From Self-Actualization to Self-Transcendence.

April 25, 2024

From Self-Actualization to Self-Transcendence.

May 29, 2023

I’ve spent most of my career as a crossing guard at the congested, complicated intersection of psychology and business. My books and blog posts have profiled psychology wizards from Carl Jung to Viktor Frankl to Esther Perel.

But, the psychologist whom I’m most associated with is Abraham Maslow because of PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow, a 2007 book I channeled as I read more about his fascination with applying his Hierarchy of Needs pyramid to organizations. Abe died at an age younger than I am now, so much of his scholarship on this topic got lost. Because his family knew I was researching and writing this important book that would help his legacy, they gave me his published diaries for the last ten years of his life. 

One fact that doesn’t get a lot of attention is that Abe believed that his five-level pyramid should evolve to an eight-level pyramid with self-transcendence at the top (in truth, Abe didn’t believe in the visual pyramid framework since it felt too linear). He wrote about how self-actualization (being all you can be) is a necessary path toward transcending the self, 

“The goal of identity [self-actualization] seems to be simultaneously an end-goal in itself, and also a transitional goal, a rite of passage, a step along the path to the transcendence of identity. … If our goal is the Eastern one of ego-transcendence and obliteration, of leaving behind self-consciousness and self-observation, … then it looks as if the best path to this goal for most people is via achieving identity, a strong real self, and via basic-need-gratification.”

It’s not surprising that he evolved into this thinking about altruism and spirituality as Abe moved into his later midlife period and right around the time that he had a heart attack three years before he died of a second heart attack in 1970. It makes sense that he would expand his consciousness at a time when he was facing his own mortality. 

As MEA faculty member Richard Rohr has suggested, it’s in midlife when we learn to transcend our ego in service of the soul and, as Maslow put it, in service of “human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.” It’s always been irritating for me to hear folks bash Maslow as entirely individualistic in his perspective when most folks don’t know about Maslow’s evolution later in his life. 

Recently, I was asked to give a talk at M.I.T. in Boston to a tightly-knit group of 150 U.S. business leaders who’ve been meeting yearly for more than two decades. They asked me to talk about transcendence and I could see that my process to finding that state has been through the obstacle course of unconscious mindsets from “I am what I do” to “I am how I look” to “I am what I own” to “I am what others say about me.” It’s only been, after age 50, when I adapted development psychologist Erik Erikson’s mantra of “I am what survives me” to “I am how I serve” that I’ve come to realize the liberation of transcending the self. I’ve always appreciated Rabindranath Tagore’s saying: “I slept and drempt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service way joy.” This saying had a profound impact on me when I started my bouitque hotel company, Joie de Vivre. 

Want to understand whether you have the capacity for self-transcendence? You might check out the Self-Transcendence Scale (STS) that was created by Pamela Reed in 1986 which includes 15 variables for you to self-score like:

Being involved with other people or my community when possible.

Adjusting well to changes in my physical abilities.

Able to move beyond things that once seemed so important.

Letting others help me when I may need it.

Accepting myself as I grow older.

Finding meaning in my spiritual beliefs.

Author Jonathan Haidt has written, “Awe is the emotion of self-transcendence.” I think that captures it as it’s a feeling of no longer being bounded by ourself and our petty grievances and ego-feeding thinking. 

-Chip

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