The Meaning of Success


The other day a friend and I were talking about why so many people lead unfulfilling lives. As is my habit, I immediately went for the psychological explanation and pursued it with my usual fervor. I said it’s because of a lack of consciousness: we don’t consider or pursue all our options because we’re locked into our culturally-conditioned assumptions about how we’re supposed to live our lives.
He thought economic injustice was a more decisive factor. Then he told me about someone he knows who has pursued his passion for art for twenty years without success. He doesn’t have enough time or money to devote to it because he works exhausting hours at a low-paying job he hates just to stay afloat.
This, of course, is an excellent point! My argument was far too simplistic. I’m reminded of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory about the hierarchy of needs. Only when the basic needs at the two lowest levels — the needs for physical survival, personal and financial security, health, and safety — are met can a person be motivated to seek and value love and belonging at the third level. And only when enough of these needs are met does s/he acquire enough fourth-level self-esteem and self-respect to pursue the fifth-level needs for meaning, self-actualization, self-realization, and self-transcendence.
There are critics of this theory, but I hear the ring of truth in it. I’ve been taking for granted the fact that despite my humble beginnings, enough of my basic needs have been met to give me the luxury of pursuing the “higher” needs which have brought so much meaning and joy to my life. My argument must be painful and offensive to those who don’t have that luxury, and I’m deeply ashamed for not being more sensitive to this reality. My friend is way ahead of me in that regard.
As we batted our thoughts back and forth like a tennis ball, we found ourselves at a dividing line in the fourth “court” of self-esteem and self-respect. According to Wikipedia, “Maslow noted two versions of esteem needs, a lower one and a higher one. The lower one is the need for the respect of others, the need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention. The higher one is the need for self-respect, the need for strength, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence and freedom. The latter one ranks higher because it rests more on inner competence won through experience. Deprivation of these needs can lead to an inferiority complex, weakness and helplessness.”
Yes, there are deeply troubling educational, governmental and economic inequities, and correcting them must be our first priority. Moreover, as my friend rightly pointed out, some people who achieve status and prestige — often along with a lot of money — only got them through dumb luck while the majority of virtuous, hard-working, well-meaning, law-abiding people never gets them no matter how hard they try.  What I was trying to express is equally true: exploiting the common assumption that gaining the high opinion of others is more important than working to develop self-esteem and inner competence is also misguided and unjust.
Alone, fame and glory rarely lead to fulfillment. True and lasting success is acquiring self-knowledge, self-respect and self-acceptance, and until we start spreading and acting on this “higher” message, we will continue to seek the wrong things and feel like failures when we don’t get them.
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0 Responses

  1. You make me think, Jeanie. Good. I haven’t thought about Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs in years.
    In my twenties I was struggling, looking for direction. I began reading about personality types, aptitudes, intelligence and anything I remotely thought might help me find my “path.” I read a number of Maslow’s works, including Motivation and Personality, and still remember these lines: “A new discontent and restlessness will soon develop, unless the individual is doing what he or she, individually is fitted for,” and “”They must be true to their own nature.” I found those lines helpful. I began to see that a number of my abilities and aptitudes needed to be “heard” before I had any chance of becoming “self-actualized.”
    But, on the other hand, I wholeheartedly agree with your friend that socio-economic factors play a very large role in the process. I’m often angered when I hear those like Tony Robbins and other self-help gurus suggest that we can be anything we want, that creating anchors and triggers can lead us down the path toward success. Yes, for some that might work, but how does this apply to a starving mother in Rwanda and her baby who clings to her breast?
    I suppose, like anything else, these theories have value for those, as you say, who “have the luxury of pursuing the higher needs.”
    Thank you for this, Jeanie. I’m usually brain dead on Saturday morning, so this raises the bar. I’ve now gone from brain dead to somnambulant.

    1. Hi Charlie, Thanks for the wonderful quotes from Maslow. They’re very tweetable, by the way, don’t you think? I totally agree. It took me several periods of discontent and restlessness before I developed the courage to be true to my own nature, and that has made all the difference. I’m glad to hear this post helped you rally this morning. Nothing like a good think to wake you up! Best, Jeanie

  2. Thank you for this interesting post and the response. Self-respect is vital for managing a life. I believe that this one slides up and down Maslow’s scale. Self-respect keeps the starving mother feeding her child rather than walking away and leaving the child to die. Self respect drives us to do what we need to do to live with ourselves, even if we have nothing.
    Without self-respect, I feel we have no control over any aspect of ourselves. If we read the stories of those kidnapped or imprisoned and see that, even without freedom, even without the ability to make a ‘physical’ decision for themselves, self-respect still enables mental and emotional choices to be made, then we can see that it is not dependent on any of the levels in the hierarchy. Ingrid Betancourt’s “Even Silence Has an End” about her 6.5 year experiences held captive by the FARC in Colombia highlights this.

  3. Hi Lotus Light,
    I appreciate your very thoughtful response and agree with your observation that self-respect slides up and down Maslow’s scale. Ingrid Betancort’s experience is a perfect example. If you haven’t seen the extraordinary new film “Incendies” I highly recommend it; it’s about a near-eastern woman whose self-esteem was her only ally in a similar situation.
    By placing self-esteem near the top of the scale as a prerequisite for self-actualization, Maslow made it appear as if it only occurs then. I wonder if he ever considered your point that there are people of profound inner strength and character at every level. Thanks very much for that insight.

  4. Thank you for this thoughts about the good old Maslow’s pyramid of needs. This prototype is a source of gnosis, when it comesw to human motivation. I cannot agree more to the conclusion, that it might be a mistake to focus too much on the opinion of others instead of developing self-esteem. People do that all the time, on an energetic as well as on a financial level.

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