Top Of Your Pyramid Is The Bottom Of Someone Else’s

Hat tip to Vu Le at NonProfitAF for posting a link on social media to an essay on Medium comparing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need to the Blackfeet Nation’s similar concept.  Maslow had lived among the Blackfeet in Alberta, Canada for six weeks when he was developing his theories. If you read the article the question of whether he appropriated the concept without crediting the Blackfeet is a complicated one.

What immediately appealed to me was the point that while Maslow’s hierarchy ends with self-actualization, that is where the Blackfeet model begins.  To a great degree it is the difference between an individually focused society and a communal one. The assumption seems to be that the community will provide the food, shelter, clothing and safety needs that provide the base of Maslow’s model and therefore you start life working on the self-actualization part and then one moves on to contributing to the welfare and perpetuity of the culture.

The Blackfoot model describes the inverse of Maslow’s Hierarchy:

1. Self-actualization. Where Maslow’s hierarchy ends with self-actualization, the Blackfoot model begins here. In their view, we are each born into the world as a spark of divinity, with a great purpose embedded in us. That means that we arrive on earth self-actualized.

4. Community Actualization. In tending to our basic needs and safety, the tribe equips us to manifest our sacred purpose, designing a model of education that supports us in expressing our gifts. Community actualization describes the Blackfoot goal that each member of the tribe manifest their purpose and have their basic needs met.
5. Cultural Perpetuity. Each member of the tribe will one day be gone. So passing on their knowledge of how to achieve community actualization and harmony with the land and other peoples gives rise to an endurance of the Blackfoot way of life, or cultural perpetuity.

The big reason this appealed to me is that it aligns with a post I wrote last May, Creativity Is Not The Last Thing People Need

As I wrote then:

It should be noted that despite the popularity of this model, there is no scientific data to back it and studies have found that different cultures prioritize needs differently.

I mention these criticisms of Maslow’s hierarchy because it is easy to look at this pyramid and get the impression that creativity has to wait until all these other needs are met. This reinforces the idea that arts and culture are a luxury that should yield before all the necessities have been addressed. I think we all know there will always be something else that needs to be solved if you subscribe to that thinking.

When I wrote that post, I had linked to the Wikipedia article on Maslow’s hierarchy which notes the Blackfeet influence but I didn’t know enough about it at the time to understand the differences in world view to apply it.  I certainly can’t make any definitive statements about how expressions of creativity might be viewed and valued in a Blackfeet society, but from the little bit that discussed in the Medium article it seems it would be viewed as more integral to everyone’s basic identity and capacity vs. a gift bestowed/possessed by a chosen few.

The Secret Lives Of Museum Tour Guides

Long times readers know that when I was living in Ohio I had a close relationship with a local group called the Creative Cult. We did a number of projects together and I participated in the events they sponsored. The local art museum wisely decided to bring one of the cult’s inner circle, Nick, on staff and he has been making some great contributions to the organization.

This week the museum has made a series of Facebook posts under the title “Things Written At The Front Desk,” with some pictures from Nick’s journal/sketchbook and other projects he has worked on while at the desk. Today was the second post in the series and really caught my attention because it featured Nick’s illustrations of a guide to a gallery exhibit.   At first I was excited because I thought perhaps the museum had reopened for socially distanced exhibitions, but the guide was made for a pre-Covid exhibit.

Regardless of when it was made, the concept of walking into a museum and picking up a guide to an exhibition which was hand illustrated by one of the people greeting you struck me as something that would make the whole experience feel more welcoming and accessible.  The pamphlet Nick illustrated reflects his quirky aesthetic, presenting the visitor with Marty, a cartoon figure who will accompany on your journey complete with a map of Marty’s suggested route through the exhibition.

Then things take a strange turn and some of the illustrations reference to Marty’s diary and a beast being hunted down by a classic mob armed with pitchforks and torches. Clearly the whole guide isn’t depicted so we are missing parts of the story, but that makes you want to learn more, right?

Not only that, wouldn’t you be interested in seeing a museum exhibition framed by an information pamphlet that implied your tour guide may have a monstrous alter-ego….or perhaps it was all just a strange dream?


Creative Expression As The Basis For Inclusive Democracy

I came across a TED talk video on the importance of creative industries to national governments not five minutes after I had a conversation with staff on that very topic.

Mehret Mandefro talks about how she contributed to making creative industries a central part of Ethiopia’s plans to provide employment opportunities for the segment of its population experiencing the greatest growth, 15 to 29 year olds.

She notes that typically arts and creativity are seen as nice things to have, but not essential.  She disagrees and feels it is not only important for economic development, but also social identity and political stability. While she hadn’t intended to do so when she moved back to Ethiopia, Mandefro found herself essentially building a training program for creative workers from the ground up. (Demonstrated by the video of this talk.) That lead to her eventually participating in the generation of policy recommendations for creative industries for inclusion in the National Jobs Action Plan.

Now, putting culture on the economic agenda is an incredibly important milestone. But the truth of the matter is, there’s far more at stake than just jobs. Ethiopia is at a critical juncture, not just economically but democratically. It seems like the rest of the world is at a similar make-or-break moment. From my perspective on the ground in Ethiopia, the country can go one of two ways: either down a path of inclusive, democratic participation, or down a more divisive path of ethnic divisions. If we all agree that the good way to go is down the inclusive path, the question becomes: How do we get there?


…Artists have long found ways to inspire inclusion, tell stories and make music for lasting political impact. The late, great American hero, Congressman John Lewis, understood this when he said, “Without dance, without drama, without photography, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.”

…I think any government that views arts as a nice thing to have as opposed to a must-have is kidding itself. Arts and culture in all of their forms are indispensable for a country’s economic and democratic growth. It’s precisely countries like Ethiopia that can’t afford to ignore the very sector that has the potential to make the greatest civic impact. So just as John Lewis understood that the civil rights movement could not take flight without the arts, without a thriving creative sector that is organized like an industry, Ethiopia’s future, or any other country at its moment of reckoning, cannot take flight. The economic and democratic gains these industries afford make the creative economy essential to development and progress.

You Say Capt. Kirk Was Unqualified? That’s What Made Him A Leader.

In December Seth Godin made two posts titled Creativity Is An Act of Leadership. The second of the two added (Redux).

I am a little leery of the trend in articles which label leaders as doing constructive things and managers being dedicated to the status quo. It smacks of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

Not to mention, there are so many articles with these lists, you would be hard pressed to keep track of what you are supposed to be doing lest to backslide into managerial morass. I prefer to think of the qualities attributed to leaders as things one should aspire to so you don’t get caught in a destructive cycle of self-recrimination if you occasionally want to spend time not reinventing the wheel.

That said, these are some of the things in Godin’s posts I liked. It resonates with work environments at artist organizations, especially as many move toward a more shared governance dynamic. Though there are still plenty of places with structured tiers of authority.

Leadership is voluntary. It’s voluntary to lead and it’s voluntary to follow.

When you have power and authority, it’s tempting to manage instead. Managers get what they got yesterday, but faster and cheaper. Managers use authority to enforce behavior.

But leadership involves acting as if. Leaders paint a picture of the future and encourage us to go there with them.

Which is what anyone who makes change through creative work is doing.


For too long, we’ve been confused about the true nature of leadership. It’s not about authority at all. It’s the brave work of inventing the future.

The second post is similar, but it focuses more on the theme of how leadership is like creativity in that you are constantly pushing into uncharted territory. The idea of leaders being those who stretch beyond their qualifications is intriguing. At the same time, the sentiment has long been enshrined in the opening narration of Star Trek episodes about going where no one has gone before.

If you feel like an impostor, it might be because you’re comparing yourself to a manager. We want managers and craftspeople to know precisely the steps that are involved in their work, and we want them to do it flawlessly.

Leaders, on the other hand, can never be qualified, because they’ve never done this before.

And creators — creators that don’t have a fancy job or aren’t given the label of “leader” — the same thing is true for them.

You don’t need a permit or a badge or a title to be a creative. You simply need to care enough to do creative work.


The next time you’re stuck being creative, perhaps it pays to substitute the word ‘leader’. And yes, the next time you’re stuck being a leader, perhaps it makes sense to use the word ‘creator’ instead.

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