Maslow's sea of needs

Thoughts on a new way to think about Maslow's theory.
January 24, 2021

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is a framework that sociologists, behavioural psychologists, and the occasional designer use to understand people's basic needs and goals.

A common way to frame the hierarchy is through a pyramid. According to the humanistic psychologist, Scott Barry Kaufman, Abraham Maslow never articulated it this way himself. The pyramid seems to be a modern means of expressing the hierarchy, and I'd argue that one does not go through life 'completing' each need to achieve the next in order.
Scott Barry Kaufman does an excellent job of arguing for a different model with two new angles.

The first angle uses a sailboat metaphor, rather than levels in a pyramid, with a twist.

The boat itself represents our physiological and safety needs. But Kaufman asserts that people need purpose and direction, which is missing from Maslow's Theory. The sail on the boat represents these aspects of our needs (I also enjoyed Disney Pixar's articulation of this in the film Soul with 'lost souls' wandering a deserted extraplanar wasteland).

Once we feel safe and secure enough in our boat, we are ready to open our sails and move on in life. Yet we aren't alone on this vast, fathomless sea, we are together, and this is our shared connection.

Scotts second build is to add a higher goal into the mix: 'Our highest motivation in life isn't self-actualisation, but actually, transcendence'. If you have fulfilled your own potential of all you could possibly be that will, in turn, make for a better society. I like this notion as 'selfishness' is always something I've wrestled with in life. I was brought up being taught that it was vain to put myself before others. As I'm growing up, I'm starting to realise that if I am not happy with who I am or my purpose, I'm no use to anyone.

I like these builds on Maslow's theory. I am knocking around some thoughts about how these needs can be dialled up and down throughout one's life. I'm starting to see how life events such as a family member's death, buying a house, or the birth of a child can impact how you sail your boat on the sea of life. A death might mean putting your sail down for a time whilst preparing yourself for this personal inevitability. Or the birth of your first child might mean you add some wind to those sails or pull up beside some fellow sailors for support.

I'm no expert on behavioural psychology and often think that most of these frameworks need to be taken with a healthy sodium amount. Yet, I'm keen to explore how the needs of people peak and trough throughout their life. Do you have any thoughts on this? Is there something you have seen that has managed to successfully map needs across a person's life?


Writing down my thoughts helps me remember my thoughts. But it also helps me articulate myself better in discussions and explore the nooks of my brain. I publish these thoughts because it might spark something in someone else and provoke discussion. Thanks for getting this far 👋