Why Can’t Some People Achieve Greatness?

Table of Contents (click to expand)

Abraham Maslow addressed the motivational drive to success and other needs through his hierarchy of needs theory. Maslow broadly categorized human needs into deficiency needs and growth needs. When humans fulfill their deficiency needs, they can then aim for success.

What if you had to choose between a well-paying job or an opportunity to chase your dreams? However, you would be poor until you achieved that dream.

What would you choose?

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Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs

Abraham Maslow created a five-tier model to explain human motivation. (Photo Credit : Elnur/Shutterstock)

Abraham Maslow addressed what motivates people through the hierarchy of needs theory. So, whether you choose a high-paying job or chase your dream, the answer lies in the pyramid and where you find yourself in it.

His basic pyramid has five levels with each level signifying a need. He based these needs on broad categories of deficiency needs and growth needs.

In simple terms, think of it as a game. You cannot move on to the next level if you have not unlocked the previous one.

So what are these levels? Where does success lie in these five levels? Let’s find out.

Deficiency Needs

  1. Physiological needs

Physiological needs are the basic physical needs for survival. They are the need for air, food, water, sex, homeostasis and shelter. Air, water and food go without saying. The need for furthering our species through reproduction is also a primary need for many.

The vector banner of Maslow's Hierarchy of need topic, that is theory of human motivation with 5 levels
To be successful in life, you must first unlock the lower order needs and then think about success. (Photo Credit : Hugethank/Shutterstock)
  1. Safety Needs

After our physiological needs are satisfied, we work towards our safety. Safety needs offer protection from any physical harm, a need to live in a safe and organized environment where there is law and order.

This also covers financial security. The need to have a job and be financially independent is a part of safety needs. Paying for health insurance or having savings that can protect against an unforeseen situation is a response to the safety need.

  1. Need for belongingness

The third need that emerges is the need for love, affection, trust, friendships and a need to belong in society. Humans are social beings and we cannot exist in isolation. The general social progression in the human lifespan is to find a mate after achieving some financial security.

  1. Esteem Needs

Here we can see a progression towards higher-order needs and is the point where we can start thinking about success.

Once we’ve met our lower-order needs, a sense of accomplishment, respect and fulfillment begin to matter. This is the level where status, class and prestige start playing a more important role in a person’s life.

These needs are further categorized into two subsets: from oneself (respect, independence, dignity) and from one’s society.

Success is a subjective term. For some people, it consists of gathering wealth and displaying it with a flashy car or a marvelous home. For others, being happy and fulfilled equates to being successful. Yet for some, managing their daily needs is also a form of success. Then there are a few who define success as what they can do for humanity as a whole, and not just themselves.


  1. Self Actualization

There are some people who move beyond the materialistic and egoistic definition of success. They are able to realize the highest of their potential in their respective field. They benefit the lives of not only themselves, but are able to help the masses.

Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and any other individual who has achieved their fullest potential in their respective field is known as being self-actualized. This is not pertaining to any specific field, but any field that you excel in, may that be science, literature, music, sports or spirituality.

However, very few people actually become self-actualized. Why? It is not easy to meet every other physiological need before moving on to the higher-order needs. According to Maslow, for most cases, the lower order needs must be met.

Think about it… would you think about abolishing world hunger if your own family was going to sleep hungry? No. You would first want to fend for yourself. Does that mean that progression from one level to another is rigid? Also, no.

Also Read: Is Feeling Inferior Actually Good For You?

New Additions To The Growth Need

Maslow's hierarchy of needs, A Theory of Human Motivation
Abraham Maslow has added three more growth needs-cognitive needs, aesthetic needs and transcendence. (Photo Credit : dizain/Shutterstock)

Maslow made several revisions to this theory over time. He added three more growth needs: cognitive needs, aesthetic needs and transcendence. Cognitive needs deal with curiosity, exploration and inquisitiveness. Aesthetic needs deal with appreciation of beauty and form.

Transcendence, which tops the pyramid, now shows the ability of a human being to rise above every personal need. There is a complete sync between the internal and the external world. A person has realized his goal of being alive. Such people are usually philosophers, mystics, or saints.

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Also Read: Can We Use Psychodynamic Theories Even Today?

Exceptions To This Theory

Is it always important that a person meet the deficiency needs before moving on to the growth needs? Can success only be achieved if you are well-fed, have a good house and are respected by society? Maslow agrees that this is not always the case.


Look at the life of Vincent Van Gogh. He lived in acute poverty and his paintings were not as well recognized as they are now. He never received appreciation during his life, but still continued pursuing art. Safe to say, he was very much self-actualized in his chosen field. He did not follow the step-by-step level to reach the top, yet he is now regarded as one of the most gifted artists of all time.

This shows that every theory does come with its own set of exceptions to the rules. Some people value respect more than love, again breaking the hierarchy. The needs of every human being on a growth level are not the same. What you define as success may not be success for someone else. Still, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs gives a plausible explanation as to why some people simply cannot be as successful as others.

How well do you understand the article above!

Can you answer a few questions based on the article you just read?

References (click to expand)
  1. S McLeod. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - Canada College. Cañada College
  2. Mathes, E. W. (1981, October). Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as a Guide for Living. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. SAGE Publications.
  3. A theory of human motivation. - APA PsycNet. The American Psychological Association
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About the Author

Anupriya is an English and Social Studies teacher at Jamnabai Narsee School, Mumbai. Besides her interest in Literature and Social Sciences, she spends her time reading finance articles and binge watching historical drama series on Netflix. She aspires to be an author.