of how to motivate ourselves.

  • In order for us to be motivated to work on higher needs, our lower needs must be adequately satisfied. This explains why you quit many things you might want. This insight also offers hope that if we know where we struggle, we can work on it.
  • In the middle of the pyramid is where we need to focus our work — on ego, social, and safety needs. If you’re someone living in a first or even second-world country and if you’re reading this, chances are your physiological needs for food water, and clothing are met. And as great as it is (necessary even) to want to self-actualize and reach our highest potential, we can’t work ourselves up too much about it. In the middle is where the work is.

In a nutshell, focus on the middle and work on what’s most critical now.


The first thing I learned about myself from Maslow’s theory is that many of my failures weren’t failures at all. Because the basis of Maslow’s theory is that it’s hard (near impossible) to successfully work on higher needs when our lower needs aren’t met, I could let go of feeling like a failure about so many things I didn’t stick to. What’s urgent is what we’re most motivated about.


Depending on how you’re looking at it, this “reaching your potential” endeavor can either drive you crazy or inspire you.

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