Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is something that I try to make young artists aware of as they begin their lives in the arts. It bears a striking resemblance to the chakra system of Hinduism.
When we start out as young musicians and artists, we have spent a great deal of time in the highest point of the pyramid (Self-Actualization) because we’ve had the benefit of parents or academia to provide the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Once we enter the ‘real world,’ it can create an imbalance in the pyramid if we are worried about the rent bill coming up or lack of ability to pay for lunch on our own.
The romantic idea of the starving artist is something that needs to die, a remnant of the nineteenth century through works of art and literature. Artists are human beings first, and they must see to it that their hierarchy of needs is in proportion. The composers and artists of the past had patrons that supplied the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. That is no longer true in our current modern system.
There is nothing more detrimental to one’s art than housing or food insecurity. The stress and anxiety from this experience can lead to desperation in auditioning and performing that affects how one ‘comes off’ publicly. It creates artistry that is predicated by fear and keeping the wolf away from the door. I once heard a casting director say that they can smell desperation in the room. If you are food or money insecure those feelings are at their peak because so much need is placed on getting the acting or singing job.
This is not to deny the reality of the struggle of many people in pursuing art, but an understanding the importance of Maslow’s levels can go a long way in helping an artist attain balance for the duration of a career. What’s present? What’s missing?
For many artists, our pyramid is inverted. We spend a lot of time trying to get respect for our work and self-actualization while leaving other lower levels out of the equation. For example: do you have a good budget behind you? Financial security gained through good money management goes a long way to give one a sense of stability – even if you’re not raking in thousands and thousands of dollars. As Jesse Mechem, the creator of the budget system You Need a Budget often says, “More money doesn’t solve money management problems!” Getting a good budget behind you will help you feel grounded and a daily inventory on where your money is going. I cannot stress the importance of this for young artists.
Do you spend enough time with supportive friends and family? A musician can often self-isolate which leads to a deadening of one’s social health and wellbeing. Sharing one’s journey with a sympathetic ear can go a long way to relieving feelings of stress and overwhelm.
I encourage all young artists to contemplate how Maslow’s hierarchy maps to their own lives. Where is there balance or imbalance? It can offer a useful self-correction to give one a greater sense of wholism in life.
In the personal sphere, Maslow’s pyramid remains a hugely useful object to turn to whenever we are trying to assess the direction of our lives. Often, as we reflect upon it, we start to notice that we really haven’t arranged and balanced our needs as wisely and elegantly as we might. Some lives have got an implausibly wide base: all the energy seems directed towards material accumulation. At the same time, there are lives with the opposite problem, where we have not paid due head to our need to look after our fragile and vulnerable bodies.
Maslow was pointing us to the need for a greater balance between the many priorities we must juggle. His beautifully simple visual cue is, above anything else, a portrait of a life lived in harmony with the complexities of our nature. We should, at our less frantic moments, use it to reflect with newfound focus on what it is we might do next.