NEEDS ARE A HARSH MISTRESSScott Byars | January 5, 2016
Actions Are Strategies
If you read my You’re So Damn Needy! article, then you know that being needy isn’t such a bad thing. Evolution endowed us with needs to help us survive and thrive. But those needs are a harsh mistress because they demand all of our attention and all of our action. If we fail to meet our needs we experience some serious discomfort and possibly death.
Knowing this puts us way ahead on the learning curve…but what the hell, let’s overachieve and talk about how we try to meet our needs. Strategies are the ways we attempt to meet our needs and since all of our actions are directed towards meeting our needs – all of our actions are strategies. Easy enough, but let’s go over a few examples to demonstrate the point.
For instance, to meet my need for sustenance, my strategy is to eat. I could choose not to eat – that’s a strategy, too – but choosing not to eat meets different needs. Such as autonomy if I was exhibiting free will during a lengthy prison sentence, or meaning & purpose if I was on a hunger strike as a means to peacefully protest.
Meeting our basic biological needs is relatively straightforward. If we are hungry, we eat. It’s easy to know what to do in that situation and the connections are evident. Food satiates hunger.
Many people believe that our psychological needs are more nuanced and opaque. But as we will soon discover even our more complex psychological needs still follow the same pattern: we experience discomfort and we devise a strategy to make the discomfort go away.
If this seems rote and devoid of emotion, don’t worry we will get to the happiness and well-being stuff in the next blog – be patient.
For now, Let’s take an example of a psychological need. To meet my need for meaning and purpose – and my kids needs for esteem and autonomy – my strategy is to raise my kids peacefully without punishment. I could, however, choose to crate train them… that would be a strategy, but again it would be an attempt to meet other needs. Such as trying to boost my esteem by obtaining obedience or my autonomy because the crate would definitely keep them from being underfoot.
I’m driven to meet my meaning and purpose needs because a life without meaning would probably be depressing and just plain suck. That’s something I want to avoid, otherwise I’d binge watch Jerry Springer. So, I devise a strategy to meet that need – raising my kids peacefully.
Psychological needs differ from biological needs in that we have a wider range of choices when we try to satisfy them. But that doesn’t make them more difficult to understand or less important. We’ll probably not be lying on our deathbed recounting all the meals we’ve had. Instead we’ll be thinking about our relationships and if we are leaving the world a better place for having been in it. Our psychological needs are where we find our greatest joys but also our greatest pain. In fact, as a testament to the importance of our psychological needs, the sorrow from not meeting them can override even our most basic biological drive to survive.
Everything we spend time doing is a strategy aimed at some need in order to alleviate anxiety. Yes, even that seemingly pointless catching-a-fly-with-chopsticks shit Pat Morita had Ralph Macchio do in the movie Karate Kid – all strategies. We didn’t get to the top of the food chain by slacking. We are survival machines and we spend our precious energy in the pursuit of meeting our needs.
But this raises the question: if we spend all of our energies trying to meet our needs, and meeting our needs leads to thriving, then why aren’t we thriving like it’s 1999? Because it’s not a question of working hard. We do that naturally. It is a question of working smart.
The reason we are not all thriving now is because we make mistakes in learning what strategies will meet our needs effectively. Unfortunately, all strategies are not equally effective at meeting needs – that would be too damn easy and take all the fun out of it. We are human and part of being human is the ability to choose a course of action. For a myriad of reasons – which will be the topic of just as many future blogs – we often choose less effective strategies. Hint: we do this – A LOT – even more than we realize.
It helps to think about needs and strategies in terms of nature and nurture. Our needs are our nature, part of our genetic makeup – not chosen. Our strategies are our nurture – they are learned.
So how do we know if a strategy is less effective? We look at the results. Did the strategy satisfy our needs or would another strategy have satisfied them more completely in that situation?
To get my social need met I could paint my face, go to a football game and cheer for the guys in the blue jerseys. Why not? I like blue and I feel like I am part of a group. Or I could make the obligatory call to my parents and talk about how crazy it is that Uncle Bob actually got convicted… this time. I mean who doesn’t shoot their AK-47 in the air at New Year? It’s a funny story and I’d feel like I am part of a family – kinda. Or I could spend time with friends that share the same values and have amazing conversations about real and important things. We cherish each other for who we are now and what we hope to become and feel a meaningful human connection in those actions. Don’t know about you, but I’ll take the last one – because it meets my needs more completely.
It’s easy to see that some strategies are more effective than others at meeting needs when all the choices are laid out in front of us. But in a display of grievous injustice, life usually doesn’t offer up easy multiple choice questions like we are a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. “ Yes, I’ll choose B – meaningful relationships to meet my social needs – final answer.”
If we never learned how to have a meaningful relationship it would be difficult to choose it as a strategy. So we end up painting our face and heading to the game. In turn our needs aren’t met as completely as they could be and we miss out on enhancing our well-being. However, once we learn more effective strategies and choose them to meet our needs, we start down the path to a joyful life that is rich and full and worthy of a karate movie montage. “Wax on – wax off.”