“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” Goethe

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

One of the most frustrating aspects of life are its trivial distractions. They waste time and pull you away from things that are more important. I often go into the office in the morning with some grand plan or idea for a project to work on that day and get “ambushed” or side-tracked by some little unexpected problem. For example, one morning I was just about to write out a new personnel policy for my company and my maintenance man, who cannot drive, comes into the office and says he needs a part for the vacuum cleaner right away so he can finish cleaning the restaurant, otherwise we cannot open on time.  I drive to three stores before finding the correct part… two hours later, I’m sitting at my desk again, trying to remember my original ideas for the new personnel policy!  How often are our most important projects pushed aside and relegated to “later” because of some little distraction?  Too often.

The key word in Goethe’s advice is the word “never”. Although he’s right in setting the priority in life being “things that matter most”; is it realistic to never be distracted or to be caught up in attending to small chores?  It isn’t that simple.  It’s not always “either or”.  Nevertheless, his message, taken as a guideline, is sound.

Some of the most startling examples of people forgetting to keep their priorities in the right order involves their health.  We all know that we must stay healthy and well rested to enable us to perform at our best.  Yet think of the student who neglects his studying until the last minute and is forced to “cram” for exams.  He stays up for two nights in a row to prepare for the end-of-term test.  He loses energy, gets a sore throat and during the exam loses his train of thought, and fails the exam.  By studying a little every day during the school term would have been his best strategy.  As another example, think of the business executive who works late every night and most weekends so she can impress her boss and thereby get the next big promotion.  Meanwhile her family feels neglected, her spouse gets angry and ultimately she has a nervous breakdown.  Without health you have nothing…  

Health is obviously one of those things that matter, but it isn’t something I’d classify as mattering the most.  It is just a prerequisite for allowing you do things, to give you time to attend to the truly important things.  I find that the people who are obsessed with their health (except athletes), and their looks, are often either superficial people or hypochondriacs.  Health should go hand in hand with all other activities and daily life. 

Having, or accomplishing, the important things in life has an inextricable link to satisfaction.  And, the greater the importance of that thing, or accomplishment, the greater the satisfaction.  For many, the most important thing in life is family.  For others, its friends.  Some put their country above all else.  For others, it’s a deity.  If what you value is authentic then the more time and attention you can give it will result in a greater sense of well-being, confidence and selfhood (self-possession)… it’s a nice place to be… .  The lesson should be, ensure that wisely prioritizing things in your life is, well, a priority.  It is the route to meaning and self-worth in life.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “He that respects himself is safe from others.  He wears a coat of mail that none can pierce.”

In the previous paragraph, I wrote that if your priority is “authentic” then it will give you satisfaction, etc. Naturally, the question arises, what is authentic?  For me, I refer to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs… though I disagree with his term “hierarchy”, as meaning lower vs. higher needs, which I’ll explain at the end of this piece.  In Maslow’s hierarchy, the lowest needs are food and shelter, then comes a sense of security, followed by family, friends and community – all elements of our social existence (including sexual intimacy).  The next higher need is for recognition and respect among our peers which leads to self-esteem.  The final, and highest need, is called self-actualization… the goal of transcending oneself and finding greater purpose or meaning. 

My quarrel with Maslow is basically about context.  The ability to achieve the higher needs, like respect from the community or self-actualization, depends on a person’s circumstance.  Maslow studied the best 1% of college student populations.  These subjects of his study already had their “lower” needs met. A person in poorest Africa is often only worried about avoiding hunger and the elements.  When that person gets a roof over their head and a guaranteed source of food for their family along with a secure job they are fulfilled.  For them, especially if they come from generations of poverty and neglected relatives, this accomplishment will result in great pride and satisfaction.  His/her needs were authentic, and palpable every day of their lives.  They reached the pinnacle of success due to the context of their reality. The other needs, like self-actualization are totally irrelevant in this world…it may take generations before someone, maybe a grandchild, is focused on greater purpose and self-actualization. 

In the 1960’s and 1970’s it was common for young adults, like me, to travel to Europe so we could “find ourselves”.  Translated, this meant we were looking to self-actualize.  We were privileged.  Our biggest worry was finding a place to get a beer or a dealer with some pot.  Life was easy, we read Sartre and existed on a plane so remote from the fellow in Africa I described that we may as well have been living on different planets.

To get back to Goethe and Maslow, let’s simply agree that as our basic needs are met, push yourself to greater purpose… outside yourself, transcending your tiny sphere.  However, never forget those basic needs… rather, appreciate the fact you don’t have to give them serious concern… some of us fortunate and are lucky enough to live on all levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.