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The motivation pyramid and its approach


Motivation is a widely discussed topic within various communities – whether they be personal or professional – and is an object of interest for many people, from managers who aim to boost productivity, to therapists who seek to better one’s mental health.

Everyone has a different approach towards motivation, yet we never stop seeking it.

In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow published his paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, where he conceptualised a pyramid portraying the needs that motivate people, a theory known today as ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’.

This pyramid consists of five levels: Physiological needs (such as food, shelter, clothing and sleep), Safety needs (personal security, health, employment, resources), Love and belonging (family, friendships, acceptance, intimacy), Esteem (respect, recognition, self-esteem, strength, freedom) and Self-actualisation (the desire to become the best version of oneself).

All of these levels are interconnected, as one cannot reach a level before accomplishing the requirements of the previous one.

While some may argue that this order is not definitive and that some parts of each level can be attained without the rest, I believe that Maslow’s theory focused on the needs as a whole by clustering them into groups in an effort to avoid characterising fragmented spurs of energy as consistent sources of motivation.

To put this into perspective, I often go back to the example of the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl; the author of ‘Man’s search for meaning’. One could argue that he had achieved most of the levels, and may have even been close to attaining self-actualisation.

He was well-known within his community, and had his own family to care and provide for.

Once he was subjected to the brutality of the Nazi concentration camps, he was immediately stripped from every source of safety, comfort and dignity. Thus, his priorities switched from trying to provide for his family and community to trying to preserve his own life. This was due to the scarcity of his physiological needs, the most basic of needs.

Another interpretation of Maslow’s hierarchy introduces new levels: Cognitive needs (creativity, curiosity, the intrinsic desire to be educated) and Aesthetic needs (the attempts to beautify one’s life), which must be met before realising self-actualisation. Transcendence (integrity, altruism, spirituality, beliefs) represents the pinnacle of the motivation pyramid, and makes up a significant part of one’s pursuit for meaning in life.

An interesting perspective that I once came upon stated that motivation is supposed to get you started, while discipline is what keeps you going, no matter what it is you set out to achieve.

Even though they are often used interchangeably, discipline and motivation are completely different concepts. Motivation is viewed more positively, as it can be associated with feeling in control.

Many people are excellent planners, and can create flawless and efficient timelines to complete their personal and professional goals. This is due to the fact that motivation is born from an intense desire for success. This desire can fluctuate based on the daily lives of individuals. Everyone has good and bad days, which proves why motivation may be considered an inconsistent source of energy. Discipline of the other hand, is more directly related to the will of a person. While it also utilises the concept of needs, it is more focused on consistency.

Constantly repeating a task without taking into account the various factors that may affect one’s ability to perform those tasks. Discipline requires intense focus and mental energy, as it is needed to repel any negative thoughts that may be formed when one goes about with their life. A widely known quote states ‘suffer the pain of discipline or the pain of regret’.

While differentiating between motivation and discipline may be beneficial for some, many people get lost trying to identify the perfect approach towards such existential topics that they never start to actively pursuing their goals.

So try. Try again. And again.

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