May. 4, 2015

Musing on Maslow's Hierarchy

You remember Abraham Maslow. He’s the guy who told us that human motivation was layered and that until we took care of things immediate to survival (air, for instance), food and shelter were unimportant. And once starvation and exposure were solved, relationships and achievement and “self-realization,” took our attention in that order.  Even if it feels a little oversimplified these days, it still makes huge sense.

I first learned of Maslow’s Hierarchy in the early 70’s in a military school. It was as though my eyes were pried open. Suddenly I understood my immigrant (step) grandfather and his intense commitment to family. A commitment and interest that never went further than that—relationships. Those kinds of aha’s can feel important, empowering. Cool.

Then—50 years later— along comes this:

“The ultimate source of happiness is within us,” said the Dalai Lama in an announcement about the [book] deal. “Not money, not power, not status, which fail to bring inner peace. Outward attainment will not bring real inner joyfulness. We must look inside.”

Archbishop Tutu added: “Sometimes life can be challenging and we can feel lost. But the seeds of joy are born inside each of us. I invite you to join His Holiness and me in creating more joy in our world.”[1]

Not the first time I’ve heard these thoughts. I’ve studied Buddhist tenets at shifting levels of intensitity, for nigh on 30 years. But then sometimes old stuff can strike you a peculiar  way. I remembered the images 0f the Buddhist monk burning himself to death on a street in Saigon. Didn’t he have air, water, food, shelter, friendships, etc., pretty well squared away? Either, it seems to me, Maslow was missing something fundamental or the monk was psychotic.

Or something else is going on. Perhaps the monk had transcended the first four levels of the hierarchy and was now operating at a level of motivation that put the well-being of his fellow humans so far ahead of himself that his idea was to draw attention to their plight, dramatically. There is a recognizable element of of Western “courage” in that choice that most of us reflexively respect.

Or maybe he skipped the hierarchy altogether. While one usually goes through the Maslow’s stages to the point where growth stalls out, perhaps it isn’t necessary. Perhaps, when one senses,“the ultimate source of happiness is within us,” stages in the heirarchy aren’t as compelling as they once were.

Here is a related anecdote. I'm not sure how all the dots connect but I'm certain they do. From Sharon Kong, on Quora about what happens to ultra-smart children later in life.

What happens to ultra-smart children?

I don't know very many stories about ultra-smart children, so I can't speak for all of them. I only know the story of one man, so that is the one I will share. It has a happy ending, I think.

Kim Ung-yong, the 'Forgotten Genius'

He held the Guinness World Record for highest IQ at 210 [1]. He could absorb languages like a sponge-- not just rote memorization but also thoroughly grasping grammar and nuance. At age 3, he was attending physics lectures at Hanyang University. He could read Korean, Japanese, German, and English by the time he was 4. When he was 8 he was invited to the U.S. by NASA, where he earned his masters and PhD at Colorado State. Afterwards, he worked as a nuclear physicist and researcher at NASA for 5 years until the ripe age of 16, upon when he suddenly wrapped up his life overseas and returned to Korea.

To everyone's curiosity (and dismay) he enrolled in a 'no-name' university and studied civil engineering. He originally couldn't even apply for university because he'd never graduated from high school, and had to get his GED. He was an ordinary office worker for a while and gradually faded from the memories of the Korean populace.

His own thoughts are as follows... (from an interview)

"Sorry, but I am not a genius. I just happened to learn things a little faster than others. Learning things more quickly doesn't mean that you go further in life. [2]

"After I returned from the states, I chose my school and my workplace as I pleased. What I'd studied in the past was for destructive purposes, but my new major (civil engineering) was to create useful objects that had never existed before, and I enjoyed that. My current workplace is the same way. However, the things that brought me happiness incited a different reaction from the rest of the world. No matter how often I said "Right now, I am happy," others told me, "There's no way that's possible." If I say, "I am satisfied in my work," they respond with, "Why would you even..." I was called a genius in the past, and it seems that that means I must be a professor at Harvard or Yale. I will say this again: I am happiest right now." [3]

The interviewer still didn't get it. "But why did you throw it all away?"

"To become happy. Even when I was in the U.S. I heard that I was fairly talented. But I didn't know what I was talented at. All I did was solve problems and equations like a machine. For one division, there were more than twenty different research labs, but you'd never even know what was going on in the room next to yours. Secrecy was most vital, and any important milestones were attributed to those in superior positions. Perhaps the most problematic thing was that there was no one to listen to the small voice of a young boy. I could see no escape. I wonder, now, if there were similarities between the recent suicide of the KAIST students and my situation back then." [4]

Personally, I don't believe Kim threw anything away. He let go of something that he didn't want and didn't need in order to grasp hold of something better. The simple joys of a normal life. He could have become almost anything he wanted to be, and he chose happiness.

Today, Kim Ung-yong is 52 years old, and recently fulfilled his dream of becoming a full-time professor. He lives a quiet life, staying out of the eyes of the media and investing in the young minds of his students.

"When I am kicking around a ball with my son, or getting a drink with my colleagues after work... That is when I am the happiest." Kim Ung-yong.

This week I'm going to visit my new grand-baby twins. That should be fun but I am informed by Mom and Grandmom that there is some work involved. While there, I will visit with an old friend who co-founded the Founders (brewery) Beer Imbibe and Discussion Group. I expect that we will renew the practice with great joy.