Lessons on motivation from the odd friendship of Maslow and Frankl

BY: Susan Fowler

PUBLISHED: July 26, 2023

Initially posted on SmartBrief, July 26, 2023

I’ve always been fascinated by unexpectedly fruitful friendships throughout history. Take the bond between Albert Einstein and Henry Ford that teaches us the value of mentoring. Or how a cross-generational creative collaboration like the one between the late great Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga can keep you relevant. (I even appreciate how photos of unlikely long-term companionship between animal species remind us how the need to belong transcends differences.)

Recently I was surprised to discover that two men whose philosophies I’ve compared and contrasted for years to help explain modern motivation science had a relationship where they did the same thing during their lifetime. We can all benefit from the relationship between Abraham Maslow and Viktor Frankl.

Viktor Frankl and modern motivation science

Are you one of 16 million who have read Viktor Frankl’s classic book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”? The Library of Congress listed Frankl’s book — which he poured out in nine days, weeping as he wrote in an empty room with windows blown out by the war — as one of America’s ten most influential books.

I read Frankl’s book, now translated into 52 languages, over forty years ago. And, perhaps like you, his heartrending description of surviving and thriving in a WWII concentration camp irrevocably changed my life. Inspired, I championed self-leadership: taking the initiative and accepting responsibility for getting what you need to succeed. Tens of thousands worldwide have taken courses learning how to challenge their assumed constraints, activate their points of power and be proactive.

Today, Frankl still influences my work. I point to him in both my books as the ultimate example of applying motivation as a skill. He mindfully recognized his autonomy despite the most controlling circumstances imaginable (choice), felt a sense of belonging even as he faced the worst of humankind (connection) and grew by exploring suffering as a means to learn (competence).

I’m astonished at how, in his struggle to survive, Frankl intuitively created the choice, connection and competence that motivation science has empirically proven to generate optimal motivation and the vitality required to flourish. Motivation science posits that meaning is a by-product of fulfilling those three foundational psychological needs. Wow.

Busting the mystic of Maslow

On the other hand, I’ve never resonated with Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In my 2014 blog, “What Maslow’s Hierarchy Won’t Tell You About Motivation,” I justified my opposition to the world’s most popular theory of motivation because it was never empirically proven.

In Maslow’s defense, his work on psychological needs helped shift motivation research away from Drive Theory based on biological needs. Maslow would be pleased with the progress since his passing in 1970 — just as Edward Deci began his groundbreaking work on intrinsic motivation and the three foundational psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence empirically proven by self-determination theory fathered by Deci and Richard Ryan (and the core of my work).

But the real reason I discounted Maslow’s assertion that lower-level needs such as shelter must be satisfied before you can experience self-actualization was Viktor Frankl. Frankl experienced optimal motivation without any of his lower-level needs fulfilled. He hadn’t jumped through a hierarchy of hoops he had no control over to reach self-actualization.

What Frankl told Maslow

I spurned Maslow while embracing Frank. I couldn’t imagine the two had anything in common. Until now. While organizing my office last week, I discovered a Parabola magazine published in 2017 with an enlightening interview of Frankl’s grandson, Alexander Vesely. 

Reading his account of interactions between two of the deep thinkers of their day, I realized that in their own ways, Frankl and Maslow were both searching for meaning and insights into human nature. They shared an insatiable curiosity. And they were willing to let go of outdated ideas to consider alternate possibilities.

Vesely describes Frankl as “always being open to new ways of seeing the world and experiencing himself.” But it was this interaction between Vesely’s grandfather and Maslow grabbed my attention:

Abraham Maslow, in his “hierarchy of needs,” said that once basic needs (food, shelter) are met, then the intangibles such as love, meaning, and self-actualization can be fulfilled. But my grandfather disagreed. He told Maslow how people did not have their “basic” needs met in the concentration camps, but it was the “higher” needs (i.e., meanings, love, and values) that proved to be much more relevant to their chance of survival. Maslow revised his ideas and said, “Frankl is right.”

What?? I needed to investigate further. It turns out that toward the end of his life, Maslow had doubts about his model — especially self-actualization as the pinnacle of motivation. In his personal journal, published after his death, he added a new top tier to his hierarchy: the need for self-transcendence. Why?

Maslow’s conversations with Frankl had taken root. Frankl had told him:

The real aim of human existence cannot be found in … self-actualization. Self-actualization is not a possible aim at all; for the simple reason that the more a [person] would strive for it, the more [they] would miss it. … In other words, self-actualization cannot be attained if it is made an end in itself, but only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.

Frankl described self-transcendence as a primary motivation characterized by four shifts. (Wong)

  • A shift in focus from the self to others.
  • A shift in values from extrinsic motivation, such as materialism, to intrinsic motivation. (The activity itself is the reward.)
  • A shift to the moral concern of doing what is right.
  • A shift to an emotion of awe that contributes to life transformation and inspires others.  

What we can learn from Maslow, the man

I still don’t support the veracity of Maslow’s take on motivation as depicted in his famous hierarchy. But I’ve gained three new and significant insights from Maslow’s interactions with Viktor Frankl.

  1. Maslow chose to challenge his model, connect to the power of contributing to the greater good and develop competence by questioning, listening, learning and revising his life’s work. His enlightenment is a testament to the three psychological needs for choice, connection and competence at the heart of the motivation science he helped nurture in the early days.
  2. Maslow and Frankl were an odd couple with different approaches to their work.  But they shared a common purpose for seeking the truth about the nature of human motivation. Their collegiality reminds us why the people in our life matter — our values are often shaped and reinforced by those we interact with and learn from.
  3. Maslow’s willingness to embrace self-transcendence over self-actualization gives me hope for a world that sometimes needs reminding that we experience our greatest joy when we rise above our self-interests to serve and improve the welfare of others.

After years of disregarding Maslow’s hierarchy, I can embrace Maslow the psychologist, researcher, philosopher and provocateur. Like Maslow, I hope to never stop questioning, listening, learning and revising my beliefs and positions. 

(Image credit: Sylvia Yang/Unsplash Images)

Susan Fowler, CEO of Mojo Moments, is the bestselling author of “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing” Her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals” presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard.

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