When I learned Maslow at a Dale Carnegie leadership course, our coach told us that many people stay at level 4 and never get to 5. Level 4 Maslow is where self esteem is. Level 5 is where “self actualization” is. According to the Maslow pyramid of needs, a human being seeks to fulfill needs in a clear sequence: first the survival needs, then security needs, then belonging, then self esteem, and finally self actualization. The coach said that level 5 was reserved for those who are “on a mission,” as he put it.
From a productivity perspective, those in levels 3 – 5 are most productive. So, from a manager’s point of view, it is not necessary to push team to level 5, as most will never achieve it.
Fast forward twenty years, I understand more what my coach was saying and agree with most of what he said. I do feel that level 5 needs more understanding, and I believe level 4 can be a big trap, especially as a manager advances into more senior positions.
For those who break through level 4 and make it to five, many changes and transformations take place. For example, do you ever wonder what on earth happened to some of the actors, entrepreneurs, and executives out there? You would think they are at the pinnacle of their careers, and they are ready to break through further in their careers, and all of a sudden they get “sidetracked.” One famous Billionaire (is that a term?) gives out most of his fortune to another Billionaire to put into charitable activities. If their careers ever crossed paths they would have probably been at each others’ throats for a chance to make a tenths of the amount of money one of them is now giving away to the other willingly. Maybe they broke out of level 4 Maslow into self actualization or level 5.
Some stay stuck in level 4. If one stays focused on proving self worth to self and others, then one can never break out of level 4. It is important to feel good about value and contribution one feels at work. It is also important to have gratification from achieving financial targets. However, when these become goals by themselves, then it becomes a continuous cycle of a challenge after another challenge for merely proving self worth, instead of focusing on making a difference in the world.
One of the fruits of self actualization is what is called “peak experiences.” Those at level 5 feel them more often than others. Maslow is quoted defining these experiences as “…the awareness of an “ultimate truth” and the unity of all things … the experience fills the individual with wonder and awe….he feels at one with the world, and is pleased with it ….”
One does not have to be rich or an executive to feel self actualized. Many link them to feeling spiritually connected and fulfilled. Those who feel peak experiences talk about mysticism, elation, and joy beyond what they can describe in words.