Friday Book Club | Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization.
This spring, author Scott Barry Kaufman launched his ninth book, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization (not bad for someone 41 years old, right?!). Since Scott is one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject of intelligence, we’ll explore the difference between intelligence and wisdom.
Chip: Thanks for joining us. We share a fascination with Abraham Maslow and his psychological theories. Can you tell us about Maslow’s Theory Z worldview and how it relates to wisdom?
SBK: Wisdom is often conceptualized in the psychological literature as involving an integration among cognitive, affective, and behavioral dimensions. This includes the ability to accept multiple perspectives, to respond non-defensively when challenged, to express a wide array of emotions in order to derive meaning, to critically evaluate human truths, and to become aware of the uncertain and paradoxical nature of human problems. As clinical psychologist Deirdre Kramer puts it, “Wise people have learned to view the positive and negative and synthesize them to create a more human, more integrated sense of self, in all its frailty and vulnerability. . . . They seem able to first embrace and then transcend self-concerns to integrate their capacity for introspection with a deep and abiding concern for human relationships and generative concern for others.”
Maslow talked about “Theory Z”, which he contrasted with Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y. According to McGregor, Theory X is based on the assumption that the typical worker does their job out of self-interest and are motivated by external rewards. Theory Y is based on the assumption that workers are intrinsically motivated to do their job, and are motivated to maximize their potential. Maslow went a step further and argued that some people are motivated by the higher “B-values” in life, or the values of pure being. Things such as truth, meaningfulness, justice, beauty, excellence, simplicity, etc. Those with a Theory Z are also motivated by transcendent peak experiences in which we get outside of ourselves and have a great synergy with the world. Maslow very much connected Theory Z to wisdom, calling those who fit under Theory Z the “transcenders”, and arguing that transcenders have a lot of “dichotomy-transcendence”—they can see the compatibility of many false dichotomies that most people treat as dichotomies (e.g., evil vs. good, selfish vs. unselfish, male vs. female, etc.). Maslow saw dichotomy-transcendence as a core part of wisdom, and that ties in nicely with the latest psychological literature.
Chip: How can we become a “transcender?”
SBK: Anyone can be a transcender. It just takes a shift in your motivational framework. Commit to one of the B-values and put your heart and soul into it. Seek out triggers for flow and peak experiences, such as minimizing distractions and observing nature, studying inspirational moral leaders, or seeking out mentors who believe in you. Rearrange your day so that you are in flow as much as possible, completely absorbed in what you are doing and there is a great connection between your self-expression and the world. What is good for you is good for the world.
Chip: What do you say to those who feel Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is too Westernized and individualistic in its viewpoint? Isn’t Maslow a little passe for the world of academia?
SBK: I say hogwash! Hehe. It’s a great misconception that “self-actualization”— as conceptualized by Maslow and the other humanistic psychologists of his era— is a purely individualistic pursuit. Maslow very much emphasized self-actualization as involving a commitment to something outside yourself— a calling that you put your heart and soul into. Especially during the last few years of his life, he was constantly trying to show higher ceilings on human nature. He became increasingly smitten with the Bodhisattva path to enlightenment, in which we don’t reach enlightenment until we help others realize their potential and decrease their suffering.
Chip: Would you consider yourself in early midlife, Scott? How will you use this learning about transcenders to evolve how you live your life and what other advice do you have for those in midlife?
SBK: Yes, I am amazed that I am 41 years old. 41! It all happens so fast. But I want to live a Bodhisattva path. I feel like the last 20 years I was so focused on realizing my potential. Whatever time I have left, I want devote much more of my time to helping others realize their potential, especially those who may want to take a similar path to me. I have lived a rather unconventional life, and I want to show people that they can do that too. One can self-actualize in their own style. It’s possible!
Chip: I love that and feel like we have a kinship with that point of view. What kind of wisdom would Maslow offer world leaders given how 2020 has been such a watershed year?
SBK: I think if the humanistic psychologists from the 50s and 60s were still around, they very much would emphasize the importance of “unconditional positive regard” (as Carl Rogers put it). They’d tell world leaders that the only way forward is to transcend tribalism as much as possible. It’s very easy to divide people based on their group membership or identity because that’s deeply ingrained into human nature. But it takes a good leader to be a transcender and look for ways of bringing us all together as a single species-- rallying us around common transcendent experiences such as awe-promoting universal acceptance.
Chip: Any thoughts on the idea of “midlife wisdom schools” proliferating around the world and when are we getting you down to Baja to teach at MEA?
SBK: I just love the idea of “midlife wisdom schools”, especially as I am getting older myself. The first hint that it is safe to travel, I would absolutely adore coming to Baja. It’d be a delight to teach and learn from you and others, but really I just want to hang out with you and get silly on the beach. At the end of the day, all we have is human connection.
Chip: Scott and I did a podcast on his The Psychology Podcast that went live last week so you can hear our banter here.