What if everything you’ve aspired towards as an actualized person turned out to be an incomplete life objective?
Everyone knows that Abraham Maslow created a hierarchy of human needs, with self-acutalization at the apex. Right?
But here’s the thing. Later in life he began to refine his thinking and eventually placed self-transcendence as a motivational step on top of self-actualization.
Think about it! Your personal positioning is no longer the pinnacle of your life’s journey. This is tantamount to discovering the world is not flat!!!
It has far reaching consequences for the meaning of life, as well as how you view altruism and wisdom.
Let’s take a step back. Way back to 1943 when Maslow crystallised his initial motivational theory using the following logic:
“…man lives by bread alone – when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled? At once other (and higher) needs emerge and these…dominate the organism…human needs are organised into a hierarchy of relative prepotency.”
He set out five motivational levels and provided a description of a person at each level:
5 Self-actualization – seeks fulfilment of personal potential.
4 Esteem needs – seeks esteem through recognition or achievement.
3 Belongingness and love needs – seeks affiliation with a group.
2 Safety needs – seeks security through order and law.
1 Physiological (survival needs) – seeks to obtain the basic necessities of life.
In the late 60’s, Maslow added a sixth motivational level:
6 Self-transcendence – seeks to further a cause beyond the self and to experience a communion beyond the boundaries of the self through a peak experience.
By ‘beyond the self’ he meant service to others, devotion to an ideal or a cause. He also included a potential desire to be united with that is perceived as transcendent or divine. A ‘peak experience’ may involve mystical experiences and experiences with nature, aesthetic experiences, sexual experiences or transpersonal experiences in which a person experiences a sense of identity that transcends or extends beyond the personal self.
He believed there was a special cognitive ability at work when transcendence was at play and he called this “Being-cognition”. He saw the “goal of identity (self-actualization) 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.”
While Maslow crystallised a linear logical progression from one need to the next, he was aware that some people were able to jump from any level to self-transcendence.
Importantly for our modern day self-obsessed society, he noted that people who are struggling to gain higher levels and are striving more for self-transcendence than self-actualisation are better off than those who have arrived at self-actualisation and, seeing this as the pinnacle of motivational needs, are resting on their laurels:
“The ones who are struggling and reaching upward really have a better prognosis than the ones who rest perfectly content at the self-actualisation level.”
Victor Frankl, the psychotherapist, transcends Maslow’s hierarchy. Interred in a Nazi concentration camp Frankly experienced severe deprivation of every type imaginable except one: he maintained his quest for meaning. In doing so he jumped across the entire motivational hierarchy and found the bliss and joy of self-transcendence. His bestselling book, Man’s Search for Meaning is a must read.
Why is this important for you?
Firstly, beware of blindly following constructs and paths created by others. They may be incomplete, they may be censored (the American Psychology Association allegedly tried to muzzle Maslow’s theory on self-transcendence). Chart your own path, feel what works for you and resonates within you, not an an ego level, but deep within amongst the quiet soulful spaces of your being.
Secondly, find ways to transcend your selfish needs and wants and focus on finding meaning by rising above your self. Look for ways to be of service to others. Set self-transcendent goals that enhance and amplify your purpose in life.
If you want to delve more into Maslow’s self-transcendence theme and especially how this plays out in business I recommend Chip Conley’s Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo From Maslow.