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I’ve Got Baggage. You Do, Too

I’ve Got Baggage. You Do, Too

Name this movie:

“Well I’m gonna go then! And I don’t need any of this. I don’t need this stuff, and I don’t need you. I don’t need anything. Except this… Just this ashtray…And this paddle game. The ashtray and the paddle game and that’s all I need… And this remote control. – The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that’s all I need… And these matches.

The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control, and the paddle ball… And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game, and the remote control, and the lamp, and that’s all I need.”

If you guessed the 1979 Steve Martin film classic, “The Jerk,” you’re right. In this scene, Martin, playing unlikely millionaire inventor Navin R. Johnson, discovers that he has gone bankrupt and must leave his mansion, his missus and his material possessions behind. Getting ready to abandon it all,

Johnson decides that there are a few items that he simply cannot leave without, and fills his arms with a few choice possessions, staggering off with his pants around his ankles.

By the time you’re reading this, some version of this scene will have just played out in my house – with me in the Steve Martin role (pants on, of course).

You see, earlier this week I left for a month-long work assignment in Beijing. But it has taken me several months to figure out what I absolutely, positively, no-bones-about-it had to take with me, and what I could leave at home.

“The more possessions, the more concern.” This is the wisdom of both Pirkei Avot (2:7) and my husband Michael (43), who packed for me. A Jewish male Martha Stewart, Michael struggled valiantly to keep my work clothes pressed, my toiletries intact, and my electronics untangled as he stacked them into one of my kids’ sleepaway camp duffle bags.

These were the practical must-haves — the items I needed to do my job as a visiting Professor at the business school at Peking University. I had to dress appropriately, I had to smell ok, and I needed my materials. My passport fell into this category (thankfully it’s slim), as did my equally-slender credit cards, plane ticket and Mandarin phrase book.

But there was a whole other set of must-haves that I needed with me — my emotional packing list. As Michael stacked and packed, I sat on the sidelines, waiting, breathing, and praying that he wouldn’t announce, “sorry, you’re out of space” before he got to my pile of possessions that represented comfort and security.

Here’s what my head, heart and gut needed:

• My pillow
• Coffee
• My favorite socks
• Peanut butter, tuna and oatmeal
• Celebrity magazines

Could I have left home without these things? Of course I could have. They have pillows in China, and Starbucks, and socks, and vegetarian food, and probably even People magazine. But while being in a foreign country for a prolonged period of time away from everyone I love, I wanted to have guaranteed, consistent contentment at my fingertips. And so, I packed for peace of mind and practicality. I mean, Michael did. Thanks, honey.

Clearly, I’ve got baggage. Guess what? You probably do, too. And chances are, we pack (or unpack) our baggage the same way. According to noted psychologist and former Brandeis University professor Abraham Maslow, most humans are intrinsically motivated to get their most basic needs met before they can focus on higher-order needs. Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” describes our needs in this order:

• Level 1: Physiological Needs (food, water, shelter, air, sleep)
Level 2: Safety and Security (wellbeing of body, health, property, family, and livelihood)
• Level 3: Love and Belonging (friendship, family, community)
• Level 4: Esteem (confidence, achievement, respect for others, respect for self)
• Level 5: Self-Actualization (doing what you were born to do and being who you were born to be)

Over the past few years, many of us became all too aware of the order of these needs, even if we’d never heard of Maslow. The recession caused a regression, with many of us shifting our focus from pursuing Level 4 and 5 needs to securing our Level 1 and 2 needs. Think about it: It’s impractical, ineffective and ill-advised to be holding out for the job of your dreams (Level 4 and 5 needs) if you’re risking eviction because you can’t pay the rent (Level 1 and 2 needs). I noticed that, for many of my clients, if their Level 3 needs were being met – friendship, family, community – they found the reversal of fortune to be more bearable. And for those of us who are now beginning to feel recovery rounding the corner, thoughts of Level 4 and 5 needs are becoming more present and more powerful.

Little did Maslow know that, more than 65 years after he developed his hierarchy, I’d be packing (or more accurately, supervising the packing of) massive duffle bags filled with a full range of need-meeting stuff. I promise you, I wasn’t thinking “how Maslowian of me!” when I laid out my bounty, but now I can see that I had to include things to eat, for sleep, for health, and for work before I could make a case for anything else in my suitcase.

And after the coffee, the pillow, and my socks, the most important item in my duffle bag is, in fact, another duffle bag. This one, however, is empty. Its space is reserved for all the presents I have promised to bring my kids and my husband when I come home next month.

Do they really, truly need them? You bet they do.

Deborah Grayson Riegel is a certified coach, speaker and trainer who helps individuals, teams and organizations achieve personal and professional success through her high-energy workshops, presentations and one-on-one coaching. Visit her online at or

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