A Writer’s Hierarchy of Needs

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Do You Have What it Takes to Climb the Pyramid of Literary Success and Become a Self-Actualized Writer?

Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs | Image from Simply Psychology

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow. The hierarchy, comprising a five-tier pyramid, explains the connection between basic human needs and motivation. I have adapted this scale to consider what needs writers must satisfy to move their dreams of writing success up the charts. In order to progress to the top of the pyramid (in this case reach our full potential as writers), we must meet the basic human needs at each rung from the bottom up. As each need is fulfilled, we move up the ladder. We must satisfy all five levels of needs in order to successfully meet our writing goals. Check out where your writing needs fall on the ladder of success, and assess what you can do to reach your writing dreams.

A Writer’s Hierarchy of Needs

Physiological needs:

These are the underlying needs we can’t live without: food, water, rest, sleep, oxygen. We can’t spin out a good writing piece if we’re hungry, thirsty, tired, or sleepy. Here’s where the Holy Grail of self-care comes into play. Nutrition, sleep, and exercise comprise the Trifecta on which all successful writing depends. And we must learn what Italians call “il dolce far niente”—roughly translated “the sweetness of doing nothing.” Doing nothing is like the pauses that are integral to a beautiful piece of music. Without absences of sound, music would be just noise. Doing nothing provides an incubation period for our creative mojo to hatch and balances our craft with the other areas of life: play, relationships, and spiritual needs. Which of your basic needs are squealing for attention?

Safety and Security needs:

We all need to feel safe. Whether that be physically, psychologically, financially or job security and health. We need a secure and safe writing space free from distractions or threats. Some writers require a quiet workstation at home. Others prefer a space free of clutter while others prefer some clutter so the writing space doesn’t feel like a museum. Some scribes yearn to be outside with a view of nature to be inspired while others prefer headphones blasting Lady Gaga. If the light is too low or temperature too cold or hot, we won’t be able to knock out that bestseller. Do you have writing environment issues that need modifying?

Love and Belonging needs:

If we tried to collect all the tears shed by writers, they would fill an ocean. We all need a shoulder to cry on when faced with rejection and heartbreak. But in the isolating and lonely writing world, we need a writing tribe that understands the ins-and-outs of writing where we can unbutton ourselves with like-minded folks whose knowledge we can trust. Connection to a larger community of writers—a writing group, a class, online support group, or network of writers at literary conferences—provides a sounding board where we can have emotionally honest talks about craft or obstacles and bounce off creative ideas. The support of a writing tribe keeps us from giving up and motivates us to keep moving up the ladder toward our goals. How would you rate your needs for love and belonging as a writer?

[Develop Daily Writing Resilience to Succeed]

Self-Esteem needs:

We all want self-respect and to be respected by others. This includes self-esteem, confidence, and a sense of self-achievement. But we must be prepared for critical reviews, some brutal, and be able to read them without bawling or taking them to heart. Here’s where rejections cause many aspiring scribes to throw in the towel. They believe that booming critical voice in their heads that agrees with the critics: they don’t have what it takes to be a writer. To offset your inner critic from getting in the way of your creativity and stopping you in your tracks, I advise talking yourself off the ledge with a heavy dose of self-compassion. Give yourself pep talks and affirmations and remember that negative reviews are part of the writing process, not personal attacks that define you as a human being. It’s important to be able to separate the two. Can you think of other actions you could take to improve your self-esteem needs?

Self-Actualization:

This is the highest rung on the pyramid. At this level, we realize our full writing potential, perhaps even publishing success, and it differs from person to person. The common theme of a self-actualized writer is the resilient capability to accept failure and success equally and remain confident in their creative abilities. Resilient writers cultivate the mindset that writing setbacks happen for them, not to them. They welcome writing rejections, no matter how painful, frustrating, big or small and envision mistakes as lessons from which to learn. They ask, “What can I manage or overcome here?” or “How can I turn a roadblock into a steppingstone?” They are creative risk takers unafraid to stretch beyond customary bounds. They are masters of self-correction, good problem solvers focused on solutions, and skilled in following what they believe. Eight qualities beginning with the letter “C” indicate if we’ve reached the level of self-actualization. Put a check mark by the C-words you believe you’ve mastered:

  1. An unmistakable feeling of Calm and loss of the ability to worry about the outcomes of your writing efforts
  2. A sense of Curiosity about writing with less interest in competing with or judging your writing colleagues or yourself and more interest in honing your craft
  3. A heightened ability to act from Confidence instead of from past rejections or failures
  4. A satisfying Connectedness with the writing community and with yourself versus isolation from others
  5. An overwhelming sense of Clarity and direction about your writing ability and future literary goals
  6. An increased susceptibility for Compassion for yourself and other writers with an interest in mentoring and supporting them and you through writing’s hard knocks
  7. Greater Courage to face writing’s ups-and-downs on its terms instead of yours and to let unknown situations happen instead of making them happen
  8. Frequent bursts of Creativity and unrestrained joy.

Take a few minutes to figure out what level you’re on in the hierarchy of needs. Make a plan that moves you farther up the ladder of literary success and then take action.


Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D., is author, psychotherapist, and Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He has authored thirty nonfiction books including such popular self-improvement books as: The Art of Confident Living (HCI Books, 2009), Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians who Treat Them (New York University Press, 2007), Don’t Let Your Mind Stunt Your Growth (New Harbinger Press, 2000), Overdoing It: How to Slow Down and Take Care of Yourself (HCI Books, 1992), and Heal Your Self-Esteem (HCI Books, 1991). His latest book, The Smart Guide to Managing Stress, was released in April, 2012.



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