By CBS Television - eBayfrontback, Public Domain,

The Kernel Runs the Show

When you turn on your laptop the first bit of software to load is called the Kernel1. At its most basic the kernel serves to take the programs we are going to run and the system architecture we are going to run it on, and gets it to all interface at a low-level of abstraction.2 The kernel isn’t operating in the ones and zeros of machine language, but it isn’t human readable in any conventional sense either.

If you watch the series Mr. Robot and see Elliot typing away furiously creating incomprehensible code, most of the time he is telling the Kernel to do something. He isn’t telling the bare metal of the machine what to do – if he was he’d be writing in ones and zeroes  – rather he’s operating one level of abstraction removed from that machine language.

The Humanistic Needs Approach is my take on describing the Kernel of the human operating system. Our “bare metal” is the same on/off (ones and zeroes) signaling we see in computers; a nerve cell fires or it doesn’t. A nerve impulse starting or stopping tells cells what to do: they make our heart beat, the cause us to raise our arms, bile is secreted to digest food, insulin is synthesized to move glucose from our blood stream into cells. All of these functions are part of the underlying system architecture that we as a species (and our ancestors) have evolved over hundreds of millions of years. The implicit emotions and behaviors we exhibit in the game of survival are the kernel of our operating system.

The implicit emotions and behaviors we exhibit in the game of survival are the kernel of our operating system.

The Humanistic Needs Approach is rooted in Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs.3 Maslow established that we have certain needs – physiological, safety, community, and esteem needs that must be secure before we can “move up the ladder” – so to speak – towards fulfilling cognitive and aesthetic needs on a path toward self-actualization. If all of this works out swimmingly we will – within Maslow’s model – achieve states of transcendence.4

I’ve worked long and hard with Maslow’s model. Over time I’ve come to see a simple beauty in the model. To put a fine point on it – if you go to bed hungry5 or in a community ravaged by violence6 you will have limited capacity to devote to things like learning algebra7 or realizing your philosophy through your your art work.8 This ought to be common sense9 Maslow’s model makes these truths clear. However, and this is where I take exception to viewing Maslow’s model as dogmatic, there are examples around the world of people “rising above their environment”10 to develop grand cognitive or aesthetic works despite living in conditions where more basic needs are insecure.

Hence, I’ve reconceptualized Maslow’s model.

The Humanistic Needs Approach Model

At its most basic the HNA allows for an adaptive view of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.The HNA Model is plastic enough to allow for real life.

At the base are Acute needs – elements like the ability to breathe, access to basic shelter/warmth, and freedom from direct physical threat. Insecurity of Acute needs is threatening within seconds or minutes. To lack these Acute needs means that we are in a genuine survival situation, and, as such, we will focus on changing that situation by fighting, fleeing, or freezing. The Acute Needs are human universals.

Beyond our Acute Needs I visualize our Physiological, Safety, Community, and Esteem Needs11 as having both a Persistent quality with minimum thresholds, and variability based on culture and our adaptations to the stressors of our particular environment. By rotating them 90 degrees12 I illustrate that the security of these needs is interdependent and mutually supporting; perhaps I live in an environment where violence is a real concern, but if I have a reasonable degree of security in the other fundamental needs I may achieve my cognitive and aesthetic needs more readily than in their absence. In other words, in contrast to Maslow’s pyramid where insecurity of a more primitive need implies inaccessibility to more derived (higher order) needs the HNA model recognizes that we are – to a degree – a system of Needs that can ebb and flow in relation to one another.

As parents and mentors how does this model apply to us? It’s a tool we can use to assess our mentee and tailor our efforts to her needs. If we know that a child is living in a house where the parents are going through a contentious divorce maybe we can cut him some slack on getting his math homework done or acting out during a Scout meeting. Further if we know an adolescent or young adult is lacking in one of these needs we can seek to reinforce the other Needs as a scaffold. Note Well, reinforcing needs doesn’t mean telling them how good they have it in other areas – it means taking action to help them feel those other areas are secure.13

The HNA model also a tool we can use to structure our mentoring. As mentors our objective ought to be enabling our charges to go thrive in the world. To accomplish this we need to provide the knowledge, skills, and abilities to confront those challenges. However, before we can accomplish that we have to know what happens when things go wrong. We have to know what instructions the Kernel is going to execute.

  1. Not to be confused with Colonel Klink.
  2. This is not about computer programing but we can think of programs as operating in three levels of abstraction. At the highest level of abstraction we have binary – the ones and zeros of machine language. A step down in abstraction is “code,” the language in which programers tell software how to use hardware to do stuff. The final level – zero abstraction – is human readable language. When you type a search into Google or Bing you are operating at zero abstraction.
  3. See Maslow, Abraham H. Motivation and Personality.” (1954) for Maslow’s fullest treatment of the matter.
  4. Maslow’s model was initially put forth in 1943 with five constituent elements. He updated that model in 1954 to incorporate cognitive and aesthetic needs, and a new pinnacle: Transcendence.
  5. A lack of a physiological need
  6. A lack of a safety need
  7. A cognitive need
  8. Expression of cognitive and aesthetic needs leading to self-actualization
  9. It’s not. All you need to do is look at our reliance on “Standardized Tests” in the US(RANT The only thing Standardized is the test, there is ZERO control for the variables in each child’s life hence these tests aren’t actually scientific tool /RANT).
  10. a phrase that reeks of colonialism, hence the scare quotes
  11. Needs Maslow specified
  12. Orienting them vertically as opposed to the traditional horizontal visualization
  13. This leads to a discussion about empathy that we will need to have. I’ll get there; I promise.

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