Fulfil Your Potential: turning Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on its head - Rohini Rathour, IIM Bangalore (1989 - 1991)

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    Rohini Rathour is a non-fiction author, a life and business coach and a part time hoop-fitness instructor. She is also the founder of UK registered children's charity Raindrop Campaign. She spent nearly twenty years as fund manager and analyst investing on behalf of charities, institutional investors and high net worth individuals. Rohini Rathour is an alumnus of IIM Bangalore (1989 - 1991)

    I recently interviewed a sample of men and women in their forties and fifties about their views on the subject of potential and how they have strived to fulfil it in their own lives. The results were interesting if not very surprising. They all had their own personal set of limiting beliefs that they now recognise may have held them back. Each had their own shortlist of things they would do differently if they had their time again.

    But this article is not about my findings from that research project. My study did highlight factors that underlie some of society’s greatest limiting beliefs. I am taking on the one great theory of human behaviour that has influenced generations since Abraham Maslow first presented his paper on the Hierarchy of Needs in 1943.


    According to Maslow’s theory, a person cannot be expected to act unselfishly or rise above their hunger for material things until they have fulfilled their basic and psychological needs as shown in the image above. If you have nowhere to live, no food to eat, no one to call your own, then according to Maslow you can be excused for behaving selfishly in the sole pursuit of those things. On the other hand, someone who has a job or enough money to support all their basic needs, has a nice place to live and a loving family can be expected to no longer seek material things or status in society. Such people should in theory be on a different plane to everyone else – seeking greater purpose in their own lives and wanting to make a difference in this world.

    I am sure we have all have witnessed great acts unselfish behaviour from people who have very little to call their own, and little to gain or lose from their simple acts of kindness. At the other extreme we see daily examples of depraved behaviour from people who want for nothing. They should as per Maslow’s principles be seeking to do good in society, not relentlessly pursuing even greater wealth at the cost of others.

    Let’s get real: Maslow’s theory was a very useful study of human behaviour during his time and stemmed out of his own optimism and desire to see good in humanity. His research was based on lives of the great and good including Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein. A bit like my own humble study on potential, there is a clear selection bias and its findings are not a true representation of the world we live in.

    We live in an age where leapfrogging is the name of the game, disruption is at the heart of innovation, and traditional barriers to success are steadily falling away. Technology has been one of the greatest levellers of the twenty first century. Wisdom has never had anything to do with education, but now even the thirst for knowledge can be quenched at the click of a mouse. Distance and time are simply markers with far less bearing on how we conduct business or consume information. Never have we had more opportunity to thrive, nor indeed a greater propensity to squander it.

    Perhaps it is time to accept that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is at the heart of our society’s greatest limiting beliefs, stopping us from achieving our true potential.

    Everyone has potential to contribute uniquely to this world. And yet most of us will never truly explore the full extent of this in our lifetimes, let alone fulfil it. Potential is a deeply personal thing and will mean different things to different people. At its heart it is multidimensional and constantly evolving. It needs to be recognised for what it is if it is to be nurtured and achieved to its fullest.

    So let’s turn Maslow’s pyramid on its head. Or perhaps just dissolve the top bit of the pyramid and let it permeate all the way down to the base. There is no reason in this world why we cannot pursue our basic and our psychological needs whilst also pursuing creative activities and seeking to fulfil our potential.

    It will involve changing how we think about our aspirations for the future as well as identifying core limiting beliefs that must be eliminated if we are to ever reach them.

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