Maslow’s Parellogram

By Jon Obermeyer


Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Human Needs” pyramid was not even his idea. A management consultant made it up. 

It’s not even that scientific. The Hierarchy (from baseline Physiological Needs, to Safety, Love and Belonging, Esteem, to the peak Self-Actualization) is a flyer, a Hail Mary pass into the endzone. Maslow first proposed the Hierarchy in a 1943 paper “A theory of Human Motivation,” in Psychological Review.

I gravitated to the pyramid instantly. Pyramids have been around a long time. The basic four-level Food Group Triangle (Breads and Cereals, Vegetables, Proteins, Fats and Oils) has been around at least since 1965, when I first saw it in a second grade classroom at Foothill Elementary.


12 years (and a lifetime) later, I saw the Maslow pyramid in a psychology textbook, and in the miracle of my brain’s pattern recognition, I seized upon it.

Disclaimer: I’m an English major because I flunked out of Statistics in the spring of 1977.

I read back issues of Psychology Today in my high school library in a for-credit class called simply, Reading.

I wanted to be a psychologist but the field was beyond me. Back to Reynolds Hall, I crept, trading in Carl Jung for John Updike, Carl Rogers for Ezra Pound


What if we’ve had it wrong for 80 years? What if Maslow really meant his theory to be visualized in a different geometric shape, other than the simplistic Isosceles Triangle?

Doesn’t the concept of Self-Actualization deserve something more complex, like a parallelogram?

Like life, the parallelogram has no right angles and uneven sides.

Let’s make A, Physiological Needs, B, Safety, C, Love and and D, Belonging and Esteem (Maslow’s fats and oils, as it were) 

And in the center spot, E, we position Self Actualization, the bulls-eye of human ambition.

I think this is what Maslow actually had in mind.

Before we depart, let’s take another look at the Big Kahuna, Self Actualization, the rarely attainable, ethereal, Mt. Everest of the Hierarchy.

From a Tao perspective, (or apocryphal Gospel of Thomas), Self-Actualization pervades all aspects of human endeavor, as Oolong tea leaves diffuse into hot water.

As I pursue my daily veggie pita wrap, my cashmere sweater and corduroy Carhartt cattleman’s chore coat, am I not self-actualizing? As I show up to Zoom meetings five minutes ahead of time, and fill out my monthly expense report, in pursuit of job security and pension security, am I not self-actualizing?

I would contend that self-actualizing is simultaneous to all other needs, and thus, we attach a small block of plastique to the poser Pyramid and light the fuse.

As a creative, I am deeply committed to the pursuit of self-actualization. By writing, publishing and sharing my work, I want to believe I’m fully optimized, firing on all cylinders, as they say. 

But look at the etymology, actualization from the adjective actual, deriving from the Old French actuel (“existing, up to date”), a descendant of the Latin actus (“doing”), all the way back to ancient PIE root ag (“to drive, draw out of move.”)

Self-Actualization is quite simple in this regard. 

It’s 6:40 a.m.. Greet the intrusive Sol and his pesky sunbeams. Don’t hit the “snooze” button. Put your feet on the floor. Shower. Dress. Get the kids out the door. Heat water. Grind coffee beans. Find a #2 paper filter. Put the coffee grounds in the compost bin. Look at you, self-actualizing.


Jon Obermeyer holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UNC Greensboro. The author of 29 books (poetry, memoir, essay, short fiction, writing guides), he lives in Berkeley, CA and works for Project Open Hand in San Francisco.https://www.facebook.com/jon.obermeyer
Twitter: Surfzone101

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