Unique Human Needs: Contribution

I am energized to spend this week reflecting on Tony Robbins’ list of unique human needs. Here’s the list in its entirety followed by a brief reflection on the quality of “Contribution.”

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 6: Contribution

One of my clearest childhood memories is of riding along with my mom as she delivered food to the elderly and shut-ins in San Francisco as part of her volunteer commitment to Meals-On-Wheels. I remember that one of our stops was adjacent to a market from which I always got a few cellophane-wrapped sesame candies. I remember the smell of the food as not exactly enticing but certainly distinctive. I remember feeling purposeful, that we were doing something important.

Thirty years later I was looking for a way to engage my 6-year-old son and our family in some community service and I came across a Meals-On-Wheels flyer at our church. Those memories of Saturday mornings along 19th Avenue in San Francisco came rushing back and I saw the gift of being able to establish that same tradition with my own child.

I’m proud of the fact that we’re still making those deliveries thirteen years later. Duncan is off to college now and his sisters have since taken his place as co-pilot and navigator. It’s a Berry Family “thing,” a small but important piece of fabric that binds us to one another and to our community.


Tony Robbins classifies the core human needs of growth and contribution as the “needs of the spirit.” What I can’t stop thinking about regarding this final installment on contribution is that it carries within it the possibility of satisfying all of the other needs as well.

To make a contribution is to experience the pleasure of helping others avoid pain, or at least to alleviate it just a little bit.

It is also the manner by which we can immerse ourselves in new circumstances and conditions in order to satisfy our need for uncertainty.

Giving back is clearly a way to feel special and needed, and what better way to achieve that than in service of others?

It is also a means for us to satisfy our need for connection and to express love. To make even a small sacrifice so that another person’s life might be better is a pretty good definition of the everyday goodness of love when you think about it.

In addition to satisfying these core needs there are some other very real rewards of giving back. Among them are happiness, good health, cooperation and gratitude.

It may feel out of place to think of making a contribution as personally rewarding, that we should only give from a place of self-sacrificial concern. But that intention is so idealistic that it becomes restrictive.

What if we could just agree that making a contribution, giving of ourselves freely and generously is the most potent and compelling way to satisfy the needs that we all share?


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Unique Human Needs: Growth

I am energized to spend this week reflecting on Tony Robbins’ list of unique human needs. Here’s the list in its entirety followed by a brief reflection on the quality of “Growth.”

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 5: Growth

When I first went to see a therapist my cover story was pretty thin. To her inevitable opening question – “So, what brings you here?” – I gave her my well-rehearsed reply, “As a professional coach I think it’s important to tend my own garden so I can be most helpful to other people.”

This was a valid intention, just not an honest one. “I’m doing it for them” has a noble ring to it, its thin veneer a convenient way to mask the truth that I was in a lot of pain. And being in pain, I was afraid to talk about it because I knew I would have to feel it more before I could feel it less.

That pain was a tangle of old and unresolved stuff, mainly about abandonment, that reared up in full toxic force in the first years of fatherhood. I experienced deep feelings of anger toward my young son, feelings that both frightened me and filled me with shame. I knew that I had to figure out where all of that negativity was coming from, my initiative newly motivated by the fear of a future estrangement.

Thankfully, at that time I was in the company of new colleagues who were relentlessly encouraging of my growth and who had the insight and experience to normalize the idea of therapy as a powerful tool for meaningful change.

In the list above, Tony Robbins describes Growth as an expansion of capacity, capability or understanding. 

Through my work with a therapist I came to understand capacity as having room to consider the needs of others from their perspective rather than through the lens of my own. In other words, I had more empathy because I had more emotional space.

I came to understand capability as an enhancement of my ability to notice more about myself and others. I was sharpening my lens, getting better and better at anticipating and responding to my internal impulses while more quickly attuning to the externally expressed needs of others.

I came to appreciate understanding as an awareness of the complex dynamics that are always present in team and organizational settings. Seeing more allowed me to be more helpful and productive in all domains of my life.

My growth through therapy helped me to become a better team member, a better leader, a better coach and consultant and, most importantly, a better husband and father.

As it turns out, the garden metaphor was an apt one, especially from the perspective of preparing for the winter months. In that case, a hard pruning is required before any new growth can appear. It can feel brutal to employ the shears so aggressively but until it happens the old growth will remain as a barricade to the new growth that finally emerges.


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Unique Human Needs: Significance

I am energized to spend this week reflecting on Tony Robbins’ list of unique human needs. Here’s the list in its entirety followed by a brief reflection on the quality of “Significance.”

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 3: Significance

I may have backed myself into a corner on this one. When I first had the impulse to do a series on these unique human needs I didn’t anticipate the kind of reflection it would ultimately require. I also didn’t think through the hard truth that sometimes, perhaps a lot of the time, I/we might need some of these needs a bit too much.

It’s not much of a stretch to envision someone needing too much certainty. We recognize that kind of person as being a bit anxious about new things, a bit more conservative in their decision-making. It’s also easy to imagine the person for whom uncertainty is the primary source of satisfaction. We recognize them as going out of their way to test limits and take risks, perhaps without consideration for other’s tolerances. While we tend to romanticize that person, they often end up oversimplifying their identity by holding on too tightly to one way of operating in the world.

For me, for a very long time, that was all that could be said of my relationship with significance. And while “significance” is a concept that I both admire and enjoy considering, the additional descriptive of feeling important or special hits home in a less admirable way.

Being special was always my hiding place, an overcompensation for all of the ways I felt unwanted, unoriginal and inauthentic. No one made me feel that way; it was just my version of an adaptation to the harsh realities of a broken family. That adaptation got expressed in lots of positive forms of “standing out” but it also made me quite vulnerable to those who weren’t up for heaping on the praise. I paid little attention to those who sincerely admired and believed in me, and focused all too much on those who seemed indifferent or even critical.

Overcoming my addiction to specialness – getting back to significance – has been, with no exaggeration, the most challenging and important developmental gateway of my adult life. It took me years of focused work to reorient myself, to understand that it was okay to need to feel significant, just not okay to need to feel so damn special all the time!

Today, what I most recognize and enjoy about significance is that others – be they students, clients, friends or family – are more than willing to celebrate my efforts when those efforts originate from my best or higher self. That higher self is focused on creating value for others through the particular contributions I am uniquely qualified to make.

When I operate from that place, significance takes care of itself.


food colorful sweet bear

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Unique Human Needs: Uncertainty

I am energized to spend this week reflecting on Tony Robbins’ list of unique human needs. Here’s the list in its entirety followed by a brief reflection on the quality of “Uncertainty.”

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 2: Uncertainty

How fitting that this list begins with a contradiction so perfectly descriptive of the human experience! We don’t want certainty, we need it. And we don’t want uncertainty, we need it!

We need the known and the unknown, the predictable and the unpredictable, the reassuring and the exhilarating. All of this is subjective to our own preferences, of course, but the degree of need does not change the fact that we long to live in the world in two distinct and complementary ways.

When I launched my business in 2013 my son was 13 years old. I explained to him one day after school that I had quit my job and would be going to work for myself. He rejected the notion, explaining that I was “supposed to have a job.” I was stung at first, assuming I’d get an enthusiastic response instead of a rebuke.

What I didn’t appreciate until later is that my fairly sudden change of circumstance hit him as a wave of uncertainty. In the already uncertain period of adolescence he was experiencing, my career change was a threat to the stability and safety to which he had grown accustomed. At a time of dramatic personal change, my professional change only added to his stress.

What I remember feeling in those tentative early days of my new endeavor, and what my son helped to punctuate through his reflexive reaction, was the feeling of being wrapped within a paradox of both certainty – confident that I had made the right decision – and uncertainty – but, how exactly is this going to work out?

The tension between these two qualities continues to remind me of the early days of parenthood, certain of my love for each of my children and certain of my commitment to their well-being, with the exciting and unnerving uncertainty of all of the forces beyond my control.

This dynamic is also lived out in organizational life every day. Team members need the reassurance of a clear company vision, predictable resource availability, thoughtful plans and capable teammates, while also needing challenging assignments and new learning opportunities to feel fully engaged.

As I reflect back on my career what I notice is that I appreciate the experiences of certainty I was able to enjoy – steady income, long-tenured and trustworthy teammates, healthy economic realities – but it’s the periods and moments of uncertainty that had the most to teach me.

When I was laid off from an early job with a start-up, Theresa and I didn’t have much in the bank and our son was just a year old. I was provided a seven-week severance payout and was employed again in six weeks. And not just employed but given a chance to join the company from which I can draw a direct line to every professional opportunity that came after.

What I learned is to never be ashamed of my circumstances and to ask for help as quickly and openly as I can. Doing so opened up a path to that new role in a way that never would have happened if I had failed to let my network know that I needed their help.

A few years later, my aspiration to become an accomplished speaker tucked neatly and quietly into my pocket, the CEO of my company declined a speaking engagement and encouraged me to take his place. I heartily agreed, though my false confidence was reduced to abject fear when I learned that my audience was to be a group of Navy admirals and Marine Corps generals.

After flying cross-country to a prestigious executive education school and getting settled in my room, I called home to tell my wife that under no circumstances could I pull this off. I was overwhelmed with anxiety, barely able to sleep; completely certain that my speaking career would both begin and end on the same day.

Spoiler alert: I survived. And as the uncertainty I felt about my capability to deliver in a high-stakes situation receded in the coming days, I pocketed another degree of confidence and a deeper commitment to preparation. That would never have happened if I had demurred.

These stories remind me that the experience of uncertainty is primarily painful in the anticipatory stage and dramatically uplifting after the fact. In both cases, the drama of the circumstances led to the experiential knowledge that I could achieve outcomes I did not dare imagine being possible.

Today, at a time in my life where the allure of certainty grows only stronger, I am working hard to counter its influence. I want to try new things, learn new skills, meet new people, all of which will force me to confront the uncertainty of not having done it before, not knowing how to do it and maybe even meeting people who don’t think and act like me! Oh, no!

The thing is, I know I’ll be the better for it, just like I’ve always been.


night building forest trees

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It’s ok to say, “Yes!”

At the Crater Lake gift shop my daughter said, “Dad, do you like these socks?”

“I do like those!,” I said.

“Would you like me to buy them for you?”

“No, honey, that’s ok. But thanks for offering.”

But as I browsed the stickers I kept thinking about those cool green hiking socks she picked out for me.

So I went over to the sock section and looked them over again. And I changed my mind.

I really did like them and she made me a kind offer so I let her know that I would accept, if that was still ok with her.

And she said that it was. “But I don’t have my money on me, dad.”

“That’s ok, we’ll work out later on.”

I’ve spent plenty of unproductive mental energy in my life wishing people would pay enough attention to me that they know what I like and then act on it.

On my better days I speak up for myself. I let people know what I want and, more importantly, what I need. On my worse days I get stuck in the wishing well, chants of “poor me” echoing off of its narrow walls.

My daughter noticed me and acted on it. I chose to receive her gift. I chose to say, “yes!”