Deconstructing Self-Growth

How an expanded “Hierarchy of Needs” can help pinpoint opportunities for growth

Earlier this year, I started a year-long personal development challenge.

It’s pretty simple: each month I select a few small actions to practice living out a different value.

The values rotate, and so far have touched on the themes of being more inclusive, generous, and resourceful.

The Challenge

During the most recent month of April, my focus was on self-reliance, specifically the development of my own “inner resources.”

Self-Reliance = The ability to rely on our own “inner resources” to overcome challenges

I struggled initially both to define “inner resources” and to figure out what to focus on. Eventually, I developed a framework for identifying areas of personal growth.

I wanted to share my approach and findings in hopes that it is helpful to others.

The Problem: Inner Resource Definitions

After much consideration, I came to the conclusion that “inner resources” could vary widely depending on the challenge itself.

With such breadth, I initially was at a loss. I didn’t know how to determine what to focus on in any sort of systematic way. (And I like systems.)

Enter Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Fortunately, the idea of a survivalist type of challenge reminded me of, well survival. And that reminded me of the first two levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

The simplified Maslowian “Hierarchy of Needs” we’re accustomed to seeing

If so, this could be a useful framework for identifying categories of strength vs. weakness in our lives.

Quick Maslow Refresher

In case you haven’t thought about Maslow since grade school, here is a quick refresher:

“You will either step forward into growth, or you will step backward into safety” -A. Maslow
  1. Abraham Maslow = Prominent Humanistic Psychologist
  2. Humanistic Psychology = Belief that humans are inherently good and journeying towards self-actualization
  3. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs = A Useful “Self-Actualization Journey” Framework

The simple interpretation of the Hierarchy of Needs is that you can’t progress to the next level until you’ve got the previous (lower) levels all covered.

If that feels a little overly strict, it is, and I was glad to find via Wikipedia, two additional Maslowian beliefs:

  • Human needs are fluid. We can work on multiple levels at once.
  • Self-Actualization is possible, but not guaranteed.

In further research, I discovered that Maslow later added 3 additional levels that typically get omitted. From this, I devised this Expanded Hierarchy of Needs:

Maslow’s Expanded Hierarchy of Needs. Labeling my own.

A Framework for Approaching Self-Growth

Using Maslow’s Explanded Hierarchy of Needs, we can then take this approach to self-growth:

  1. Objectively assess where we are relatively stronger, and where we are relatively weaker along each level of the pyramid. This is likely to change over time depending on our circumstances.
  2. Identify small actions that might cultivate the inner resources associated with our room-for-improvement levels. (Why small actions? There is some interesting research that the key to lasting behavioral change is through small habits. Read more on the merits of painfully small goals.)
  3. Experiment, and reflect. Turns out you have to actually do things.

The Results: Using Myself As a Guinea Pig*

*Not interested? No stress! Skip to the “ 👉” symbol to read the conclusion.

I applied this framework to myself, and two areas jumped out: Esteem Needs & Self-Actualization. (For what it’s worth I also didn’t feel like I was crushing “Transcendence,” but that seemed like a more far off aspiration...)

One important point to note: You need to be thoughtful with the assessment of your self-reliance within a level.

Initially, I used a 0–10 rating scale for my “development” at each level. E.g., Physiological Needs got a 9 since other than being a little short on sleep, I’m all set there. However, using that methodology, I also rated myself an 8 on Esteem. As a life-long overachiever, my default is to optimize my life for recognition and success, so clearly I was doing well at being competent, etc. ….Yet, that’s precisely the area I needed to work on most because I’m not inwardly self-reliant; I care too much about what others think.

Said in other words: I lack sufficient inner resources to create my own steadiness of self-esteem.

And that is an important aspect of true mastery of a level: having the requisite inner resources to face an ever-changing landscape of external challenges.

So think carefully before selecting your development levels!

Based on my self-assessment, I decided to focus on improving “Self-actualization” and “Esteem” throughout the month. Here are the small actions I chose:

  • Self-Actualization: Spend 1 hour each week working with a Career Coach. My intent was to begin to unpack what I truly wanted to do next in my career, instead of following the story I thought I was “supposed” to follow.
  • Esteem: Every day, try to do something that feels mildly “foolish”. The intent here was to care less about what others think. My hypothesis was that small acts of foolishness (such as skipping down the block for no reason) would prove to myself that people generally don’t care and/or aren’t paying attention. This proved true.

Overall, this month-long challenge was difficult.

But, now reflecting on the month, it has been immensely useful, and empowering.

The most meaningful change was in my own career (“Self-Actualization”). As a result of my small action of working with a career coach, I realized I’d been carrying a warped story around in my head that I needed to found a venture company to be successful. (Which sounds ridiculous now that I type it out, but I felt like it was true.) And recognizing that has oddly opened up many, many new doors that are actually more appealing. Which is pretty cool.

👉 My Challenge To You

If anything I’ve written has resonated with you, I’d challenge you to take 3 minutes to jot down how you’d assess yourself on each level of the pyramid. Clearly you’ve made it this far in the article because you care a little about personal development, and even that short exercise will be illuminating.

From there, well, choose your own adventure :)

“You will either step forward into growth, or you will step backward into safety.” -Abraham Maslow

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Writing on meditation, behavioral psychology, and applied ethics. Stanford MBA, Bain alum, certified Koru Mindfulness teacher.