What Drives Us?

An essay likely to find its way into a book I am working on.

Stowe Boyd
Jul 28 · 11 min read

In my research into what drives us in the work context, I’m strongly influenced by the practicalities of Frederick Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory, the insight that job satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not two ends of one dimension, but actually two independent factors. He showed that job satisfaction is a function of the work that someone does, and that work has the capacity to fulfill needs, like achievement, competency, status, personal worth, and self-realization. Job dissatisfaction is linked to unfavorable perceptions of working conditions, relationships with others (especially supervisors), company policies, and salary. Herzberg’s breakthrough is that these two factors must be measured and managed independently, and in parallel.


I wonder how a shift to new economics, to new forms of organization and organizational culture will shape our drives?


Herzberg’s notions about human motivation are based deeply on the work of Maslow, whose hierarchy of needs is widely known, as shown in the chart below.. The basic premise is that people’s drives are hierarchical: once a lower-level set of drives is met, the individual feels the drives for the next higher level. Herzberg’s contribution is to consider two factors as being outside of Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs, which makes me wonder if the strict ordering of Maslow’s states is an oversimplification, and that people are capable of operating on several levels all at once, so long as some minimum levels are met. So, for example, a young person may be unfulfilled in the love/belonging tier — recovering from a recent break-up, a troubled relationship to her family — but at the same time may be doing well in her work as an artist, well-respected by those whose work she respects. And she may have some initial tug toward self-actualization, although she may not even feel that she is working on that, intellectually or emotionally.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (source: Wikipedia)

What isn’t generally known is that Maslow’s earlier thoughts — originally published in the early ’50s — were significantly modified in his last years, in the late ’60s, when he proposed a level above that of self-actualization:

Abraham Maslow, Cognition of being in the peak-experiences

The major emphasis in Humanistic psychology rests on the assumptions regarding “higher needs.” … These higher human needs are … biological, and I speak here of love, the need of love, for friendship, for dignity, for self-respect, for individuality, for self fulfillment, and so on.

If however, these needs are fulfilled, a different picture emerges. There are people who do feel loved and who are able to love, who do feel safe and secure and who do feel respected and who do have self respect. If you study these people and ask what motivates them, you find yourself in another realm. This realm is what I have to call transhumanistic, meaning that which motivates, gratifies, and activates the fortunate, developed, i.e., already self-actualizing person. These people are motivated by something beyond the basic needs. The … point of departure, into this transhumanistic realm comes when they answer the following kind of questions: “What are the moments which give you … the greatest satisfaction? … What are the moments of reward which make your work and your life worthwhile?”

The answers to those questions were in terms of ultimate verities…. For example, truth, goodness, beauty… and so on. What this amounts to is that this third. i.e., humanistic psychology, is giving rise to a fourth, “transhumanistic psychology” dealing with transcendent experiences and transcendent values.

The fully developed (and very fortunate) human being working under the best conditions tends to be motivated by values which transcend himself. They are not selfish anymore in the old sense of that term. Beauty is not within one’s skin nor is justice or order. One can hardly class these desires as selfish in the sense that my desire for food might be. My satisfaction with achieving or allowing justice is not within my own skin … . It is equally outside and inside: therefore, it has transcended the geographical limitations of the self. Thus one begins to talk about transhumanistic psychology.

Maslow later used the term ‘transpersonal’ in place of ‘transhumanistic’ and I think transpersonal is more felicitous, and more apt.

One way to consider this added level is from the distinction between Small Vehicle (Hinayana) and Large Vehicle (Mahayana) branches of Buddhism. The small aspect of Hinayana comes from the tenet of doctrine that puts personal enlightenment ahead of all other goals, while in Large Vehicle adherents hope and work for the enlightenment of all sentient beings.


My bet is that as business becomes more fast-and-loose, structured around more loose connections and a smaller proportion of strong ones, the nature of our drive for self-actualization — like the respect of others — will take different forms.


In a sense, Maslow’s final views on the hierarchy of needs comes from his final insight: that people could rise beyond self-actualization, grow beyond the somewhat selfish aspiration for personal happiness, and move into the transpersonal, where the safety and strivings of others and their happiness comes first. Note also that this doesn’t require some religious sense of connection to a deity, although it doesn’t preclude it, either. (From my point of view, dogmatic and centralized spirituality will gradually be displaced by one more enigmatic and decentralized: a sense of connection to the earth and its peoples, but leave that aside for now.)

This reminds me of the response of the great anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss to those that made little of the ethos of ‘savages’, like the Amazonian peoples he studied, saying

A well-ordered humanism does not begin with itself, but puts things back in their place. It puts the world before life, life before man, and the respect of others before love of self.

In a real sense, people operating in the grip of their most fundamental drives — the drive to get enough to eat or a roof over their heads — may not have the margin available to consider much beyond the next day, or the safety of loved ones. But, inexorably, once those needs are met, Maslow suggested the higher drives move to the fore, drives that were always latent but unexpressed. But now I believe that many of these drives operate in parallel: the layers of the hierarchy are more an indication of the degree of immediacy or biological imperative, rather than an ordering, or an ascension of people’s drives over time.

We are driven by many factors, and these are mutually reinforcing in some cases, but for the most part they operate independently. This is why a person in financial chaos — facing eviction perhaps — can produce great poetry, speaking of the human need for love and respect; or why someone whose heart is broken can find meaning and purpose in the non-profit where they work.

I wonder how a shift to new economics, to new forms of organization and organizational culture will shape our drives? We know that the notion of family has changed in the recent decades, with more people living alone than at any time in the past, for example.


We need to find a way forward relying on the wellspring of human cooperation, without having to become a mass collective marching in machine synchrony. We’ll need to pull ourselves into the future, not just stepping into line and following someone else’s script. This is fluidarity, now that the era of mass belonging is over.


My bet is that as business becomes more fast-and-loose, structured around more loose connections and a smaller proportion of strong ones, the nature of our drive for self-actualization — like the respect of others — will take different forms. For example, in a world structured by following we pick those that we find worth following, instead of being assigned to a box in an org chart. So the expression of our need for the respect of others changes, even if the drive remains the same, because the nature and kind of our connections is different.

Maslow’s final contribution is to classify the aspiration to transpersonal awareness: the rebalancing of our orientation to the fundamental human drives so that a concern for the world and those that people it becomes the primary motivation. This does not belittle all the other drives, or even to suggest that those in whom the transpersonal has become primary will no longer love their families, or no longer find meaning in everyday work.

As I wrote in 2010, reflecting on work/life balance and the well-ordered humanism of Levi Strauss,

Stowe Boyd, Working Toward Life Balance

For me, balance can’t be self-centered, it must be world-centered.

We can’t find balance while the world is so out of balance. And any balance must come from putting the world and its living creatures before mankind, and then others before ourselves. Yes, those others include community and family, but can’t be limited to only those that are closest to us. We must put all others before ourselves.

I don’t mean that we need to hand over all our worldly possessions to the first homeless person on the street. But we need to put the collective interests of the world ahead of our own ease and comfort. That means trying to correct injustice, diminish our carbon footprint, work to strengthen social ties, and so on.

We are obliged to accept the curtailing of our personal freedoms — the right to pollute, to waste, to look away — for the sake of helping to balance our collective relationship to each other and the world.

In the sphere of our relationships with others it is not enough to be available, or to make time for others: we have to respect others’ needs, and to work to gain their respect, in return.

Final Thoughts

This is, in a way a paradoxical time. Like Charles Dickens’ characterization of the period surrounding the French Revolution:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

We are living in a period of time where we have the greatest understanding of human cognition and the biology of our deep connection as social beings, while at the same time folklore and bias about human drives and needs still dominate business, media, and society. We have concocted a web that offers us unparalleled opportunities for social connection, opportunities to find a new, shared fluidarity to replace and extend the solidarity that seems to have disappeared in postmodern times. As I wrote ,

Modernity has erased solidarity. I don’t think we can get people to have a sense of shared purpose in a society so remorselessly divided, in a culture obsessed with individuality.

My hope is that the postnormal makes it clear that solidarity is gone, here in a world where connection is displacing membership, where social media is eroding institutions, and where loose connection is replacing tight collectives. We should aspire to fluidarity in place of the modern era’s solidarity.

We need to find a way forward relying on the wellspring of human cooperation, without having to become a mass collective marching in machine synchrony. We’ll need to pull ourselves into the future, not be pushed into line and follow someone else’s script. This is fluidarity, now that the era of mass belonging is over.

The web is its own paradox, since much of our energies on the web are being squandered, or as an early Facebook employee Jeff Hammerbacher put it,

The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.

The ancient world order around us is crumbling: we’ve moved into a new economics that is beyond the control of those who spirited it into being, a global, pathologically complex, self-reinforcing system that consumes nearly all our resources, labor, and production and distributes the outputs and byproducts in a massively corrupt and inequitable way. And this system is unsustainable and erratic, producing a planet that is rapidly suffocating on toxic byproducts, and proving the idiocy of an economic system grounded in unchecked growth, and treating the earth, the seas, and the air as spoils to be controlled by the few ‘winners’ to the detriment of the many ‘losers’.


Every business needs to take on, first — as elements of the company’s operating credo — the goal of working to help its people fulfill their drives for mastery, autonomy, and the respect and connection with those with whom they work.


But at the same time, deep in the wiring of the human mind we uncover evidence of human universals, innate capacities in our shared expression of humanity, in-built tendencies toward justice, concern for those who cannot care for themselves, love of the natural world, and strivings toward self-transcendence and the transpersonal. Curled next to these angels in our inner being, we also find a predisposition to exclude those not like us, and a bias toward rejecting ideas that do not match the cultural rules we use to define belonging.

So, as we reflect on our deepest aspirations, we have to look outward, to the society and culture we live in, our workplaces and organizations, our nations and peoples. We have to find ourselves there, not working to merely make ourselves rich, or happily married, or as a powerful captain of industry, or the world’s wisest philosopher.

My greatest hope is that we can make the transition to a postnormal world before the sins of the fathers doom us, and our best hope is to find purpose and meaning through fluidarity.

And to return to where we started, what drives us? We are motivated by many drives, all at once. Like nearly everything these days, everything is happening at once. In business, we all need to understand the myriad drives bubbling at all times inside all people. Increasingly, as businesses relax into a fast-and-loose orientation based on pull, following, and autonomy, many of the traditional barriers to gaining self-esteem and self-actualization through work are reduced as well.

But businesses — increasingly operating as connectives comprising individuals working together — need to confront the world, not just compete in it. The reason for businesses to exist can no longer be simply to increase the return on investment for shareholders, and putting aside considerations of the people working, or their impacts on the world in which the business operates. In a real sense, every business needs to take on, first — as elements of the company’s operating credo — the goal of working to help its people fulfill their drives for mastery, autonomy, and the respect and connection with those with whom they work. And finally, knowing that we live in a world in trouble, those leading our businesses going forward will need to operate more like benefit corporations, who explicitly have social aims as well as the goal of making a profit. This must be a cornerstone of postnormal business and management.

This must become a social movement, an awareness of our essential and inescapable fluidarity: a distributed, decentralized, discontinuous effort, guiding our thinking, decisions, and reasoning, so that our striving for love, belonging, safety, success, and self-actualization has as its final consummation the opportunity for others to strive, as well, and world put back in balance.


Derived from an earlier version published at stoweboyd.com on 12 May 2013.

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