Feeling fulfilled, achieving peace of mind and satisfaction with life, stems from the achievement of four universal needs that are at the core of what it means to be human: acceptance, connection, purpose, and service. Behind everything you think, every emotion you feel, and every action you take is your desire to meet one or more of these deep-seated needs.

For example, the drive to succeed in your career may be fueled by the need to be accepted, or to have value. When this need is driving you, you unconsciously pursue career success at the expense of your health, your marriage, or even your moral convictions, because your latent belief system is at work; trying in vain to meet a deeper need and trying to protect you from hurt and shame – while leading you not to more acceptance or an increased sense of value – but to more work.

Trying to meet a need you don’t think you have can lead you to deep, ongoing internal conflict, as you struggle over the contradiction between what you believe you want versus what you actually need; you work hard to accumulate the accolades and possessions that symbolize success in the eyes of others, and neglect what’s really important to you and feel guilty about still wanting “more”. Over time, you realize you can’t even define what you really want more of, and you commit to wanting to be successful more than fulfilled.

In my book, The Business of Wanting More – Why Some Executives Move from Success to Fulfillment and Others Don’t, I label this conflict “The High Achiever’s Paradox”, and it is very real.

What is The High Achiever’s Paradox?

By definition, high achievers show immense talent for collecting the symbols of success, the things they “want” that serve as affirmation of some sort, yet they often struggle to gain what they really need – to be seen and affirmed for who they are – and to feel worthy of what they have.

In the book, I define this paradox further, “They excel and, once at the top, are naturally seen, but only for what they do. The people closest to them at work and at home, however, seldom acknowledge them even for that, instead taking their accomplishments for granted. If anyone is expected to dish out praise, it’s the high achiever; they’re the supreme cheerleader. Indeed, it’s lonely at the top. In spite of the high achiever’s confident exterior, their behavior is driven by an unmet internal need for self-worth – which doesn’t get met through achievement, so the achiever scales even higher.”

Thus, a vicious cycle develops, in which the high achiever continues to seek satisfaction through the outward symbols of success, while continuing to avoid the internal struggle of needs versus wants.

Just as your physical self has needs: food, air, water, exercise; so too does your internal self have needs that are critical to your survival. If you hope to achieve your full human potential, with the sense of fulfillment that will naturally follow, you must develop what I call “needs literacy”, as well as the acuity to discern when your needs are being met, and when they’re not.

However you may define them, and you must define them if you hope to find them, your four core needs will look something like this:

  1. Acceptance: being good enough, validation, affirmation, approval, support, respect, being seen, being heard, being of value, having self-worth
  2. Connection: empathy, closeness, touch, inclusion, belonging, community, trust, emotional safety, intimacy
  3. Purpose: meaning, reason for living, right livelihood, understanding of one’s place in the world
  4. Service: contributing, giving, making a difference, leaving a legacy

Embrace the Journey

Interestingly, when you make this shift in mindset and do the work needed to be able to meet these needs, another may paradox develop, and it’s just as powerful – and far more positive: The Fulfillment Paradox.

After all, few of us actually achieve every goal we set for ourselves and still others of us achieve many goals at a younger age than most and ask ourselves, “Is there more than this?” One shift you can make right now is to stop over-emphasizing goals and make sure you have a solid sense of purpose or mission before getting attached to specific goals. When you have a mission, you can achieve both the process of working toward our goals as well as reaching them.

“Life is a journey, not a destination.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson was a man who wanted to step out of the cultural vortex of achieving and accumulating in search of being happy now, not at some point in the future.