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What Do You Actually Want & What Do You Absolutely Need?

Anthony Bourdain, Chester Bennington, Kate Spade, Alexander McQueen. People who had so much but chose to leave this world by their own hands.

Photo by (in order) Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images, Burak Cingi/Redferns, Andrew Toth/FilmMagic, Mike Marsland/WireImage

Death by suicide is probably the extreme other end of thriving. As a person who has been clinically depressed, I can tell you that the depressed state does not make sense to people who have notbeen through it. I was in medical school (NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine), a prestigious career path waiting for me. I have wonderful parents who supported me through my music and career dreams. I’ve had loving relationships and friendships all around me. Why would I have ever thought of wanting to end my own life?

I have been driven to figure this out for the last 6 years, and I believe I have found the root.

Scarcity Mindset

It is two words that mean nothing on its own if we do not go into the details of it, which is why I am going to share with you the story behind it.

Now, scarcity mindset is the reason that many of us feel like our lives are at risk every day; that our survival is constantly under threat. It causes us to go into a state of fight or flight whenever something does not go the way we want. It is almost as if we are spoilt brats.

It is important to note that this fight or flight response evolved in our brains as a means of dealing with potentially life and death situations, such as seeing a predator. But in this day and age, we are rarely facing such situations. Instead, we go into fight or flight over getting a job, talking to our boss, talking about our political affiliations, losing our phones, or over social media posts.

When we go into fight, we often become competitive, adversarial to others. When we go into fight, we focus on one thing and hoard it as much as we can. This is the reason why people keep chasing down achievements, accolades, money, social status and grades, and yet never seem to be satisfied. When we go into flight, we run into cocoons of addictions, such as gaming, social media, Korean and Taiwanese soap operas, dysfunctional relationships; or at worst, we sink into depression, and eventually death.

When the average person today lives a more luxurious life than that of a king in the 18th Century, why do we still have scarcity mindset? Shouldn’t we be all actualising, turning into calm, collected rational people, rather than the judgemental, depressive society that we see today, riddled with scarcity mindset?

The answer is simple, and clichéd, and probably said a million times. It simply is that we confuse what we NEED with we WANT.

But hold on! Let me explain! There is a slight twist to this, of course.


Let us not just call it “what you want”, but this thing called satisfiers. Satisfiers are measurable, tangible things that people believe will satisfy their needs, as the name suggests. And it should make sense that satisfiers satisfy us, but it’s a little bit more complex than that.

And to understand this a bit more, we have to go into where the concept of needs, wants, and satisfiers started; Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

How many of you have heard of, seen, or studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? And how many of you have actually had the opportunity to read his original paper, or read his book called Motivation and Personality? We are not taught what went on in the articles even though many of the economic, psychological and governmental models were developed from derivations of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

So, Maslow wrote his first article aimed at what made people actualise — which is to be the best version of themselves. A Theory on Human Motivation was published in 1943 to present his hypothesis about it.

But what else happened in 1943?

World War 2. The famous war where a specific group of people were robbed of what they needed, and were sent to concentration, or death camps.

That was where people started jumping onto the bandwagon, using Maslow’s model to explain the atrocities and confirmed his model on human needs. And this is when the modern version of Maslow’s model was really formed, expanded by everyone else. And that, is what you see on Wikipedia today. And if you had read the Maslow’s paper and his book, you would realise what we see today is very different from his writing.

It has been reduced to its satisfiers, not the needs. For example, under physiological need, Maslow’s Hierarchy now says, food, water, etc. However, the problem is that these are not needs, but satisfiers. One of the needs is nutrition, which can be satisfied by things like a burger or bowl of mixed rice. Nutrition can also be satisfied by an IV drip, where nutrients are pumped right into your body. A satisfier is different from a need. We do not need food, but it is a very good satisfier. If not, those people on a juice detox would drop dead within a day.

And so, if we confuse satisfiers with needs, we would often go into fight or flight whenever someone takes a satisfier away from us. It feels like someone is robbing us of our ability to survive because we need that thing — but we do not.

This is when we need to explore it a bit further with a story.

So, I helped this man named John (clearly not his name) with his anxiety. Now John is a billionaire, where he inherited it from his family. He was traveling all around the world, and had basically what could seem like the most carefree life in the world.

However, he was suffering from insomnia, anxiety and overall paranoia. He felt that he could not trust other people, and that everyone was out to use him for his money. He felt like his life was meaningless, that he was getting bored even when he was living the dream that everyone else was having. He could not understand why. In his mind, he was always thinking about making more money and getting out of this boredom.

He had all the symptoms of high functioning depression. Which means that he had many of the symptoms of depression, but his responsibilities and successes kept him going and functional. He kept repeating how he had to do things for his family, and how he needed to prove his value to his family. Meanwhile he would regularly go on exotic holidays in search of something to make life more meaningful, often feeling emptier when he comes back to Singapore.

His fight?

To prove his value, to earn money for the family, to achieve the societal achievements that solidified his value in his family.

His flight?

Literally 6 months of travel a year, away from the stresses of his responsibilities for his family, an attempt to buy his way into happiness.

When I dug deeper into the moments that he actually felt satisfied, it mostly revolved around relationships with people — moments where he was not valued because of his background or his money, but for John himself.

What was John really looking for?

He was looking for something fundamental — intimacy, being understood and accepted as who you are. He felt most alive in an amazing conversation with someone who understood his point of view. He felt most alive when he could not spend a single cent to enjoy himself with someone who he just enjoyed being with. He was not receiving intimacy from his family, and he did not know how to get it because it was not something he knew he needed. Instead, he fought for his place in his family, or flew away to other countries and experiences to escape his worries.

The fight or flight came from John mixing up satisfiers with needs. John mistook money and success as his only way of gaining intimacy with his family. He also mistook traveling as a way of satisfying him. He tried clubbing, music, drugs, achievements, and a whole host of other things and nothing seemed to have satisfied him for longer than a day. No matter how much he chased the satisfiers, they did not satisfy him.

Replace his satisfier with a job, sex, the latest iPhone, romantic relationships, success, grades, gold medals or social media validation, and you can see why people have scarcity mindset. Satisfiers, no matter what they do, cannot satisfy you unless you generate the satisfier yourself.

Yes. Generating the satisfier by your own means is the only way you can actually satisfy yourself.

What do I mean by generate a satisfier?

Because of my interaction with all people like John that I desired to figure out what made people feel truly satisfied. I then used Maslow’s Hierarchy, theories in developmental psychology and what I learnt from my interest in positive psychology and sociology to develop a new way of looking at human needs. And being the geek that I am, I named it the most specific name I could give it, BioPsychoSocial Needs, or BPS Needs.

What I did with BPS is distil it to talk only about the needs, how we need it, and how satisfiers can fulfil our needs.

There are 5 levels of fundamental human needs. Biological, Ownership, Morality, Existential and Impact Needs. I’ve split them into biological, psychological and sociological needs as you can see. I will be mainly covering the first two, biological and ownership needs to explain this.

Let’s begin with the most basic of all, Biological Needs.

Like I mentioned above, we need to twist Maslow’s Wikipedia model just a bit. There are 3 main categories of Biological Needs, Nutrition, Health and Intimacy. Nutrition, which includes different types of food, water and even sunlight. Health, in the form of hygiene that protects us from the elements of nature and diseases. Intimacy, where a baby would literally die from lack of love. There is also research to prove that people who do not get physical touch and empathy are more likely to develop depression.

And from there, we go to our first level of psychological needs, which is ownership needs. Ownership is defined as the skills you own and are proven to generate satisfiers for your biological needs.

At this level, most people think that a job, which can be a satisfier, will surely satisfy our needs. We often believe that simply getting the satisfier equates to addressing one’s needs, but this is definitely not the case. At the end of the day, until our minds can recognise the value of the satisfier, the satisfier won’t satisfy us.

There are three main areas of ownership needs — survival skill, valuation of skill, and experience of success. For example, I have a survival skill called playing bass, a survival skill. I value it by its value in a social context. Meaning, I knew how much I earned per gig and the intimacy with the audience and musicians I gained from it. To satisfy the experience of success portion, I survived on music for more than a year, and got great friendships out of it. This makes playing bass an effective satisfier. The satisfier is a skill that I own that is proven to help me survive, and generates satisfiers for my biological needs.

Usually when people go into scarcity mindset, it is often because they have not satisfied their ownership needs — it means that we will react to everything that could potentially threaten what you deem as a satisfier. It could be a terrible boss, threatening our jobs, it could be losing our phone (which did not exist 30 years ago), it could be just someone attractive talking to our partner.

When we do not generate our own satisfiers, we will always be dependent on external things. Even if we have all the resources in the world, we would feel empty because we didn’t generate the satisfier ourselves. The only way to be empowered, to be confident, to thrive, is when we are fully capable, and have had success generating our own satisfiers.

In Conclusion

Many people today keep seeking purpose, and “what they want in life” through seminars, conferences, entrepreneurship, spiritual retreats. If they were successful, many people would have been fulfilled, enlightened and actualised by now. Instead, the emptiness we feel is ever present — we never generated our own satisfiers. We have either have depended on other people’s definition of needs and satisfiers, or never really discovered what our needs are and how to generate the unique satisfiers that makes us feel fulfilled or at peace with who we are. We need to generate our satisfiers because only then would we gain from those experiences, for many of these activities listed above, they can only serve us when we have settled our first two levels of needs.

I hope that this has inspired you to find out what your needs are, and how you are going to generate your satisfiers, for that is the best way for all of us, to grow out of scarcity mindset.

I presented my theory on Scarcity Mindset at TEDxPickeringStreet 2018.



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Ethan Seow

Ethan Seow


Trainer, Speaker, Author, Musician, Ex-Medical Student. Ethan is a mental health maverick focused on helping people gain clarity about their thoughts