Day 73: Six Basic Human Needs

While I was on the treadmill yesterday, I listened to Tony Robbins’ podcast episode called “Six Basic Human Needs.” For those who don’t know who he is, Tony Robbins is one of the world’s most famous inspirational speakers, business, and personal coaches, and gurus in self-improvement. He appeared in one of my favorite movies of all time Shallow Hal, featuring Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow. Robbins’ Ted Talk “Why We Do What We Do” is number six in the top ten most watched and listened to Ted Talk of all time!


Probably Robbins’ most famous book. Noted: He looks much older now!

His podcast had gotten me thinking about myself. Before we’re going to that, let’s talk about what’s Robbins’ “Six Basic Human Needs.” Although he sometimes calls them interchangeably as “things,” they’re not really things (as in objects). He wasn’t talking about food, houses, cars, or luxury watches. Sure, we need them (especially food) but they are varied across cultures. Robbins was talking about the “true needs as social beings.” They are six “qualities” that fulfill the main purposes that we have to live our lives in the society. To Robbins, these six needs are universal. He also extends his argument to say that the secret to understanding your business counterparts, partners, customers, and so on, is to understand the importance of these six basic needs in their lives.What are they?: Certainty, uncertainty (variety), significance and recognition, love and connection, growth, and contribution.


Okay, after spending an hour listening to it, I felt that this was awesome. I felt that all of these qualifies make perfect sense to me. In addition to the fact that what brought Tony Robbins to come to this conclusion about these six needs was his 30-year-long research on human beings with whom he had interacted regularly in his line of work, he’s also such an inspiring speaker. No wonder people pay a lot of money to his event!

Ok, back to his points.

Let me try to summarize all of these points in a #nonphilosophy way.

We all want a secure job and sometimes hostile to change because “certainty” is what underpins our sense of the continuity — that our livelihood would continue into the future. That said, if everything is all about certainty, we would be bored to death; and that’s why we would like some “uncertainties,” challenges, surprises (that we want), and a wide variety of experience from time to time. There’s an episode of Freakonomics Radio that I had also just listened to that talked about boredom as one of those things that everyone, even the unproductive people loathed. Yet, having job stability and variety in life isn’t enough to most of us. We want to be different, to be unique, to have the “significance” in the society in which we live. This is the need that Robbins argue to underpin the reason why human beings often go out of our ways to search for money and fame, to the point that, as Dalai Lama has remarked, “Man surprised me most about humanity because he sacrifices his health in order to make money; then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health.” But all in all, we want to be able to connect intimately with another human being. There are things that money and fame cannot always buy, and that is the unconditional love and connection with another human being(s). Beyond that, as a species, we need to develop ourselves in order to survive, and that’s where the need for “growth” comes in, which eventually leads to how we think about the growth of another human being through our hard-wired ability to sympathize. We want to “contribute,” because life is about creating meaning which does not often come from what you get but from what you give, including good news to share with your loved ones and things or money you give it away to those who need them.

The best way to summarize this notion of contribution would be in the words of William Shakespeare himself: “The purpose of life is to discover your gift; the meaning of life is to give your gift away.” You could discover your gifts by finding the certainty in your career, or by shaking things around by facing occasional uncertainties, or by finding what makes you special, or by finding the right person with whom you could connect, or by developing yourself — but at the end of the day, if you don’t find the way to give those gifts away, you’d be imbued with the sense of unfulfilling because there’s a limit to all of the above qualities  without your knowing that you life also means something to other people. So, those are Robbins’ “Six Basic Human Needs” in a nutshell.

So, here’s what I really want to write about today, which is my take on these six basic human needs. I agree with Robbins, in principle, that the secret to any productive relationship is the reciprocity between the counterparts in understanding how each ranks these six qualities. You are not going to go well trying to befriend someone who unconditionally believes in challenges by giving him the sense of certainty and vice versa.

Personally, I rank the following:

  1. Contribution;
  2. Love and connection;
  3. Growth; and,
  4. Uncertainty.

As for the other two qualities – certainty and significance – I don’t find them to be important in the way I live my life. Let’s go through them one by one.

1) Certainty. I think the only thing that is certain about certainty is the fact that we are made to believe that which can be certain. I believe that Jean-Jacque Rousseau was right when he made an argument a few centuries ago that the sense of certainty, whether through job security, marriage, or commitment to a certain system of belief, is what the upper-class elites has created to keep the lower-class workers in check. By doing so, the upper-class elites provide the reason for the lower-class to continue to be aspired to want what they don’t need. Take job security for instance, what’s so secure about working long hour on a manual labor every day making money for the upper-class who is benefitting from your labor? Wouldn’t it be better if we’re all living in nature, catching our own fish and planting our own vegetables, so that we could spend time with the people whom we love, with the hobbies that we like, and the with the ideas that we cherish?

The upper-class elites have created the system that makes us feel as though we need to get a job, work hard, and pay bills so that we could forever be slaves for their service. What’s certain about that kind of certainty is the chain around our hands and legs. I also think “certainty” is an enemy of growth. There’re so many brilliant people (some of whom I know) who had stopped working after they’re certain about their “secure job.” For instance, there’s a professor whom I dearly love who has basically stopped working and doing anything academically meaningful after he had received his tenure — or a lifetime contract to teach — from his university. “Certainty,” in this sense, leads to complacency and eventually to smugness, self-satisfaction, self-congratulation, and self-regard.

In his new mega-hit podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the concept of “generous orthodoxy” or the idea that should one want to follow one own sense of morality — what one believes to be right from within — one needs to re-think the role, teaching, and of course, “certainty” associated with the institution that has defined your life. At the end of the day, most of the forms of certainty are associated with conventional institutions which do not change much over time (therefore “orthodox”). The definition of a moral life is the life in which one is determined to be “generous” about being on the side of uncertainty when facing backwardness defined by this conventionalism. I highly recommend that you listen to an entire podcast (there are 10 episodes in general) — especially this episode!

So, certainty is not always good. This was the secret reason why I like Don Draper in the first three seasons of the TV series Mad Men so much — he refused all attempts to get him to sign any permanent employment contracts because he believes that once he’s settled he’s done as an advertising genius.

2) Uncertainty: Ok. this is where I tend to agree with my friend Tony Robbins. In fact, I think the reason behind people’s interest in traveling (which is the umbrella of today’s largest global economic activities) as the German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, once said was to find new experiences in unfamiliar places, just so that the productive uncertainty would be experienced. To me, personally, challenges and variety are one main quality that urges me to still want to get up in the morning. Although I hate surprises in general (like, when my brother sent me a message that my father has just passed away) it would be boring if everything is so certain. I like the fact that there’ll be new things for me to look for in my email inbox every day. There’ll be challenging problems for me to solve on a daily basis. And that there’ll be things that my ability to help to contribute, either to help alleviate or improve, would be appreciated. Because I do not care about getting recognized for any of the achievements but will take full responsibilities for the failure should it help to teach the public a lesson, I feel that my love for uncertainty is intrinsic and is not determined by the outcome. In other words, uncertainty is what I want my life to be challenged with because I believe that which is helpful to my ability to live like a human being who is principled yet flexible, and idealist yet practical.



This was my first visit to MIT (the actual date this photo was taken at the corner of the photo). I was certain then that there’s no way I would ever come back there as a student. There was no possible scenario that which could happen. Financially, there’s no way my family or I would be able to afford the school. Intellectually, there’s no way I would be qualified to be a student there. Geopolitically and in terms of compatibility, there’s no way that a student from a developing country who didn’t speak a word of English like me would be considered admissible to such a prestigious world-class institution. Generous orthodoxy that led to uncertainty? 


3) Significance and recognition: I personally think that this is the quality that shall be suppressed. As I have written about, half of the problems we have in the world have to do with miscommunication. And guess what? Those miscommunications are often, if not always, results of one party wanting to be recognized rather than communicating the message. I have encountered many instances that the communication broke down because one party did not want to accept any messages that weren’t implying that which party was “doing the right thing,” or “operate with a good intention,” or “should be rewarded,” and, the very worst, “so right that this conversation should not even take place at all.” I think Robbins is absolute right that many people want to be recognized and that we should understand this fact in order to make the world a better place through giving these people what they want, namely recognition, but I also I think that we should also try to push it one step further: To teach the world that the need for recognition is a root cause of many problems. Recognition is purely symbolic, and many philosophers including the ancient Taoist master Laozi had reminded us more than two millenniums ago (he’s a contemporary of Socrates) that the more we try to be symbolically recognized something, the more we will lose the grip on what we think it is. This is simply because symbolic objects, thoughts, or qualities cannot be held constant. They change all the time — I mean, literally all the time (and this idea is vivid also in the writing of David Hume about the self).

An attempt to recognizing something symbolic is the same as an attempt to recognize the quality of the water in the creek. The moment you want to recognize how clean and clear the water is, that water whose quality you want t recognize is already running down the steam and the water in front of you is no longer the same water whose quality you want to recognize. You can only compare the general idea of it — the general cleanness and clearness of the water in the creek — which cannot be held constant. As in a person, the moment you want to recognize the quality of yourself, you are no longer the same person whose quality you want to recognize. In my earlier post “16 things I never have,” I wrote about how I have never won any competitions nor received any awards in my life. One of the reasons for my seemingly unrewarding life is the fact that I rarely apply, self-nominate, or get myself involved in anything that would lead to an official recognition.

I just want to add my personal story here. Our brain consists of about 100 billion (100,000,000,000) neurons, which are specialized cells transmitting nerve impulses (also known as a nerve cell). Hey, those are about ten times more than the population of the world today. What if my life is just one of those 10 billion neurons in someone’s brain? I mean, what if everything I have done in life with the hope to leave the mark on this world for people to think of me is just an attempt of a neuron of a person’s brain. And that person is just a person in a world of billions of people. In other words, what all of this — what we know as life — is just a joke? This feeling scares me because it would mean that there is no meaning in any of this thing we call life whatsoever. In order to deal with this feeling, we have to think, do, and act on things as if everything is an end in itself.

4) Love and connection: This is something that is very important to me. Although I think that loneliness is a powerful force in life, I think that a meaningful connection with someone outside of yourself is a true need. Loneliness is a productive space that sometimes plays a significant role in helping you to grow since coming to terms with yourself — the person with whom you would be spending most of your time — is the same as coming to terms with your own reality. Most of the time, although I enjoy spending time with myself, I always enjoy having a fierce critic, a receptive companion, a caring colleague, and a loving family by myself. I might not completely define love and connection as “needs,” as I also believe in a stoic life in which one has to always prepare to be alone and in the state of bare life — which is the state of life from which we come and at which we will eventually arrive.

In other words, loneliness helps us to come to terms with death so that we won’t get so nervous when it’s arriving but caring and connection gives us the meaning so that we would want to prolong the state of living as much as we are healthy enough to reciprocate their love and care.

5) Growth: I think it’s true that in business, one has to “grow or die.” We’re happening to be living in the society in which the market not only dominates the way the economy works but also pushes all of us who are in the system to constantly find our comparative advantage so that we don’t lose our jobs or opportunities to still be in the system to others — or to the machines. I don’t define growth that rigidly. I think growth should simply mean “do better than yesterday.” There’re many ways to do that. As the podcaster Stephen West always says at the end of his podcast Philosophize This!, “thank you for wanting to learn more today than yesterday.” I believe that we must learn from the past mistakes whether that be our own or someone else’s (in which case, we’d call it “History” — maybe that’s the reason why we should all learn history). There is no gift from one stranger to the other that is more special than their experience so that we could live a healthier, livelier, and in general, better life.

6) Contribution: This is a topic for a standalone post! For short, contribution — giving — is the reason I still want to live in our hectic society and among many people who have views on the world that are very different from mine.

I might not like some of their views, but I deeply believe that we are all intrinsically “good” but what drives us to act in the way that is not always good to others or the environment are either ignorance or wrong incentives.

I believe that I could use my skills to improve both conditions: To make people less ignorant and to change their views about incentives. Keeping this blog has been one of the channels through which I try to contribute.


One thought on “Day 73: Six Basic Human Needs

  1. Read some of your posts by accident. ( not really, by your description from your bagel, just received today) I like Certainty and Uncertainty parts. Many things in common.


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