I was watching a Conan O’Brien interview with Jud Apatow (writer/director/producer connected to pretty much every huge comedy blockbuster of the last 10 years) and they were discussing the “neediness” behind their talent. Conan mentioned that when he was young he realized that making people laugh was one thing he had going for him to get people to like him, so from then on he put all his effort and energy into developing that skill. To this day he says his self esteem hangs on every joke, and when he doesn’t feel like he did well, he goes to a “very very dark place”. Jud Apatow related to Conan’s experience of desperately needing to be able to make people laugh and the underlying anxiety that no one would give a shit. And then Conan posed a great question – Would you change it, if it could make you happier?
I believe behind Conan’s question is the assumption that, while his insecurity and desperation often torture him, it’s also given him the motivation needed to acquire his level of success. Conan was referring to this conflict specifically with comedians, but I think that it’s so much farther reaching. In fact, I might argue that anyone who has found great success in one area or another, got there by trying to compensate for some insecurity. I think at the core of us all is a fundamental need for love and connection, and along with that comes a fundamental fear/insecurity we all share – the fear of not being loved and accepted.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow came to a similar conclusion after studying some of the most accomplished people in history in an attempt to understand human motivation. From his research, Maslow developed his famous hierarchy of needs which includes physiological needs, safety, love/belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization.
According to Maslow, the needs at the bottom of the hierarchy must be met before a person can move on to feel motivated in meeting higher level needs. While I agree with Maslow’s hierarchy, I think that the need to love and be loved might have a particular dominance in human psychology. After all, there are many examples of people who sacrifice their basic needs for love, and research has shown that deprivation from loving connection leads to an unmatched level of psychological disturbance. In fact it was Maslow’s colleague, psychologist Harry Harlow, who conducted the famous studies on the effects of isolation on monkeys. He found that when monkeys were raised without connection to other monkeys, they exhibited severe disturbances in basically every area of functioning.
Similarly, studies of over crowded and understaffed orphanages found that infants who were deprived of loving connection early in life were also prone to serious social dysfunction. Now over 50 years later, neurobiology is validating that healthy development of the brain is literally dependent upon loving connection with others (for more on this look into the work of Daniel J. Siegel).
I believe that because our need to love/be loved is so vital to our happiness and healthy development, that we also have a deep fundamental fear of not being loved and accepted. I think our desire to fill this need and our fear of being deprived from it might be the single most motivating factor in people’s lives (whether conscious or unconscious). From this core need/fear springs all of our strengths and our weaknesses. Just as Conan realized that being funny might be his ticket to love/acceptance, someone else might think it’s their ability to earn money, their looks, their athleticism, or their intellectual ability.
It’s easy to believe that the more successful a person is, the more sure of themselves and confident they must be, but I think there’s often a positive correlation between a person’s success and their insecurities. The more insecure they are, the more motivated they are to protect themselves from that feeling of being unloved. However, I think that these insecurities can simultaneously be someones biggest ally and biggest enemy. On the one hand they are propelling us forward, and motivating us to do our absolute best. On the other hand, they are also always getting in the way, paralyzing us in some ways, and holding us back -because we’re operating from a place of fear.
Take Conan for example: His strong need for acceptance motivated him to work on his comedic skill to an extent that propelled him to great success. But if his self-esteem still hangs on every joke, how can he perform his best with that much anxiety involved? If he could let go of the fear, I would imagine he would gain the confidence, freedom, and courage to take risks comedically that might bring his performance to the next level. Hence Maslow making love/belonging and self esteem necessary steps towards self-actualization.
While fear is an excellent motivator, I don’t think anyone can reach their fullest potential when operating from a place of fear. I think that when we are motivated by warding off this fear of being unloved/ not accepted, we sometimes go so far that we forget what we really wanted in the first place. I would imagine that if Conan desperately needs to make people laugh in order to feel loved and accepted, he might be one of those people that’s “on” all the time (and from some of the stories they were sharing in the interview that seems accurate). However, that type of personality can quickly exhaust people and soon turn them off. So even though the original purpose of developing the skill of making people laugh was to gain love and acceptance, too much focus on the skill can come at the cost of the original purpose. Another example would be someone who is motivated to develop financial success because they think money will be their key to securing love and acceptance, but then they get so caught up in earning money that they neglect their personal relationships and drive people away.
The fact that Conan even has to ask the question “Would you blank, if it would make you happier?” is interesting to me. Shouldn’t it be obvious? Isn’t happiness the whole point? Is there any thing else that trumps happiness? And yet I know the answer doesn’t feel that simple. Why is that?
I guess the take home point is that we all share an important need to feel loved and accepted, and with that comes natural fear and insecurity. True self-actualization and true success requires conquering this fear, but I think very few actually achieve this. I wish I had the secret for overcoming this fear myself… but unfortunately I do not. Maybe it has to do with spirituality, realizing a higher purpose, becoming more altruistic and less self-involved, etc.
Maybe that’s another post for another day 🙂