How we’re wired as human beings

Recognising how you are wired will allow you to understand other people better. Having empathy for your friends, family and colleagues will give you new found skills that can transform your relationships with others

Royston Guest
28th Nov 2020
Five interlocking drivers impact our behaviour; we have uploaded the video from our leadership programme to help you understand the mechanics. Once you have watched the film, consider each of the drivers and how they affect your life. Which are the two most relevant to you? Understanding this will enable you to read other people better. It also gives you essential insights into how to deal with different people in varying situations. This is a relatively long article, so we have created a downloadable version so you can work through the process. Set aside some time to discover what makes you and others tick.
Viewing time: 10 minutes; 12 seconds
Reading time: 19 minutes; 10 seconds

Recognising the five interlocking drivers that make you tick
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The subject of human motivation is fascinating. This journey of discovery has resulted in several defining questions: 
  • What makes people tick? 
  • Why do people do what they do? 
  • How can you create lasting habitual change that truly sticks? 

More often than not, you can only be equipped to help others if you have a strong understanding of yourself. You have to do the inner work first. And that inside job is about understanding what makes you tick, and more importantly, understanding the five interlocking human drivers. There’ll be aspects of your life where you can achieve winning results by allowing a particular driver to come to the fore. Still, there’ll be others which, letting a driver dominate your thinking and actions, could derail your efforts.

People reveal themselves in their patterns of behaviour, and their reactions to similar external and internal influences. It doesn’t mean we can apply a single brush of paint to categorise people, because individuality is still a decisive factor in making us who we are. But it does give us a broad set of common traits. 

Whether it is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Tony Robbins’ Six Fundamental Human Needs or the formative work on life coaching by Cloé Madanes, there is a shared precise observation of commonalities in our understanding of how people are wired and the drivers that make us tick. Often, the starting point is commonalities that are referenced internally, not externally. 

You can only be equipped to help others and be the person you want to be for the people in your life if you have a strong understanding of yourself. You have to do the inner work first, as it’s an inside job. It’s the same thinking that applies to aeroplane safety demonstrations just before take-off when the cabin crew say: ‘Put on your mask before you help with anyone else’s.’ 

It’s essential to make a fundamental distinction right at the start. We are talking about both the internal and external work we need to undertake. Just as an understanding of yourself will enable you to be a better person, a deep understanding of others will allow you to be a better friend, leader, neighbour and partner. 

The five interlocking human drivers 
As you read about the five drivers below, you’ll identify aspects of your life where you achieve winning results by allowing a particular driver to come to the fore. But there are other aspects of your life in which letting a driver dominate your thinking and actions could derail your efforts. A greater understanding of yourself and others and how the drivers are playing out will enable you to regulate and become more conscious and deliberate in thought, feeling and action.

This is the foundational human driver, which has its origins way back in the Stone Age when human beings had a survival need for certainty around shelter, food and heat – an individual’s three necessities. 

Wind forward to today and our needs haven’t changed: put food on the table, pay the mortgage and bills to keep the roof over our heads and provide for our families and ourselves. 

The need for certainty can lead you to make decisions that are well thought through and have predictable out- comes. But it can also lead to procrastination, analysis paralysis and attempts to control things and people too tightly. 

Take a moment to think about this: in what areas of your life do you feel you have a foundational need for certainty? 
  • Is it a stable home or relationship? 
  • A secure job? 
  • A particular amount of money in the bank? 
  • Is it a combination of these, or perhaps other triggers are driving your need for certainty? 

My home is my castle
Many people consider their home to be one of their key stabilisers and foundational blocks that meets their need for certainty. People can be trailblazers, travelling the world setting it on fire. However, the underlying security is knowing they can return to a save haven of home to re-energise, be still and spend quality time with the family.

Certainty in other aspects of your life 
Think about other aspects of your life and how your need for certainty plays out. Do you have a boss who micro-manages everything you do? How does that feel? Perhaps it feels that they don’t trust you or that you’re not capable of doing the job. It could be that they enjoy being controlling, but it is also important to recognise that it might just be that they are acting out their need for certainty, and control is their default mode for fulfilling that need. 

Consider these questions: 
  • How strong is your need for certainty in your life? 
  • In which areas of your life is certainty a must-have? 
  • Are there times in your life when certainty is less important, and you’re OK being a little more adventurous? 
  • What’s the difference between those moments or scenarios? 


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Picture this scenario: you know precisely what you will be doing every minute, every hour, every day, month and year from this day forth for the rest of your life. How does that make you feel? Bored? Comfortable? 

As human beings, we have to ask, do we need adventure? Do we need mystery, the unknown and an element of surprise?  Of course, we do because that is how we know we are alive.  Does the notion of adventure resonate with you? If you could inject more adventure into your life right now, what would it be? 

Entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs are wired for adventure, uncertainty and the unknown. It’s innate in their DNA. They thrive on it. It brings out the best in them. 

The younger generations, including the Millennials (born between 1977 and 1995) and Generation Z (born in 1996 or later), are wired differently from Generation X (born between 1965 and 1976) and the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964). They no longer see work as a job for life. They have an insatiable thirst for adventure, for variety, for ‘stretch’ experiences – and this is why today’s average university graduate will have at least 15 jobs throughout their career. 

How adventure links to growth 
Adventure is closely linked to Driver 5: Growth, which is natural, considering the interlocking nature of all the drivers. The following quote from the work of the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire demonstrates the point perfectly.
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Of course, adventure can mean different things to different people. At one end of the scale are some of the greatest adventurers the world has ever seen: Captain James Cook, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Roald Amundsen, Neil Armstrong ... 

There’s Richard Branson, who is always setting himself some crazy audacious goal, from trying to fly around the world in a hot-air balloon, to a successful attempt on the record for crossing the English Channel in an amphibious vehicle. One of Branson’s legacies is undoubtedly his bold taste for adventure. 

When adventure turns into uncertainty 
However, as you approach the other end of the scale, adventure can change from being a positive enabler to something potentially unsettling because adventure is, by definition, uncertain. So what happens when the pendulum swings from adventure to uncertainty? Adventure may seem fun and exciting, but it becomes the opposite of Driver 1: Certainty when we frame it as uncertainty. So now how do you feel about adventure? 

For many people, the very idea of uncertainty is enough to freak them out, slamming the brakes on their need and desire for adventure. At this point, they’re between a rock and a hard place. 

Imagine you’re a leader in your workplace and one morning you announce to the 100 workers reporting to you that you’re undertaking a restructure and everyone’s jobs are at risk. Reactions would be at both ends of the scale. At one end would be individuals seeing it as an adventure and saying: ‘About time, we should have done this 12 months ago. Where is the opportunity? Where can I add value, and where can I make a difference?’ At the other end of the scale would be individuals feeling terrified. They’d be thinking: ‘Am I going to have a job? Can I put food on the table? What will happen to my credibility with my friends and family? My pride is dented.’ 

US President John F. Kennedy once said: ‘The only unchangeable certainty is that nothing is unchangeable or certain. ’The reality is that change is one of the only real certainties in the world and the quality of your life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty, adventure and change you can comfortably live with. 

Consider these questions: 
  • Do you see change as your friend or foe? 
  • Do you see it as an opportunity or a threat? 
  • How can you embrace it and become an enabler of change and welcome it in all facets of your life? 
  • How can you think differently about change and challenge yourself to become ‘comfortably uncomfortable’ with the uncertainty it brings? 

The battle between certainty and adventure 
They say that opposites attract, but significant differences can sometimes lead to friction, especially when the drivers conflict. Here’s an example of this. 

At a recent workshop, one of the delegates had an ‘Aha!’ moment when discussing the first two drivers, certainty and adventure. At the time, he and his wife were continually clashing because halfway through the week, she would ask, ‘What are we doing this weekend? What are we doing on Saturday morning? Where are we going on Saturday evening?’ And he would reply, ‘I don’t know, let’s get to the weekend and decide what we want to do when we wake up.’ 

She interpreted his response as him not caring and being only interested in his work. But his perspective was very different. During the working week, his mindset was that he had so much certainty around what he would be doing and when that come the weekend he wanted the freedom of adventure, the unplanned and the flexibility to decide at the moment. He craved the things he lacked during the week, but his wife craved the certainty of making the most of their weekend together. 

They shared the common goal of spending quality time together but were differently wired by their needs. Think of examples in your life where similar scenarios may also be playing out. 


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Imagine walking into a room where all your friends are engaged in a debate and, as you walk in, cheers ripple through the group. Then one of them says ‘Great, here’s [your name], they’ll sort this out once and for all,’ as the other members of the group nod in agreement. How would that make you feel? 

Or if you have children, and as you walk through the door at home, they run and jump into your arms, delighted that you’re home as they eagerly show you pictures they’ve drawn at school, or share something fun that has happened that day. How would that make you feel? 

We all long for significance. We all want to matter, to be thought of as important, useful and valuable. We can be significant to our colleagues and bosses, our friends who appreciate our support and care, and our families. They love us unconditionally and rely upon us as a critical part of their lives. 

You may feel a high degree of significance when others praise you for your capabilities and achievements. Or you may feel significant when you know you’ve achieved something great regardless of the external validation you may or may not receive. The same need is met, just through different sources. 

A feeling of significance can drive us to achieve amazing things: to be loving parents and partners, valuable friends, team leaders, to write books, build companies and run countries. But it can also drive negative behaviour, where we achieve significance by putting others down or being overly critical. Our need to feel important can lead us to become blind to others' needs as we attain value whatever the cost. 

It is no surprise that dictators, warlords and some of the worst characters in history also had the most statues and monuments built to their importance.

Consider these questions: 
  • How strong is your need for significance? 
  •  In what areas of your life do you crave significance? 
  • What positive behaviours and negative or derailing behaviours does this need to bring out in you? 
  • Can you think of someone you know who may crave significance and act in really noble and admirable ways in pursuit of that? Can you think of someone you know who may desire significance and act in really unpleasant and destructive patterns in the quest of that? What’s the difference in the way they seek the same result? 

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They say no person is an island and, in today’s world, being aware of this is perhaps more important than ever. We’re more connected than we have ever been, and yet human connections – real, genuine human connections – are becoming harder than ever to make. 

This plays right to the heart of a significant phenomenon of social media groups. Individuals love to join online clubs, groups or movements with people worldwide, the majority of whom we will never meet but who share our views, habits and fascinations. 

In our need to meet the human driver of belonging, we don’t seek to lead but to be part of a pack, to be a welcome member of something much larger than ourselves. It’s the reason we join church congregations, associations and clubs, and the reason we feel an attachment to our place of work; that need to feel part of a team is enormous. 

As with all the five human drivers, the need to belong can lead to negative behaviours and positive ones. It is one reason why young people may join gangs and do things the gang ‘commands’, potentially going against their very nature. This is significance working in reverse: a gang member doesn’t want to stand out as the ‘weak link’. 

Consider these questions: 
  • In what areas of your life do you need to feel that you belong? 
  • In what places or with which groups of people do you feel you belong? 
  • What is different between the places or the groups of people with whom you are happy to belong and those where you feel the need to be significant? 

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Few things feel worse than a sense that you’re being left behind. And few things feel better than a feeling that you’re improving, advancing, getting better at something and increasing your value to your family, your work, your community and even to the world. 
Your need for growth is sure to be one reason you picked up this book and decided to read or listen to it. You want to know more, improve and gain more control over your life areas where you know you can be great, and the places where you might need some help. 

Growth is a key driver for us all. And there are very few limitations when it comes to learning and acquiring more skills or knowledge. The Internet is awash with tutorials, courses and quick solutions to any dilemma. 

Nothing on this earth is standing still. It’s either growing or dying, whether it’s a tree or a human being. If you’re not growing, you will be left behind! The opposite of growth is in a rut, and there is nothing more soul-destroying than that. 

Learn something new today! 
One story that reinforces growth and learning is the Blind Side's brilliant scene, starring Sandra Bullock. In the scene, she is dropping her birth son and adopted son at the school gates, and her parting words to them both are:‘Have fun and learn something new today.’  While the ‘Have fun’ part is essential, it’s the second part that is central to success:‘... learn something new today’. 
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You don’t need a formal education to learn something new. You don’t need a library full of books. You don’t even need access to the Internet. It would be best if you had a mind full of curiosity and a thirst for greater understanding. 

  • How focused are you on fulfilling your need for growth and what specific actions are you taking to achieve them – in the short, medium and long term? 
  • What steps are you taking to grow every day? 
  • How will you measure your growth? 

Balancing and prioritising human drivers 
Once you have a clear understanding of the human drivers, you can start to think about their importance, how they apply to you, and their influence on your thinking and subsequent actions. It will enable you to unlock a major part of your blueprint truly. 

Consider the following scenarios; you can see how the five interlocking human drivers might play out. What you start to identify with will reveal how you prioritise the drivers in your own life. 

Scenario 1: A restructure is announced at work 
Imagine you’re an employee and one Monday morning a restructure is announced that puts your job at risk. How would that make you feel? How would your need for certainty be triggered? Would it be an adventure for you, a challenge in which to rise? Or would you be so full of uncertainty that you would panic? 

What would happen to your feeling of significance and your ability to contribute? Would you see it as an opportunity to shine and prove your worth, or would you feel expendable and unimportant? 

What about your sense of belonging? Would you feel your affiliation with the organisation from that point on was broken, even if you kept your job, or would you be able to absorb the disruption and come back even stronger? What does it do for your need for growth that someone else could so easily take away your pathway to development? Or do you see it as yet another opportunity to grow? 

Scenario 2: Your house is flooded 
Imagine that your home is in an area with a high risk of flooding. And the worst happens: your house is flooded, and you have to move out for 12 months while they repair and renovate it.
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How is your need for certainty affected? If it’s happened once, could it happen again? Could you live with that level of uncertainty every time there was a prolonged period of heavy rainfall? 
  • What does it do for your need for significance and contribution? 
  • What about belonging? How is the idea of ‘My home is my castle’ affected by this scenario? 

Think about these questions one by one. Your responses will tell you a lot about your priorities and how the drivers play out for you in different scenarios. 

Scenario 3: A friend splits from their partner 
Imagine that a friend comes to you and she is broken. After ten years of marriage, her partner has suddenly walked out, saying he wants a divorce. You have two roles: you need to be a shoulder to cry on and a counsellor to help her rationalise what has happened. 
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Now think about how you would present the five interlocking human drivers to your friend as you try to see the world through their lens:
  • What has just happened to their base need for certainty? 
  • What has happened to their need for adventure? Is it overridden by uncertainty, positively or negatively? 
  • What has happened to their sense of significance? 
  • What about their sense of belonging? 

What impact does this have on their opportunity for growth, and how can this be framed positively? How can they grow their resilience and ability to handle adversity?

How the drivers influence your thinking and actions 
Take time to think about the five drivers and how they influence what you do and how you do it. As you do this, you’ll have breakthroughs in several areas of personal understanding. Remember, there isn’t a right or a wrong answer; only a sense of what's best for you. 

You may be struggling in your office job (certainty) because you have a much more excellent taste for adventure (uncertainty). You may feel unfulfilled by your current status (certainty) and want to stand out (significance). You may feel you’ve had too much uncertainty in your life and long for the safe predictability of stable finances and relationships. 

This is about raising your conscious awareness, and recognising that some of the most important conversations we have are the conversations we have with ourselves, the ones inside our heads. Gaining a greater understanding of how you’re personally wired, and using that knowledge and insight, will help you better understand and connect with others. 

When you go about your daily activities, listen to the voice in your head as you face different scenarios and situations and start to think about how those five interlocking human drivers play out. The voices you hear and the silent conversations taking place are triggers for your subsequent behaviour and, ultimately, your actions.

take action; achieve more
  • Gain a greater understanding of self and how  you are wired; a better understanding of self can lead to developing a greater understanding of others
  • Embrace your new findings, so you are better able to support others and have empathy for their situation, download the worksheet to reinforce your knowledge and skills
  • Keep on keeping on. Small steps every day will lead to big changes. Stay focused, and enjoy the process.
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