It’s difficult to sustain motivation – it’s the reason we fail when trying to implement new diets, exercise regimes, business plans, or parenting tactics. There are a countless excuses we can conjure up to help ease the pain when falling short – we are too stressed to diet today, too tired to exercise this morning, too busy to try a new business tactic, and too worn down by our kids to parent them differently. It takes energy to be motivated and dedication to sustain our initial motivation.
What Does Organizational Behavior Tell Us?
The issue of motivation is a well-researched and frequently discussed topic in organizational behavior, and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory is a cornerstone concept. Most introductory psychology textbooks contain a figure of Maslow’s pyramid of needs that concisely captures Maslow’s notion that human motivation can only progress sequentially from one level to the next.
The main idea proposed by Maslow is that each level is only motivating as long as it goes unsatisfied. Once satisfied, we move up to the next level. Another central idea is that few people – as few as one in one hundred – make it to the self-actualization level.
Maslow’s theory is intuitively appealing because it legitimizes how particular eras of our lives seem to revolve around certain motivations. However, the idea of stair-stepping from one need to the next, without variation, is limiting and butts real-life exceptions to Maslow’s rule.
Beyond The Theoretical: Practicle Implications
The more pertinent question is, does this theory help us better understand our motivations? In a word, yes. Nobel Prize winner and renowned author, Elie Wiesel, provides a concrete example of an individual who has progressed through Maslow’s levels as well as an inspiring model of how each of us can harness internal motivation and halt excuses.
Wiesel’s early life is vividly described within the pages of his well-known book Night which captures how Wiesel’s motivations in life change while living in Auschwitz and later Buchenwald concentration camps. Weisel’s “lower order” needs (physiological, safety, belonging) are constantly being threatened and preoccupy his every thought. The “higher order” needs (esteem and self-actualization) are never discussed or pursued during this terrifying period when lack of food, fear of gas chambers, and beatings prevail.
At the end of the book, Wiesel recounts his march to Buchenwald, marked by days without food and water – nothing but snow to eat and drink – seeing a man beaten by his son for a small crust of bread. The man and his son both died after a group of men, sighting the morsel of nourishment, fight to the death to satisfy this most basic need: hunger.
On April 11, 1945 Buchenwald was liberated. In the following decade, Wiesel pursued an education and became a journalist. Wiesel’s life accomplishments have included marriage, having a son, authoring over 35 books, and relentlessly pursuing the cause of human rights, no matter the place. He transformed his agony into a bastion of hope for others. Few would argue against the idea that he used his inner talents successfully and achieved self-actualization. Wiesel reached this level not only despite – but because of – the torture he endured.
Maslow proposed his motivational theory in 1943, one year before Wiesel, then 14 years old, was taken from his home and deported to Auschwizt. Let’s learn from both Maslow and Wiesel and strive to use life’s setbacks to motivate us to reach our full potential, at work and at home. Excuses are easy to make, but also keep us from being all that we can, and should, be.