What Psychology Can Teach us About Setting Goals

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about goal setting and ambition. It’s essentially my nature to do so. After all, I am a Slytherin, and we are a naturally ambitious group of people (and the green house color works well with my complexion, which is an added bonus). 

To put it another way, I’m a goal-setting geek. Not only am I constantly attempting to take on some new project or learn a new skill in my personal life, but it’s a topic that I spend a significant amount of time researching in my leisure. 

One of the trends that has stood out to me in recent months comes from what I’ve been seeing on Instagram. I recently created an Instagram account for BlakeWrites since we didn’t really have a presence there (be sure to give us a follow), and on that account, I’ve primarily followed accounts related to entrepreneurialism, fitness, fashion, and creativity since those are the topics that we write about most often here on BlakeWrites. 

As a byproduct of following those accounts, Instagram’s algorithms try to suggest similar accounts to me on the explore page that seem to have a lot in common. They all seem to be obsessed with:

  • Easy ways to make money.
  • The alleged habits of billionaires.
  • Reasons it’s better to be an investor than a CEO.
  • Sales hacks to get people to buy more and more of your products.
  • Lists about why you should be ashamed of working for someone rather than being your own boss.
  • A general misunderstanding of the movie “Wolf of Wall Street.”
  • The same quote about having a hobby to make you money, a hobby to keep you fit, and a hobby to help you learn… over and over and over and over and over again.  

Frankly, it’s tiring. These are accounts with tens of thousands of followers for making graphics that are the most surface-level pieces of advice imaginable. At this point, I suppose I’m something of a broken record, but I want to reiterate that anything that promises to make you money quickly or that is advertised in a “smart people always do this” type of way is not going to be worth it. Get rich quick schemes are schemes that benefit the people who set them up, not you. 

But, my rants about exploitation and MLMs aside, aside from the types of content these accounts are always promoting, the theme of these accounts always seems to be this: success means making a lot of money. If you follow these accounts or see their content, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. The richest person is always the most glorified according to their posts, and we should aspire to be like that person.

While I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting to accumulate wealth or enhance your income, I find it to be quite short-sighted from a perspective of goal setting and ambition to make “accumulate wealth” your primary objective in life. From all that I’ve researched (and experienced), I find that money is only satisfying up to a point, but wealth is unfulfilling as a form of self-actualization. Let’s hop back into your high school psychology class to talk about why that is. 

The Hierarchy of Needs

Anybody who has taken an introductory psychology course is likely familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In this ideological framework, which is often represented as a pyramid, Maslow posits that human needs can be broken down into roughly five categories. Four of those categories represent deficiency needs, which are needs that arise due to deprivation and will grow stronger the longer they are deprived: physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging needs, and esteem. At the top of the pyramid is the only growth need (sometimes referred to as a being need) Maslow included, self-actualization. As described on Simply Psychology, “Growth needs do not stem from a lack of something, but rather from a desire to grow as a person. Once these growth needs have been reasonably satisfied, one may be able to reach the highest level called self-actualization.”

Generally, we are often taught to think about this hierarchy as being strictly ordered. We need to fulfill the needs at the bottom of the pyramid and work our way upward. Though this model of thinking is in many ways outdated and incomplete, it provides a very clear framework for understanding how we develop our motivations as individuals. 

Maslows Hierarchy of Needs graphic

Physiological Needs

At the bottom of the pyramid are physiological needs. These can be thought of as our most basic needs for survival as a species– food, water, and respiration.  I know that may come as a surprise, but without being able to eat, drink, or breath, humans die. If someone is not able to satisfy these needs, their ability to pursue other endeavors is going to be incredibly limited. 

Safety

Safety takes physiological needs a step further by considering preservation. At this tier in the hierarchy of needs, we are looking at factors that not only ensure that we are able to continue meeting our basic physiological needs, but that we do so in a sustained way that provides further insulation from having those needs unmet. In our modern world, employment could be thought of as the paradigm of this stage in the hierarchy– with meaningful employment, we often feel a sense of safety and security since being employed means having an income, which is typically the key to having the resources to protecting yourself (which is why job loss is so scary and difficult). 

Love and Belonging

As social creatures, we need to have meaningful connections with other humans. Friendship and family create further security for us since it means having a support system that can act as a sort of safety net. On top of that, human collaboration is at the crux of advancement across all of history. Our prehistoric ancestors knew that working together as a tribe and hunting in packs meant taking down bigger prey or being safer against the most dangerous threats; our caveman brains still hold onto this idea of community-derived enrichment. 

Esteem

Esteem includes things like confidence, achievement, and having mutual respect for each other amongst our peers. You can survive without these things, but when you lack them, you’ll find that being deprived of them will weigh on you heavily. Much like the “safety” tier helps to solidify your attainment of the needs in the tier below it, esteem functions as a way of seeing yourself as an integral member of your community, which further solidifies your sense of love and belonging. 

Self-Actualization

At the very top of the pyramid is self-actualization, the only growth need in the hierarchy. This is where we start to invest in creativity, aspiration, problem-solving, and intellectual and spiritual endeavors. To put it another way, self-actualization is where you unravel your purpose in life– you respond to a higher calling. Here I should note that I’m not referring to your “higher calling” in a strictly religious sense. I think that having a higher calling is about recognizing that you are a part of a social organism much larger than yourself and that you have unique transcendent potential that can enrich your own life along with that of the larger social structure. 

Too Many People Never Reach Self-Actualization

Getting back to the Instagram accounts in my feed that have been bugging me recently, what I’ve realized in recent months is that what I dislike about them is that they don’t seem to aim high enough for me. Wealth as a motivator doesn’t appeal to me because it lacks purpose. Having money for the sake of having money or being the most wealthy can meet your four deprivation-based needs, but it cannot transcend into self-actualization. 

I’ve often observed that the people who are most obsessed with the pursuit of money are constantly frustrated. No matter how much money they accumulate, they’re always hungry for more. I suspect that this is because the pursuit of money is their core endeavor and it’s difficult to say that you are fulfilling your purpose when your purpose inherently cannot be fulfilled; the pursuit is always going to be ongoing. 

It’s not the fact that I find wealth to be a rather shallow goal that bothers me about these kinds of posts. Instead, what bothers me is that they create a narrative that is incredibly misguiding and I fear that they exploit vulnerable people. For someone living in poverty, or who grew up in poverty, the idea that they should pursue wealth at all costs is an incredibly powerful one. As I said, having wealth can mean having all four of the foundational stages of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs be met. If you spend an era of your life hungry and unsure of where you’ll lay your head at night, it can seem like there’s nothing quite as satisfying as being able to confidently declare that you’ll never be hungry again. 

Unfortunately, the accounts that push these narratives also tend to push incredibly risky business and investment ideas as the key to achieving this sort of wealth. They encourage viewers to try taking short cuts, banking on improbable hypotheticals, and leveraging what limited resources one may have as a means of getting started. These types of personal enrichment efforts often have the exact opposite outcome– they can further indebt and disadvantage the people who are the most vulnerable against such forces.  

There’s a mentality, especially amongst those interested in entrepreneurship, that taking risks is the only way to get to the outcome you want. And while life and business are certainly full of risks, it’s important to recognize that not all risks are the same. Coming from a background in higher education, I often think of it in terms of for-profit education; sure, some people can be quite successful with an educational experience at a for-profit school, but the truth remains that these institutions often disadvantage students more than they help them. 

(Quick Aside: I could probably write an entire series of articles just on my thoughts about the for-profit education system, but I’ll sum up those thoughts by saying this: if you’re in a position where you feel like a for-profit school would be your only option for receiving an education, please be sure to explore local community colleges first. You’ll get a higher quality and less-risky education in a two-year community college program where your credits will almost definitely transfer to a state school than in a for-profit environment that tries to sell big promises of graduating early.) 

Instead, I think what’s healthiest for all of us when it comes to gauging our own ambitions is to actively take each of the stages of the hierarchy of needs into consideration. When you’re trying to figure out what having purpose looks like for you, think of the hierarchy as a sort of checklist that you can run through to determine how sustainable those goals are going to be for you in the long-run. 

  • Do your goals ensure that you’re able to meet your basic physical needs? 
  • Are your goals high-risk or do they lend themselves to stability and security?
  • Will your goals allow you to maintain or enhance your relationships with your immediate circle of influence? 
  • Are your goals something you can be proud of within your community? 
  • Are you able to invest in your ongoing growth, development, and self-expression? 

If you’re able to answer yes to each of these questions, then there’s a good chance that your ambitions are aligned with the hierarchy and will allow you to fully work toward self-actualization.