Reaching our personal peak (Part 1)

Nov 04, 2019

No one wants just a job, and no one wants to live in “quiet desperation.” As leaders, we can help employees sidestep burnout.

Are you motivated to give more, grow, and prosper, but instead find yourself dreading Monday? What about your team? Neither of you are alone.

There’s an ever-increasing number of employees and high-achieving professionals who are unfulfilled, and it’s taking a toll on both life and business.

No one wants just a job, and no one wants to live in “quiet desperation.” As leaders, we can change this. We just need to adjust our focus, see what’s new, and aim higher.

Deeper than a headline. Finding fulfillment at both work and in life is complex. It takes personal initiative, drive, and outside support.

This four-part series is not intended to just inspire us to begin living a more full and focused life with the hope things will also change at work. This is written for leaders who care and want to win at the office, with their employees, and beyond.

My goal here is to connect “work-life” dots so that leaders will be inspired to design systems and processes to transcend the status quo, and in the process become more relevant, effective, and successful.

New era. Welcome to the New. The old ways are no longer working. Conventional thinking about work and life is not only ineffective today, it has resulted in damage and loss to both individuals and to organizations.

There is a growing epidemic of burnout, disengagement, and missed opportunity in the workplace. More and more professionals and other high achievers are forced to live with frustration and untapped potential, while others are leaving or preparing to leave successful careers, to pivot away. Maybe it’s because work is consuming just too much time – leaving us with very little energy for other things. Maybe our careers don’t provide us the growth and excitement they once did. Or, maybe we are just at the point in life where we want more – greater meaning and purpose and more fulfillment. No matter the reason, something’s gotta give. Individuals, organizations, and even industries are struggling, trying to make sense of it. We all need an answer. And it’s not just trying to hold steady for one more year.

New goal. The proceeding two paragraphs represent the reality faced by talent and a dilemma faced by leaders.

The goal for top talent today is to win at both work and life. And success is as much about effectively “integrating” as it is about “balance.” The question is: How best can this be done?

The first step is to understand what’s missing.

New peak. Even if not fully understood or able to be articulated, most people want more out of life today. It’s not just about comfort, satisfaction, or happiness. It’s about joy, contentment, living our best lives to the best of our capabilities, and being meaningful contributors to something greater than ourselves.

The problem today, however, is two-fold. First, our time, our energy, and our headspace is often consumed by work. This leaves us physically, emotionally, and mentally drained and unable to live a full life. Second, we have lost sight of our needs and what ultimately motivates us as people.

When reminded, most of us readily recall and agree with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs.

The full hierarchy is illustrated in the image below:

A summary of each need is presented below:

  • Physiological needs: Basic biological needs for our survival and proper functioning, including water, food, clothing, shelter, warmth, and sleep.
  • Safety needs: Security, protection, stability, freedom from fear.
  • Belonging and love needs: Social needs for connection, friendship, trust, acceptance, and intimacy.
  • Esteem needs: Self-esteem and respect, status, and recognition from others.
  • Cognitive needs: Need for knowledge and understanding, meaning, and predictability.
  • Aesthetic needs: Appreciation for beauty, order, balance, form, and function.
  • Self-actualization needs: Realizing our full potential, becoming our best self, and seeking personal growth and peak experiences (i.e., experiencing life and the world with feelings of euphoria, joy, wonder, and praise).
  • Transcendence needs: Being motivated by values and visions beyond our personal self and self-interests, living in an enlightened state, and taking action to love, support, and advance others with compassion, sympathy, empathy, and purpose.

As a reminder, the first four stages are defined as deficiency needs in that being “deficient” in one or more of them will motivate our behavior in order to satisfy them, even if our method of doing so can harm us over time. Gratification in fulfilling these deficiency needs is often only short-term.

The second four stages, on the other hand, are attributed to our – and our employees’ – desire to grow and realize long-term happiness. We feel unfulfilled when one or more of these growth needs is unmet.

Although we can be motivated by different needs simultaneously, can move back and forth between different needs depending on our circumstances, and some needs can take precedence over others at any given time, we generally need to sufficiently satisfy a lower-stage need before moving on to the next level.

So, what’s missing? For many of us, it’s transcendence and being a meaningful contributor to something greater than ourselves.

Individually, we can begin today to seek a new peak and achieve greater levels of growth and enjoyment along the way.

As leaders and organizations, we have a bigger decision to make. This is the subject of Part 2 of this series.

The life, career, and organization you thought was too good to be true is not. Welcome to the new.

Peter Atherton, P.E. is an AEC industry insider who has spent more than 24 years as a successful professional civil engineer, principal, major owner, and member of the board of directors for a high-achieving firm. Pete is now the president and founder of ActionsProve, LLC, author of Reversing Burnout. How to Immediately Engage Top Talent and Grow! A Blueprint for Professionals and Business Owners, and the creator of the I.M.P.A.C.T. process. Pete is also host of The AEC Leadership Today Podcast. Pete works with AEC firms to grow and advance their success through strategic planning implementation, executive coaching, performance-based employee engagement, and corporate impact design. Connect with him at

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