The top of the pyramid

The top of Maslow’s pyramid can be summarized as: I do this because I have to.

Disclaimer: I generally loathe the Chicken Soup pop psychology that clogs up the Internet with feel-good linkbait. So much of it is written as a catharsis, or as thinly-veiled content marketing for self-help propaganda. So it’s with mixed emotions that I write this.

On the other hand, I’ve long believed that it is amazing what can get done when nobody gets credit. And I had a birthday recently (for some reason, it’s the prime number birthdays that make me feel my years—maybe because primes grow more scarce as we advance, whereas celebrating multiples of ten is simply a by-product of us having been born with ten fingers.) So here’s me being reflective.

Most of us are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Once food, safety, and belonging are under control, we can devote our better selves to the nebulous notion of self-actualization. But what does that actually mean?

I was wandering a San Diego desert recently, and it helped me to crystallize something I’ve been thinking over for a while now. This, then, is my very personal view of what that pyramid looks like, and it boils down to one sentence:

I do this because I have to.

That sentence gets increasingly less self-actualized as we move through it.


The top of the pyramid is perfect Zen. I simply am. This is the meditative ideal, the Dao, unaffected by other concerns. For most of us, this is at best a concept: Humans are inherently social creatures.

I do

To wake up with a simple drive to create is, to me, as good as it gets. Not to know what I’ll make—but simply to create, to launch, to imagine. It’s fighting entropy, railing against the encroaching dust and heat death. The people I admire most are those who simply must do. They channel their energies into their latest pursuit for the pure joy of seeing it made manifest.

I do this

Somewhat less enlightened than simply creating, “I do this” is nerding out at its finest. A person who devotes their entire lives to model trains creates—but they have a specific focus. They become their hobbies. They’re somewhat less versatile and open-ended, because they’ve picked their battle. They’re more likely to live in a filter bubble, consume information that confirms their focus, and nerd out in spite of social cues. But that focus lets them make great strides.

I do this because

At this tier of the pyramid, motivation enters into things. That motivation is noble—wanting to cure cancer, end poverty, shift a vote. These people aren’t necessarily self-motivated—this is still altruism—but it’s not an internal drive.

I do this because I

One step further down, and the motivation becomes selfish. The reason for being, doing, or creating is something else. The end starts to justify the means. We begin to care about who gets credit, and what is attributed to us. We have a motive (which we may be transparent about; having a motive isn’t necessarily a bad thing.) But it’s the start of a transaction, and we know what we hope to get in return, even if that’s just adulation.

I do this because I have

A bit lower, and we’re embroiled in obligations. We have become the things we own. Maybe we’re creating to pay for the bills, or the family, or the lifestyle in which we find ourselves. If we’re lucky, that creative work is fulfilling, and noble, and good. But we can’t quit our things, our relationships—and that which we have acquired influences what we do.

I do this because I have to

The bottom of this pyramid is responsibilities. We no longer jump out of bed unable to avoid creating; instead, we jump out of bed looking at our lists. Others dictate what we work on. Our work may still be noble, and good, and fulfilling. But it is in pursuit of others’ ends. When those ends are misaligned with what we would do, resentment festers.

Again, this is a very personal view of what is noble and good. I’m genuinely curious how others see the top of the pyramid, and where on it they put themselves. For me, shortening the sentence “I do this because I have to” is something I aspire to. While I’ve thought about it for a long time, I only recently understood about myself enough to put into words or—as is often my wont—diagrams.

What’s more, it’s hard for me to relate to people who aren’t at the same tier of the pyramid. Which, admittedly, isn’t very self-actualized of me; but it’s a good predictor of which people I’m likely to get along with and want to spend time alongside.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled flood of techno-political opinions and conferences.