Sailboat Metaphor

Chances are you’re familiar with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a pyramid with self-actualization depicted at the top. You likely learned about it in your Introduction to Psychology course in college or saw it diagrammed on Facebook. As it’s typically presented, the hierarchy indicates that humans are motivated by increasingly “higher” levels of needs. The basic needs — physical health, safety, belonging, and esteem — must be satisfied to a certain degree before we can fully self-actualize, becoming all that we are capable of becoming.

The familiar pyramid shape suggests that once we complete each step, we’re done dealing with that need forever. As if life were a video game, and once we complete each level, we unlock the next, with no looking back. It’s an appealing concept. It’s also a gross misrepresentation of the humanistic vision that propelled Maslow’s work.

In fact, Maslow never actually created a pyramid to represent the hierarchy of needs. Maslow emphasized that we are always in a state of becoming and that one’s “inner core” consists merely of “potentialities, not final actualizations” that are “weak, subtle, and delicate, very easily drowned out by learning, by cultural expectations, by fear, by disapproval, etc.,” and which can all too easily become forgotten, neglected, unused, overlooked, unverbalized, or suppressed. Maslow made it clear that human maturation is an ongoing process and that growth is “not a sudden, saltatory phenomenon” but is often two steps forward and one step back.

A New Metaphor

The pyramid from the 1960s told a story that Maslow never meant to tell: a story of achievement, of mastering level by level until you’ve “won” the game of life. But that is most definitely not the spirit of self-actualization that humanistic psychologists like Maslow emphasized. The human condition isn’t a competition; it’s an experience.

Life isn’t a trek up a summit. It’s more like a vast ocean, full of new opportunities for meaning and discovery but also danger and uncertainty. In this choppy surf, a pyramid is of little use. What we really need is something more flexible and functional: a sailboat.

Illustration by Andy Ogden

With holes in your boat, you can’t go anywhere. All of your energy and focus is directed toward increasing the stability of the boat. The human needs that comprise the boat are safety, connection, and self-esteem — security needs that, under good conditions, work together toward greater stability.

Too many people get mired by insecurity throughout their lives, however, and, as a result, miss out on so much beauty and goodness that exists in the world. But human beings are incredibly resilient. Even under adverse conditions, we find the potential for momentum: the sail.

Growth is at the heart of self-actualization — or, as Maslow would come to describe it in his later writings, the transcendent experience of being “fully human.” Ultimately, in order to grow, we need to open up our sail and be vulnerable against the inevitable winds and waves of life. We can still move in our most deeply valued direction, even among the unknown of the sea.

To grow is to continually, day after day, move toward the best of what humanity is capable of. Growth is a direction, not a destination. And that’s where the parts of the metaphorical sail come in: exploration, love, and purpose.

Exploration is the driver of all growth, defined by the desire to seek out and make sense of novel, challenging, and uncertain events. While security is primarily concerned with defense and protection, exploration is motivated by curiosity, discovery, openness, expansion, understanding, and the creation of new opportunities for growth and development. The other needs that comprise the sail — love and purpose — build on the fundamental need to reach higher levels of integration within oneself and to contribute something meaningful to the world.

Note that the need for love that is part of growth is different than the need for connection that is part of security. At a higher level of love, we can love people we don’t even feel a great connection to, and can care for those we may have never even met.

A dynamic sailboat is a better metaphor for life than a pyramid because the key is not which level you reach, but the harmonious integration that you have within yourself, and how that interacts with the world. You are a whole unit moving around in this world, and part of becoming a whole person requires this higher level integration of your security and growth needs.

Every now and then, when we’re really catching the wind– when we aren’t preoccupied with our basic needs and we are moving purposefully in a direction with the spirit of exploration, love, and purpose– we can experience transcendence. Transcendence goes beyond individual growth and allows for the highest levels of unity and harmony within oneself and with the world. Transcendence, which rests on a secure foundation of both security and growth, allows us to attain wisdom and a sense of connectedness and synergy with the rest of humanity.

Transcendent states of being are the most wondrous moments of life. However, healthy transcendence cannot be directly sought after; it is an emergent phenomenon resulting from the harmonious integration of one’s whole self in the service of cultivating the good society. Transcendence comes along for the ride of working on yourself, and increasing your synergy with the world. What is good for you is good for society.

We crave belonging, understanding, safety, and discovery. This, in Maslow’s view, is what it means to be human. To use the sailboat metaphor, while we each travel in our own direction, a wave could come crashing down on all the boats at once making us realize that at the end of the day we’re all sailing the vast unknown of the sea. Together.

For more, see Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization: