The pursuit of career happy-ness

Ope Adeoye 9 minute read

First of all, let me apologize to Bros Maslow, I'm about to repurpose his model a bit. Also, a disclaimer: I'm no researcher or anything, it's just something I have been thinking about a little bit.

So there, that's out of the way.

An African proverb says when you see an old man running across the village square, it's either something is pursuing him or he is pursuing something. In the same vein, in our careers, I believe we are all driven by various unmet needs that we may or may not be aware of. These needs are independent of penalties or rewards of any economic activity we are engaged in at the moment. It's more in our subconscious. Inside inside.

The classic Abraham Maslow pyramid has seen quite a bit of criticism, but the core principle on which it's hinged "feels right". Person wey never chop no dey find how to save the world.

[image credit: Simply psychology]


When these same principles are applied to the question "what makes a man wake up at 4AM in the morning in Lagos to hop 3 hour danfo rides to work everyday", I think the pyramid looks like below:

The most basic needs at the bottom. Think of each one as a pin pricking your ass that makes you jump forward everyday.

Phase 1: The pursuit of survival
If I don't get to work everyday, I cannot guarantee the most basic needs of life and financial independence. Food, rent, transport, etc. When these needs are predominant, you find that people are willing to "take any job". Anything that puts food on the table. Some effects of this is that people apply for generic job titles like "graduate trainee". Or respond to a job posting of X, get deployed to position Y and they'd say "no problem, I'm fine with it". The risk with this is that once the individual settles into the job, they start looking for the next opportunity that better solves the pursuit of survival or can propel them into the next stage. The pursuit of comfort.

Phase 2: The pursuit of comfort
I'll like to stop taking danfo to work and drive my own tear rubber-Honda. Maybe even get a driver. I'll love to move a little closer to work. Once survival is out of the way, these are the considerations we begin to have. This is the most dangerous stage in the pyramid. A guy can get perpetually stuck in this. Human wants can be unlimited and can keep shifting. The financial reward we get from work is applied to getting more comfortable and "settling down".

Phase 3: The pursuit of freedom
Now that I'm fairly comfortable, how do I make sure that this is permanent. Even if I don't work, I should keep making enough to maintain the lifestyle I have. This is usually a mid-career consideration for most people. At this stage, people start to get worried about having enough to make investments, mortgages, passive income, etc. The extra financial reward from work (after sorting out phase 1 and 2 needs) is actively deployed to this pursuit. The main objective is to have enough passive income to cover phase 1 and phase 2 needs.

Phase 4: The pursuit of expression
At this stage, people want to touch the world. Make an impact. Do stuff that makes the planet a better place and gives a "good feeling in the belly". Look at Bill Gates. Look at Warren Buffet. Even Mr Zuckerbag. I'm of the opinion that employers and business leaders need to appeal to this need in a potential hire when recruiting, no matter at which level of employment. It can be a very powerful motivator especially if there's a promise that the most basic needs will not be a problem if objectives are met. The idea of stock options and other non-short-term motivators are hinged on this.

A thing to note is that the definition of what makes up the requirements of each stage depends on the appetite of the individual. To some, comfort might mean living in a 2 bedroom apartment and a 21-inch TV + GoTV. To another, he's not comfortable till he can hang out at an uptown club every Friday and has multiple large screen TVs in his Lekki townhouse.

This is a risk, as our expectations can be very elastic within each phase of the pursuit of career happy-ness. It's best not to let the goal post shift. Or you may be perpetually stuck in that phase. I think that's called the "rat race", abi? Phase 2 is the most notorious for this.

As the good book suggests, contentment can be a very powerful tool for handling this risk. It's worthy of note though, that another school of thought might see this as a lack of ambition. To each, her own.

Before you kick off your career (or even now), do some soul searching, determine upfront what makes up the definition of each stage for you as a person. What metrics will let you know that "yes, I have scaled the pursuit of comfort"? It should be personal and not driven by what Emeka has or where Yetunde is today. Once you have this definition down, it can help to navigate life and career choices on your own terms.

You may even find that when you are demotivated, imagining how close you are to scaling to the next phase may re-energise you or help you to make an informed career shift.

Run your own race. On your own track. At your own speed.