Something struck me as interesting the other day. According to Anthropologists (who are much smarter than I pretend to be), modern humans first appeared on the scene roughly 195,000 years ago. Which means that we, as Homo Sapiens, have evolved little since then.
Yes, Darwinism of course holds true. Our species has undergone minor physiological changes since then, but for the most part, we are the same as our ancestors of yesteryear, prefrontal cortex and all. But, while we’ve remained the same, the world we live in has evolved exponentially. In a sense, society has evolved to the point where our Homo Sapien brains have trouble coping.
And we see this inability to cope in our search for a higher calling.
Abraham Maslow, an American Psychologist, speaks to this perfectly with his idea of humans’ hierarchy of needs. With this theory, he explains human motivation and self worth. The hierarchy of needs, from the bottom us, are as follows:
The idea is that although self-actualization is the pinnacle, you can’t fulfill one need without first fulfilling the one that precedes it. But what if most of your needs are fulfilled?
I think we as humans derive our self worth directly from the pursuit of a higher goal, and one that directly benefits a community of people, rather than ourselves alone.
For our ancestors, self worth was comparatively easy. As hunter-gatherers in small tribes, every member of the community had a specific job that directly led to the survival of the whole. There wasn’t the need for esteem or self-actualization since every moment of the day was spent strengthening the tribe, and therefore, the human race.
Think about it this way: If you lived in a nomadic tribe of 100 people, with no farms (let alone 7-11s), and your job was to pick edible berries, you would derive self worth directly from your job. If you didn’t pick enough berries for winter, or picked ones that were poisonous, the entire community would suffer. Your tribe is counting on you to do your best work.
In a sense, every hour in the day was spent fulfilling the first three needs, leaving no time to even think about esteem and self-actualization. For our ancestors, helping the tribe was the higher calling. Helping the tribe directly translated to self worth.
But alas, what now? We live in a society where the first three of Maslow’s needs are fulfilled from day one. In our first world countries, we don’t need to spend our lives ensuring the survival of ourselves or our community. Most of us are born into lives with a roof over our head, food on the table, and the unconditional love of a parental figure.
Which leaves us with the last two needs, esteem and self-actualization. Whereas our physiological needs, our safety, and even our love can be measured, needs four and five are hard to measure, and therefore hard to derive self worth.
What does esteem mean to you? How bout self-actualization? Hard to even define, huh? Don’t worry, you’re not alone, but it does directly highlight the problem we face.
Since we can’t derive happiness from the attainment of the first three needs (since their already attained), how can derive happiness from the last two?
It might sound odd, but in order to achieve self worth, you have to be selfish…at least at first. Make sure you fulfill the first three of your needs: physiological, safety, and love/belonging. Without these three, you’ll be unable to fulfill needs four and five.
Make sure you’re breathing, get a job and a place to live, and build a community of supporters so you don’t have to worry about those three needs ever again. Once those are fulfilled, focus on self esteem.
Make yourself feel good! Build your confidence and pursue the dreams that you want. By focusing on building your self esteem through positive endeavors, it will positively translate into you respecting yourself and others. Which, paradoxically, will make those you respect show you respect. Full circle.
You can then use your newfound self confidence and expanded social network to attain the fifth need. This is where all the selfishness will pay off in true selflessness. Through achievement of safety, love, and esteem, you’ll build a moral compass that points you in the direction of self-actualization.
Described as the “creative-active phase” by Robert Greene in Mastery, fulfilling the fifth need forces you to be open minded and apply your unique ability - uncovered by your achievements in the fourth need - toward any endeavor that resonates with you.
It’s in this creative-active phase, or fifth need, that you use your achievements to uncover your passion in a way previously unknown to you. You’re able to apply the creativity, spontaneity, and problem solving skills you built while attaining each of the previous four needs toward issues that truly matter to you.
In this sense, you find your self worth in the application of all your skills toward the fulfillment of rewarding and meaningful projects. But to do so, it’s imperative that we compound our skills through the systematic achievements of the first four needs.
As Earl Nightingale said so well, “Success is the progressive realization of a worthy ideal."