Revisiting Maslow's hierarchy of needs and setting your circadian clock

Friday Brainstorm S2 E6 🧠

Hi friends,

Happy Friday! As promised in the last issue, I launched a learning club to bring together the community of Friday Brainstorm readers. More details below!

Here’s what you can expect in this issue:

  • learning club on framing complex ideas 💡

  • reimagining Maslow’s hierarchy of needs ⛵

  • phase shifting your circadian rhythm 😴

Let’s get into it.


Learning club on framing complex ideas 💡

I’m really excited to announce the launch of Framing Complex Ideas, a peer-driven learning club for the Friday Brainstorm community.

Learning goals

We will be exploring theoretical and practical tools for distilling and transmitting complex ideas so that readers deeply internalize them. To get a taste for the types of readings we’ll be discussing, check out these sections from earlier newsletters:

Apart from discussions, there will also be optional weekly challenges such as:

  • take an explanation you really like and remix it for a different audience

  • flesh out a novel metaphor to describe an idea you're curious about

On a collective level, we'll be thinking about how we could build tools to help writers search for resonant ideas (analogous to SEO tools for marketers).

Who should sign up

My personal motivation for starting the club is to improve as a science communicator. Ultimately, I hope to bring together a group of 20 curious people that want to level up as communicators and are open to a community-oriented learning experience.

If you have a purely theoretical interest and have no plans for applying any of the ideas and techniques into practice, this club is probably not for you. That being said, writers at any stage are welcome - even if you’ve haven’t published anything yet!

Structure and commitment

The learning club will meet weekly for 5 live sessions over the course of a month, tentatively beginning on Thursday, February 4th at 8PM EST (exact schedule TBD).

The live sessions are the minimum commitment for a participant, but we’ll also have optional sessions to share what we've been working on or to continue our discussions.

Payment details

Joining the club will cost $20 for Friday Brainstorm subscribers. I want to be clear that all proceeds will be donated to a charity of your choice (email me).

I’m only attaching a price tag to the club as a commitment device so that people have more motivation to follow through and participate for the whole month. If paying the fee would be a financial burden to you, let me know and we can work it out.

If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, check out the full description!


Metaphors for Maslow’s hierarchy of needs ⛵

Scott Barry Kaufman’s book, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, is a bold revitalization of Maslow’s misconstrued hierarchy of needs.

Kaufman draws on personal journal entries to contextualize Maslow’s work with who he was as a person — his worries, motivations, and undying optimism for humanity.

After having a debilitating heart-attack, Maslow spent the last years of his life anxious that he wouldn’t have time to finish perhaps his greatest contribution to the world. The theory of transcendence, or going beyond reaching for your individual potential and being motivated primarily by a calling outside one’s self, was never completed.

Kaufman picks up where Maslow left off, unraveling the mysteries of his unfinished theory, and integrating these ideas with the latest research on attachment, connection, creativity, love, purpose and other building blocks of a life well-lived.

The book is structured around an elegant metaphor that Kaufman introduces to more precisely represent Maslow’s intention for the hierarchy of needs.

Hierarchy of needs as a pyramid

If you’ve ever taken a Psychology 101 course, you’ve likely seen a version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a pyramid.

The idea is that the lower needs in the hierarchy must be satisfied before you can attend to the higher up needs. For example, this would mean that you can only get to the “love and belonging” stage if your “safety” needs are taken care of.

You might be surprised to learn that Maslow never represented his hierarchy of needs as a pyramid. “Maslow’s pyramid” was actually created by a management consultant in the 1960s and became popular in the field of organizational psychology.

The pyramid from the sixties told a story that Maslow never meant to tell; a story of achievement, of mastering level by level until you’ve “won” the game of life. But that is most definitely not the spirit of self-actualization.

The metaphor of a pyramid puts the focus on the ordering of the stages, whereas Maslow conceived of the hierarchy in a completely different way. He grouped the needs into two classes of needs: deficiency and growth.

  1. Deficiency needs are motivated by a lack of satisfaction (e.g. lack of food, safety, affection, belonging, self-esteem) and driven by fears, anxiety, and demands.

  2. Growth needs span the spirit of exploration, selfless love, and finding purpose.

With this categorization in mind, Kaufman introduces a new metaphor:

The human condition isn’t a competition; it’s an experience. Life isn’t a trek up a summit but a journey to travel through—a vast blue ocean, full of new opportunities for meaning and discovery but also danger and uncertainty. In this choppy surf, a clunky pyramid is of little use. Instead [. . .] we’ll need a sailboat.

Hierarchy of needs as a sailboat

Let’s unpack the metaphorical components of the sailboat. The deficiency needs make up the frame of the boat, protecting us from the unpredictability of the seas (or life). Without this foundation, we’d be spending energy just trying to stay above water.

Just having a secure boat is not enough for going anywhere, though. You also need a sail to capture wind (opportunity) to explore and adapt to your environment.

You don’t “climb” a sailboat like you’d climb a mountain or a pyramid. Instead, you open your sail, just like you’d drop your defenses once you felt secure enough. This is an ongoing dynamic: you can be open and spontaneous one minute but can feel threatened enough to prepare for the storm by closing yourself [. . .] the next minute.

In other words, the sailboat tells a different story about reaching your potential — it’s not about a linear journey; there will be serious setbacks as well as periods of immense growth. This seems like a much healthier approach for navigating life and striving to be a more complete person.

Too many people get caught up in insecurity throughout their lives, and stay there, missing out on the immense beauty in the world that is still left to explore and the possibilities for their own self-actualization. We miss the ocean for the waves.

The metaphor used to frame complex ideas has a powerful effect on how people internalize it. Kaufman’s sailboat breathes new life into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and his book provides a science-backed blueprint for applying it in your own life.

I highly recommend that you check out the book.


Setting your circadian clock 😴

The most highly anticipated podcast of 2021 for me was easily the Huberman Lab. Andrew Huberman, a tenured Stanford professor, uses simple language to help you understand how your nervous system operates in the context of everyday life. He also discusses tools and techniques for enhancing any aspect of your biology.

Not only is the content excellent, but Huberman is also taking the podcasting medium in an exciting new direction. Instead of focusing on a new subject every episode, this podcast will have monthly themes so that Huberman can dive deep into a topic area.

The focus in the month of January is the science of sleep, spanning the effects of light exposure, diet, exercise and other factors. What I like most about his approach is that Huberman tries to help you internalize the dynamics of your body so that you can self-experiment and figure out what works best for you, rather than offering quick hacks.

I wanted to share an insight from Episode 2 that’s had a big impact on my life already.

What drives your circadian rhythm?

Perhaps the most powerful driving force behind your cycles of wakefulness and sleep is the circadian rhythm, a 24-hour clock that exists in your brain.

This circadian clock is governed by a few things, the most important of which is light exposure. Think about why this would be the case — the circadian rhythm is an evolutionary adaptation to life on our planet, which goes through cycles of day and night every 24 hours.

When you wake up in the morning, this is because a hormone called cortisol is released from your adrenal glands. This is the “wakefulness signal”, alerting the various systems in your body that it’s time to increase your heart rate, raise your temperature, and generally get ready for the day.

It’s really important that the release of cortisol happens early in the morning, because it starts an internal timer (12-14 hours) for the release of melatonin.

Melatonin is a different hormone that is known as the “sleepiness signal”. Importantly, it is triggered by the onset of the “wakefulness signal” in the morning.

How to set your circadian clock?

In the midst of the pandemic, remote work has made it easier to wake up and go straight to work. This is an issue because we miss out on the time we would have spent outside while commuting to work.

Huberman says that you want to get direct sunlight in your eyes as close to waking as possible, and preferably before 9am, so that your internal clock is set properly.

Light coming in through a window is about 50 times less effective at triggering cortisol release than being outside.

The problem, it turns out, is that many people don’t get enough light in the morning to properly trigger the wakefulness signal and start the clock. As a result, the timing of melatonin release is delayed at night and we have trouble sleeping at a normal time.

How long and when do you have to be outside for? It ranges from 1 minute on a clear, sunny day to 10 minutes with cloud cover. The sunlight intensity also matters.

Huberman also mentions that our bodies respond particularly well to the quality of light emitted by the sun when it’s low in the sky (within a few hours of sunrise). You can still trigger the release of cortisol outside of that time frame, but it’s slightly less effective (but still much more effective than light through a window).

How well does it work? I was a little skeptical at Huberman’s claim that it only takes 2-3 days to shift your sleep schedule if you get proper light exposure in the morning. After trying it for the past week, though, I’m really shocked by how effective it is. Within just a few days of taking walks as soon as I woke up, I had no problem getting up at 7am and going to bed by 11pm.

Huberman goes into far more detail in the podcast, also touching on exercise and diet.

I should also mention that in the first episode, Huberman lays out the foundation and common terms that he will be using in later episodes. It’s little boring, but definitely worth watching.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this issue of Friday Brainstorm! What got you thinking? Anything to add? Let me know by replying to this email.

—Shamay