What a Cat Can Teach Us About Needs and Achievements

What a Cat Can Teach Us About Needs and Achievements

How often and under what circumstances are the following thoughts coming to your mind?

“I know myself. I know what I can do.“

“I know what’s important to me.”

“I act in accordance with what’s important to me.”

Above all, why would such thoughts be helpful to reflect on?

Self-awareness of new needs

If you’re unhappy about work or personal life, self-awareness triggers the change in a beneficial direction. Self-awareness is the ability to be aware of your emotions, beliefs, needs, and actions and what others may think of you at a particular moment.

Let me tell you a story about my mom’s cat. He looks like a fit Garfield who is free to roam alone in the neighbourhood. He comes home to eat and sleep.

This Summer, after five years of celibacy, he came back with a family - a she-cat with green eyes, white fur with grey spots, and a kitten that looks like the mother except for the splash of ginger from its father. Ever since he has asked for food more often.

One day, as I placed the food on the designated plate, he sniffed it and then backed away. I was puzzled about why he was not digging in the food as he usually did. Then I noticed the she-cat approaching cautiously. The kitten followed with feeble steps. In the next second, our Tom cat and I were watching over the mother cat and its kitten devouring the food.

Have you ever experienced a situation that makes you shout, “Listen, everyone! I also discovered a wheel.” To me, this was one of those moments. I witnessed a mammal's awareness of the need to feed its family. You know, it’s one thing to read studies in animal behaviour and brain anatomy spotting evidence of self-awareness in monkeys, rats and birds, and a different kettle of fish to see it with your own eyes. So, suddenly, the claim that animals can think felt more valid than ever.  

Like you and me, my mom’s cat reacts to the environment to ensure his survival through smell, vision, and hearing. But, of course, a noteworthy difference between him and us is that we have a higher level of cognition and a more sophisticated system of needs, as A.H. Maslow explains in the 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”, published in Psychological Review.

The physiological needs of food, water, shelter and sleep must be fulfilled for a healthy body. Then the safety and security of a family, career and society are essential for social well-being. Then we enter the realm of psychological needs of love and self-esteem, which are critical to a healthy mind.

How do we keep track of which need is more essential than another and when? For instance, how do you know if your need to have a career surpasses the need to have a family at a certain moment? To this view, self-knowledge helps to set and reach the relevant goals for a satisfying life.  

Self-knowledge of the priority of your needs

One day, our Garfield entered the house where he knows he was not supposed to stay. He doesn’t know that some family members have cat allergies, but he knows his shelter is not in the house. He normally breaks the rule of entering the kitchen to ask for food. So, I tempted him with his favourite dish - sausages.

He pricked up his ears, showed a face of discontent and walked in the opposite direction towards the living room where my kids were playing. It was their company that our Tom cat was after. He apparently needed affection, not nourishment.

For humans, self-knowledge is necessary to decide what needs to focus on. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the understanding of one’s capabilities, character, feelings and motivation”. Self-awareness is closely related to self-knowledge, like the roots are to the stem of a plant. Just like roots absorb the right amount of water and minerals from the soil, self-awareness brings an updated understanding of yourself in a particular situation. Self-awareness arises spontaneously from current perceptions, while self-knowledge requires that you remember how you managed relevant experiences in the past to help you decide what to do in the present.

Suppose someone comes to you with an exciting project. You are aware that you like the project, and you have the right expertise, but you doubt you have the time. Thanks to self-knowledge, you remember that you had similar offers in the past, and you managed to find the necessary time despite all odds.

Also, self-knowledge helps you reflect on what you might be capable of in the future. For example, you may be thinking, “Does this project fit my career goals?”. Then, depending on what weighs more for you, your existing plans or the appeal of the new project, your answer will be “Yes” or “No”.

In sum, self-knowledge is about being able to reflect on our development in terms of personality, preferences and achievements in light of new information brought by self-awareness. Hence the higher the self-awareness and self-knowledge, the greater chances of psychological growth and inspired choices.

Our Garfield's upper limit of awareness is the need to have his achievements validated. What other motive would he have for bringing decapitated mice to the house's front door? There have been a couple of mornings when I would open the door eager to smell the outdoors air, only to twist on my heels and freaking shout, “Mom, Voini brought another proof of productivity!”

His name is Voini, which in English translates as the Brave One. As a kitten, he walked among dogs as if he was their boss. Although, lately, the Brave One is more of a Tamed One. He looks for ways to spend more time around the human side of the family. Who knows what his highest need for achievement is? Parenting skills, maybe?

According to Maslow, self-actualization is at the top of the pyramid - although humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman argues that Maslow didn’t see the pyramid as a video game where the goal is to win and the rule is that once you unlock a higher level, you cannot go back to a lower level. Instead, Maslow’s hierarchy of human motivation was intended as a scorecard of life experiences which make life worth living. More than that, depending on external circumstances, we can focus on two or more needs from different levels in the hierarchy. Self-actualization crowns the experience of being human - at least for those curious about the best version of themselves.

Irrespective of how you interpret Maslow’s system of human needs, as a motivation to achieve in life or as a motivation to experience life, self-actualization is built on the assumption that individuals are aware of the concept of “self”. This is reflected in the fact that we can express in words who we are, where we came from and where we’d like to head.

This is a striking difference between myself and our house cat - the ability to think about possible versions of myself. I can verbalise and modify the narrative about my identity - the core elements that I consider part of who I am - whereas Voini mews and acts driven by an immediate need he knows it’s important either for avoiding harm or for bringing pleasure to himself.

Self-knowledge and the self-concept

In 1735, the Swedish botanist Carolus Linneaus wrote a book Systema Naturae where he described the physical features of hundreds of species. When he came to humans, he noted, “Nosce te ipsum”, those that know themselves.

We are used to answering the question, “Who are you?”, although, in all truthfulness, it’s not the easiest one. For instance, how do you introduce yourself to a new person in a professional networking context? No matter the context, wouldn’t you want to give a stimulating answer? So much more, when personal growth is important for us, we may consider telling ourselves inspiring versions of who we are, avoiding getting stuck with one version.

The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines personal identity as the sum of physical and psychological characteristics that make you different from others but give you a sense of continuity. In this article, we view the “I” as the inner self and the social self. The inner self is composed of personality traits (i.e., extroversion), intrinsic values (i.e., fairness) and needs (i.e., spirituality). Intrinsic values, like fairness and morality, are the principles of life that you want to guide your actions by, mainly for their own sake and not as a means to an end. Intrinsic needs, like curiosity, are the psychological requirements necessary for fully functioning living.

The social self - the parent, the expert, the community member, etc - is the sum of essential roles you enact in society. These roles give meaning to your life and are the positions you voluntarily choose to have and be acknowledged for.

Differently said, part of the “I” is what you know to be unique and distinct about yourself. The other part of the “I” is what connects you, what makes you a harmonious part of the communities where you live and work.

Who we are is captured in the work that we do. What we do shapes who we are. Who we want to become nudges us into thinking about what else we might do. What other lives might we live? What different professional roles might we assume?

From this perspective of personal identity, self-actualization means the awareness of a relevant aspect of “I” to exercise and the emotional commitment to the corresponding transformational goals and outcomes. So, let's do the following exercise to deepen your understanding of the inner values you want to align your actions in the external world, shall we?

Look around you in the room where you are now. Choose one of the paintings hanging on the walls. Instead, let’s pretend it is a white canvas, and for the next minute, you’re a painter. Your goal is to imagine drawing the words that pull on your heartstrings.

These are words that, when read out loud, feel as if a warm and soft blanket wraps around your body. Alternatively, you can write words that give you chills as if you just heard rumbles of thunder. Or, you can choose words that make you burn with anticipation and lift your fists in the air. What words would you opt for?

You can paint as many words as you’d like in as big letters as the canvas surface allows it. When you’re done, congratulate yourself for being a dutiful artist in your imagination. Intrinsic values lead the way to possible roles similar to the imaginary play of 4 years olds enacting the role of a doctor or a fireman.

The more you understand the diversity of who you are, the more motivated you become to test new potentialities. What words hover in your mind? What might they be telling you of? A new experience of personal expression or initiative-taking?

The self-concept and intrinsic values

Maslow considered creativity central to self-actualization. More recently, career counselling psychologists emphasize creativity as an essential resource in designing your life and career paths. In the exercise in the previous section, you played around with some of your intrinsic values - the words on the canvas. Is creativity one of them?

How about any of the words below?

  • Freedom
  • Meaning
  • Commitment
  • Integrity
  • Altruism

Looking back at your most recent achievements, which one reflects your creativity combined with another intrinsic value?

Looking forward to future achievements, which one is centred around your need to create?

Maybe you don’t know the answer to the latter question.

Five Springs ago, my mother found this ginger kitten in her yard. He had ruffled fur and was ready to scratch whenever she approached him. Yet, he followed her at a safe distance. So, she welcomed him as if he was a family member. After a few weeks of observing his behaviour, we named him Voini. Maybe asking for food for his family, looking for affection or showing off with decapitated mice were not the most notable signs of self-awareness that Voini showed. His most impressive ability was to choose a home that treats him well.

On a scale of 1( not a chance) to 5 (ready for action), to what extent are you willing to explore the environments where you have better chances of discovering your self-actualisation needs? (see figure below)

Finding the right fit environment for your creative potential is a topic I elaborate on in my book “How to Develop Your Creative Identity at Work”, to be published by Apress this October.

Meanwhile, the book is ready for pre-order.