Forget Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Create Your Own

Abraham Maslow is the grandfather of positive psychology. He was one of the first prominent thinkers to urge us to look at the best in society and learn from them.

Maslow’s most famous contribution to the field of positive psychology is his ‘hierarchy of needs.’ It’s a diagram illustrating the hierarchy of a meaningful life.

He built each criterion on top of one another in a pyramid to show the individual needs that must be met before ascending to the next level. Physiological needs and safety are at the bottom, self-esteem and self-actualization are at the top.

Reading books on spiritual growth isn’t going to have its intended effect if you’re sleeping on the streets with no money and children to feed. You need your basic needs like shelter, food and water met before you can concern yourself with enlightenment.

But this article isn’t about Maslow’s hierarchy — as valuable as it is, it’s limited. I believe the acquisition of every skill, goal and pursuit has a hierarchy, and when discovered can yield the secret of success. Let me explain…

Four Personal Development Hierarchies Examined

1. Building Muscle and Strength

Take weightlifting: If you walk into a gym and ask someone how to build muscle they might say things like, “Take creatine” or “train hard until failure” or “lift heavy and eat clean” or “make sure you do compound lifts” or “eat cheesecake.”

There’s lots of advice out there but no ascribed value of importance — no hierarchy of needs.

Is creatine better than failure? Lifting heavy on accessory lifts better than lifting light on compound lifts?

Where’s the hierarchy?

In weightlifting, the base of the hierarchy is quite simply volume.

Volume is the weight you lift multiplied by reps multiplied by sets. If I squat 100lbs for 3 sets of 5, that’s a training volume of 1,500lbs (100 x 3 x 5 = 1,500). Whether you lift heavy and do fewer reps or lift lighter and do more reps, it’s the volume that is the determining factor for muscle building. Increase your volume slowly over time and you’ll increase your gains.

Someone who never trains to failure but increases their volume over time will build muscle much more effectively than someone who simply trains until failure without increasing their total volume.

Instead of searching for the 20% of the things that will get you 80% of the results. Find the 1 thing that will get you 99% of the results. 

2. Weight Loss

What is the hierarchy in losing weight?

High carb, low carb, cardio, clean eating, weight lifting, high-protein, green tea, fasting…?

What is the weight loss foundation upon which all others are built?

It baffles me how someone can set out to lose weight without knowing the hierarchy of weight loss needs. You MUST know this to be optimal at weight loss. When people say get your priorities straight, isn’t this what they mean?

The foundation of the hierarchy of weight loss is a calorie deficit.

It doesn’t matter what supplements you take, what exercise you do or how clean your diet is… if you’re not in a calorie deficit, you won’t lose weight.

From there, macronutrient composition will help you lose weight from the right places and then micronutrients can help you stay healthy throughout the diet. But starting with the micronutrients is putting the cart before the horse.

 I first heard about this concept of the hierarchy of fat loss and muscle gain in Eric Helms’ fantastic Muscle and Strength Pyramid books.

3. Artistic Mastery

Hierarchies don’t just apply to physique goals. Everything has a hierarchy. Ryan Woodward, Hollywood animator, and storyboard artist, believes the number one hierarchy in figure drawing is as simple as this: “It has to look good. It has to showcase your creativity.”

ryan woodward gesture drawing

ryan woodward gesture drawing

On one hand, this can seem obvious. But when you accept this as your mantra, you can really have fun and make something your own. Suddenly accuracy, anatomy, line quality and all those things us artists get frustrated over take a back seat and we can allow our creative juices to surge.

We can deduce the base in a hierarchy through the process of elimination. Sure beautiful line quality seen in the work of Albrecht Durer or Leonardo da Vinci can all help a figure drawing look good — but because it’s not needed to make it look good, it goes higher up the hierarchy.

Take the Cardiff-based artist Harry Holland’s fast sketches of pedestrians on a beach as an example. Beautiful, right?

Harry Holland Drawing

Harry Holland drawing

4. The Meaning of Life

To come full circle and finish in Maslow’s footsteps let’s look at the meaning of life. Aristotle, William James, the Dalai Lama, and positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar all believe the meaning of life is simply happiness.

We sometimes do things that we tell ourselves make us happy, like eating a burger or ditching our friend to look good in front of the cool kids, but in the long term, will that genuinely make us happier? The research suggests not.

For the Dalai Lama becoming happier all begins with the foundation of being a good person. Being honorable and compassionate is the root of living a life with meaning. In his book The Art of Happiness the Dalai Lama says:

I believe that the proper utilization of time is this: if you can, serve other people, other sentient beings. If not, at least refrain from harming them. I think that is the whole basis of my philosophy. So, let us reflect on what is truly of value in life, what gives meaning to our lives and set our priorities on the basis of that. The purpose of our life needs to be positive. We weren’t born with the purpose of causing trouble, harming others. For our life to be of value, I think we must develop basic good human qualities — warmth, kindness, compassion. Then our life becomes meaningful and more peaceful — happier.

The foundation of the meaning of life isn’t shelter, it’s compassion towards ourselves and others. Shelter is only a by-product of compassion.

Why would you care for yourself if you didn’t care about yourself?

Whatever your pursuits and goals, try and come up with a hierarchy. What is the most important foundation upon which all others are built? What is needed for you to become successful? There is a hierarchy to everything if you don’t know what your foundation is, you’re imprisoning yourself with irrelevancy and you don’t even know it.

What is the foundation of mindfulness?

The hierarchy of writing?

Charisma?

Relationships?

When you understand the hierarchy of your chosen pursuit you can use it as a map for success. You can put the right amount of emphasis on the right tasks and save yourself a lot of time and headache. It frees you up to have fun.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can use a hierarchy to improve your daily routine, check out this article: Designing The Perfect Daily Routine

Meet the Creator

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is the author of ComfortPit and the co-creator of HighExistence and 30 Challenges to Enlightenment, the ultimate self-improvement obstacle course. He researches the practical ways art, science, psychology, technology, history, and philosophy can help us live more skillfully.

8 comments… add one
  • Karol Aug 23, 2014, 8:09 pm

    It sort of goes in line with 80/20 principle: find the essential 20% of inputs (actions) that give 80% of outputs (results) a given undertaking an start from it.

    • Jon Brooks Aug 23, 2014, 11:34 pm

      Yeah exactly! Sometimes when you find the right piece of the puzzle it feels more like the 99/1 rule. 🙂

  • Riz Aug 28, 2014, 1:35 pm

    Nice writeup. Looks like Harry Holland’s beach girls can use a lesson on calorie deficit 😀

    The idea of “helping other people” is interesting, though it would seem to go against a natural instinct to be selfish (food, shelter, reproduction). At least in my opinion. Ultimate cooperation may indeed lead us to the “true” meaning of life but at this point I think it will be unachievable unless some world disaster wakes us up.

    • Jon Brooks Aug 28, 2014, 3:01 pm

      Thanks Riz! Lolled @ calorie deficit 🙂

      Yeah what you say is absolutely right! Especially about the world disaster, crazy too how people seem to come together in times of war.

    • Sadegh Aug 30, 2014, 9:16 pm

      The blessings of disasters are undeniable, but an alternative is to start from our own thoughts and actions here and now. This can act as a chain-reaction wake-up call too.

      • Jon Brooks Sep 3, 2014, 6:07 pm

        Exactly Sadegh! I appreciate your comment. Hope you are well.

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