BY DOUG AND POLLY WHITE Special correspondents
QUESTION: I’ve been taking a psychology course where we’ve been studying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. How does this apply to entrepreneurs and the things that motivate them?
ANSWER: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been a part of almost everyone’s education. This classic theory is supposed to help us to understand human motivation.
Maslow grounds his pyramid with physiological needs such as food, shelter and sleep followed by safety needs that include financial and job security. Maslow states that these basic needs must be met before mid-level needs such as belonging, love and self-esteem can be achieved.
Finally, Maslow wrote that only those who have met all of the four previous needs could reach the nirvana that is self-actualization. Self-actualization is one’s ability to reach his or her potential or to be self-fulfilled.
Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up to the top of his pyramid. Remember, Maslow’s theory is that humans are motivated to fulfill their base needs before they are able to pursue higher-level needs:
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Physiological needs: True entrepreneurs sacrifice basic needs for their passion.
We know an entrepreneur who used to sleep on her office floor several nights each week when the business was in rapid growth mode. She said she couldn’t afford to go home – her business needed her.
She was willing to give up the comforts of home, a warm shower and even a good night’s sleep for her burgeoning business.
Many entrepreneurs get so busy that they forget to eat or sacrifice healthy home cooking for what they can get quickly, just to sustain themselves. Entrepreneurs push themselves to the breaking point, enduring long hours and high levels of stress as they confront the unknown path ahead.
Safety / security: Contrary to Maslow’s theory, often, for entrepreneurs, the first act of becoming self-actualized is to throw away safety and financial security with both hands.
They quit their high-paying jobs, mortgage their houses and max out credit cards in their attempts to turn their dreams into reality.
Rather than demand security before being able to think about higher-level motivations, entrepreneurs tend to lay it all on the line in risky startup ventures.
They seem to believe that the failure statistics just don’t apply to them and their ideas. We personally spent many months living off savings before our first paying consulting role. We didn’t care. We wanted our firm to succeed and were willing to risk our home and savings to make it happen.
Belonging / love: Most entrepreneurs find less time for family and friends when pursuing their dreams.
The needs of the business take over. Entrepreneurs miss their kids Little League baseball games, drinks with friends, and dinners with the family to list just a few.
Instead of feeling more part of things, at least in the beginning, entrepreneurs often feel isolated, cut off from everything but the drive to birth their new enterprise.
We know an entrepreneur who gave up her marriage instead of her business. Her husband said it was either him or her growing company – she chose her company.
Self esteem / respect: Friends and family members may think their entrepreneur crazy for giving up so much for their new enterprise.
They may question the entrepreneur’s judgment in quitting his or her job and risking financial security for the sake of their ambitions. They may call them crackpots, idealists and dreamers.
Friends and relatives may stop taking the entrepreneur’s calls, fearing it is another request for a favor or angel funding. Entrepreneurs push self-doubt away as they drive towards their goals.
Self-actualization: The entrepreneurs we know start with self-actualization.
They are fulfilling their dreams and desires with every pitch to investors, sale to a customer or addition to their product and service offering. They are one with their endeavor, and the struggle is part of the joy.
We don’t think Maslow knew any entrepreneurs. If he did, he would never have put forth his theory.
Doug and Polly White have a large ownership stake in Gather, a company that designs, builds and operates collaborative workspaces. Polly’s focus is on human resources, people management and human systems. Doug’s areas of expertise are business strategy, operations and finance.