Abraham Maslow created a 5-level theory of human motivation (Psychology Review, 1943) in which he proposed that human needs and satisfaction levels move upwards according to a “hierarchy” of needs. When lower needs such as sustenance and safety are met, we aspire to fulfill social, self-esteem, and self-actualization needs. The chart looks like this:
(The structure of the pyramid itself has been tinkered with over time, for example by Manfred Max-Neef, who sees levels of subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, freedom.) But the core insight remains: once basic levels of fulfillment are achieved, and as long as they remain achieved, we move up the hierarchy in search of broader fulfillment.
What does this have to do with MBA admissions essays, and how does this help those struggling with the MBA admissions goals essay question in particular?
It helps because it provides a quick, reliable guide to the necessary reach of the essay. Too often applicants deal only at levels 2 and 3, talking of security and quality of employment, taking care of family (including elderly or immigrant parents) and developing friendship and contact networks, career progress, and so on.
This is all important. But there is more to say, and Maslow shows the way to it. The rest of your motivation statement should be rooted in levels 4 and 5: how the MBA will take you activities that create self-respect, and the respect of others, what you will create, or solve or build, and why this will be self-actualizing at the highest level.
As I tell my clients: a good career and family security are great things to want, but what comes after that? You don’t need to aspire to save the world, but you do need to reach into yourself and ask: “levels 4 and 5 — what are they for me? What would actualizing myself at these levels look like? And how will an MBA be part of the route that gets me there?”