Unique Human Needs: Certainty

Not long after I began my career in organizational learning and development, I came across a list of “unique human needs” compiled by Tony Robbins.

I remember thinking, “Well, there it is, the roadmap for my work with adult professionals.”

I felt a strong sense of assurance at 29-years-old that my unfolding career would always make sense, would always be “on purpose” if I could stay close to this list. That is, if I could assist leaders and teams in creating and sustaining environments in which these needs were consistently met.

Over two decades of work I know that I have stayed close to the list as a guide for my endeavors. What I don’t know, and what is so difficult to measure, is how effectively I have helped my clients to build and sustain those environments. We’ve known some clear victories, some painful defeats and, most of all, lots of that messy middle ground where we’ve bounced between the highs and lows together.

That the work has been full of challenges and contradictions is an understatement. That it remains rewarding beyond measure is a fact.

As I continue to move through my own experience of liminal space, I am energized to spend this week working with one element of Robbins’ list each day, and sharing a brief reflection on what it means to me.

Here’s the list in its entirety followed by a brief reflection on the quality of “Certainty.”

Unique Human Needs

1. Certainty: assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure
2. Uncertainty/Variety: the need for the unknown, change, new stimuli
3. Significance: feeling unique, important, special or needed
4. Connection/Love: a strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something
5. Growth: an expansion of capacity, capability or understanding
6. Contribution: a sense of service and focus on helping, giving to and supporting others


Part 1: Certainty

My relationship to “certainty” today is nothing like it once was. Since I have dedicated my professional life to working with change I long ago catalogued certainty as simply a fantasy of the misinformed. Of course, I was wrong to think of it that way, but that impulse suggests something important about an old pattern of polarization.

There was a time when certainty – control – was the warmest blanket I could find and I wrapped myself in it as a shield against connection, pain and loss. That my work is so decidedly focused on the opposing aspiration – to thrive in the face of change – speaks to how deeply engrained I was in the old pattern and how I am still working to find comfort in the relationship between the two.

I remember feeling certain when I finally married my wife, Theresa. I am more certain of the strength of our relationship today than I have ever been.

I remember feeling certain about my commitment to my children, their birth days a revelation to me of the capacity for human love. I am more certain today of that love, through so many painful lessons, than I have ever been.

And I remember feeling certain nearly seven years ago, as uncertain as I was, that my new endeavor as a sole practitioner would not only be successful but would open doors I didn’t even know existed. On both counts I was right and it is such a pleasure to be able to say so.

The early days were interesting however in that the aforementioned Theresa had understandably gotten used to my biweekly paycheck. While she never expressed serious doubts, she occasionally voiced her need for reassurance that there would, indeed, be a check in the mail someday soon.

Finally, a couple of years in, when those checks were coming in repeatedly if not consistently, I suggested to her that she could feel certain that I was on the right path in my career and that we were on the right path as a family because of it. It was a moment in which I could say with confidence, this is working and will continue to work.

Today, I do not say that I am certain my business success will continue unabated because, in fact, it has not. And I do not say that I am certain of any specific future outcome regarding clients, family, health or anything else for that matter. To do so at any level would be wishful thinking at best.

What I am certain of has grown simpler; more refined, and sets the parameters for how I choose to live my life. Here’s a brief list:

I am certain that hard conversations lead to an easier life.
I am certain that exercise makes me feel sane.
I am certain that poetry helps me reimagine myself and the world in which I live.
I am certain that I can rely on a small group of extraordinary people I am blessed to call family and friends.
I am certain that I am not alone.
I am certain that I will always reload a poorly loaded dishwasher.
I am certain that I feel more fulfilled by holding a book than by holding a phone.

And I am positively certain that if I am going to be at my best for my clients, my wife or my family than I must always be at my best with and for myself.

Twenty more years on, I imagine it will be an even simpler list. For now, this.


cropped-fire-photo.jpg