Finding Significance

Four Human Needs

There are many ways to understand a human life. Theories abound about how we navigate the stages and cycles that make up our existence, whether we focus on psychological development, spiritual growth, or financial well-being.

In Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, Stephen Covey wrote about four human needs: survival, stability, success, and significance. [1] Motivational speakers such as Zig Ziglar and Joseph Stumpf have created a hierarchical system from that idea that focuses on our financial health. They appear to be making a good living telling people how to move from one stage to the next. Encouraging others to take responsibility for their lives, these men focus on how we can stop surviving and start thriving.

This is a great message. Who doesn’t want to thrive? I talk with clients and patients who long to stop suffering. They try one technique after another to change their lives. Some of them read self-help books and listen to motivational speakers. Others barely have time to sleep, nonetheless read or go to workshops. They struggle against a system that creates one barrier after another. Stability seems like a dream.

Perhaps they feel like a victim; perhaps they don’t. They may work hard. They may even be disciplined. Even so, chaos reigns. One disaster follows after another, and at times, they helpless. Often, they feel stuck and can’t find a way out.

Thriving, Not Surviving

All of us can feel that way sometimes. We don’t even have to be financially stressed to experience lack. Our pain could be emotional, mental, social, or spiritual, but that doesn’t make it any less real. When we have no hope, when we can’t see possibilities, when the burdens of life overwhelm us, we are in survival mode. We get lost in our fear.

That doesn’t mean there’s no way out. For example, Covey has identified seven habits that can help us succeed in life. These include being proactive, putting “first things first,” seeking to understand others before you try to be understood, and learning to cooperate. [2] These are great ways to approach life. To help convince us, Covey tells inspiring stories of people who overcame great odds, such as mental and physical disabilities, crushing poverty, and trauma and abuse. They gathered information, built connections with other people, and learned to care about and nurture themselves and others. Covey wants us to feel less like victims and more like active participants in our lives.

Who would argue with this? After all, how does it help us to feel like a victim? Won’t we do better off if we engage actively in our lives?

The Danger of Feel-Good Messages

There’s a danger with feel-good messages that insist all we have to do is have goals, be disciplined, hone our skills, and show enthusiasm. It’s not unlike the Puritan message that good things come to those whom God loves. If you aren’t successful, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough, aren’t good enough, don’t pray hard enough, or let failure get you down.

Life is not that simple.

Even if it were, though, none of these motivational writers expect us to feel content just because we’re successful. They encourage us to move on to the next step, to consider how we can bring significance into our lives.

Survival and Stability

Jay Taylor, for example, describes a workshop he attended led by Joseph Stumpf. There, Stumpf talked about the four stages Covey outlined. [3] He explained that when we’re surviving, all we can think about is getting through the day, or maybe just the next moment. We have no resources to draw on when things go wrong. These resources might be financial, but they can also be emotional or social. The survival life is hard on multiple levels.

In the stability stage, we can breathe a little. We have enough money to pay our bills, even a little extra to cope if the car breaks down or we get sick. Since we’re not spending all your energy scraping by, we can start to dream, plan, learn, grow.

This four-stage theory is based loosely on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The idea is that until we’ve dealt with we physical and safety needs, we can’t focus on love, self-esteem, or what Maslow called “self-actualization.” So until we are out of that survival mindset and at least feel comfortable, we can’t move to that next stage, success.


Stumpf describes success as being when money and opportunities flow. We’ve found your niche. We feel like a master, and people treat us like one. It’s a heady time, when all is right in our world.

Even at the top, though, we can have moments of failure. Ziglar tells us, though, that it’s not failure unless we give up. He quotes Winston Churchill, “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” [4] So he accepts that failure is real and that success doesn’t mean we’ve made it forever and will never have worries or insecurities again. Yet as long as we have the hope and enthusiasm, and as long as we keep going, we’re successful.

Does that mean that when we get depressed or sick or reel from losses that we are no longer successful? If we lose our place in this stage of life, if we fall from the heights, does success elude us?

What about significance? This, more than success, is where all three authors believe we should be heading. If we fail at success, must we fail at significance also?


Taylor explains that when we act out of love, when we seek to serve others, when we mentor and encourage and touch people deeply, then our lives have significance. This stage is “more about being than doing.” [5]

Not everyone wants a significant life, however. Perhaps not everyone is capable of significance. Like Maslow’s “self-actualization” and James Fowler’s “universalizing faith,” significance is a spiritual realm that requires selflessness. I touched on this stage in last week’s column when I described the gifts we receive when we let go of our illusion of being an individual self. In that place of egolessness, we become one with the universe, with the sacred, with our eternal selves. There, we learn to love and give and find meaning.

Yet we don’t have to be enlightened to live significant lives. Nor need we be financially successful. Indeed, I would suggest that the four needs Covey identified aren’t stages at all. We don’t have to move from one to the other in order. Though we are barely surviving, we can still enjoy significance.

Seeking Purpose and Meaning

I see this often in people for whom life has been especially cruel. Perhaps they live outside, are hungry, sick, dirty, ashamed, or lonely. Maybe they work two jobs, barely see their families, and still they can’t afford to heat their homes. Nonetheless, they often know how to soothe and comfort their friends. They may be more generous than the successful businessman, giving away their last coins, their coat, their kindness.

No matter how poor we are, however, we all long to feel significant. Having a purpose gives us strength and determination.

Some of the patients and clients I speak with, though, think that to be significant, they must do something grandiose. I help them understand that the small things often make the biggest difference. Listening to a neighbor, washing dishes at a shelter, being friendly to a haughty customer, laughing with a co-worker. All these can make another person feel better. Few of us are called to do expansive, elaborate, and enormous things. Most of us find significance in those random acts of kindness that lift a broken spirit and warm a weary heart.

Significance in the Face of Survival

We don’t need to be “successful” before we find significance. Maslow was right when he said that people who don’t have enough to eat must focus most of their energy on finding food, but he misunderstood an important reality of being poor. When we have to struggle to survive, we depend on the kindness of friends and strangers in a way wealthy people do not. Living in poverty, we understand the need to give back. Besides, we the poor know what it’s like to hurt and need help. Often, they are more generous and kind than those who enjoy financial success.

Not that being poor makes you good. Some poor people manipulate the system. Others commit heinous crimes. But so do some wealthy people.

Our capacity for significance is not related to how much money we have. Indeed, many financially successful people fail to understand the power of significance, of seeking to heal and nurture and make whole. Having spent so many years planning their own advancement and serving their own needs, they no longer know how to care about others. As the Bible tells us, it’s not easy for a rich man to make his way to heaven.

Finding Significance Now

Survival is a tough place to be. I don’t know anyone who likes it. Yet just because we’re poor doesn’t mean our lives can’t be significant. It doesn’t mean we can’t serve others. The joy of giving, of having a purpose in life, is not the exclusive purview of the successful. These stages Covey identified are not hierarchies.

Wherever we are in life, we can learn to give to others, to find a purpose, to love our god, to develop connections, to live our dreams, and to laugh from a place of generosity and hope. Significance is possible for us all.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Covey, Stephen R., The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families: Building a Beautiful Family Culture in a Turbulent World, New York: Golden Books, 1997.
  2. Covey, Stephen R., The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
  3. Taylor, Jay, “The Path from Survival to Significance,” Jay Taylor Media, May 17, 2019,, accessed 7/17/19.
  4. Ziglar, Zig, Over the Top: Moving from Survival to Stability, from Stability to Success, from Success to Significance, Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997, Chapter One.
  5. Taylor.

Photo by victoria gonzales on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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