NaBloPoMo 2018: What I’m Learning
Did you know that Abraham Maslow never represented his hierarchy of needs as a pyramid? I didn’t either! To be clear, I have not read the paper I just linked; it was linked in a different article I read today, describing more about Maslow’s work than I have ever known before. It’s in Scientific American, entitled, “What Does It Mean to be Self-Actualized in the 21st Century?” by Scott Barry Kaufman.
Especially later in his life, Maslow’s focus was much more on the paradoxical connections between self-actualization and self-transcendence, and the distinction between defense vs. growth motivation. Maslow’s emphasis was less on a rigid hierarchy of needs, and more on the notion that self-actualized people are motivated by health, growth, wholeness, integration, humanitarian purpose, and the “real problems of life.”
I was intrigued by this piece because I remember so clearly when I first learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy. It was in seventh grade, and I can’t remember anymore the class or context. I just recall that it made so much sense, and I felt such a swell of joy at the possibility that something so complex could be distilled and explained so simply. It would have been fair to predict at that time that I would go on to become a psychologist. The boy I had a crush on that year (and all through high school, actually) asked me where I saw myself on the pyramid. I remember looking at the tiers and thinking, very clearly, oh, I’m at the top. I felt a little sheepish, afraid I would be seen as bragging, but it was the honest answer, and I said so. “Bullshit,” was his reply. I can’t remember our verbal exchange thereafter, but I think I was able to convince him that I really felt like I was ‘there.’ And I left that encounter feeling both a bit more self-aware and also proud that I had stood my ground and defended a truth. You could also have guessed I would later entertain a brief interest in law school.
Kaufman has revisited Maslow’s work, including his hierarchy of needs, and evaluated the components in the context of modern life. Reassuringly, 10 of 17 of Maslow’s self-actualization characteristics still stand up to ‘scientific scrutiny,’ (not sure how he measured this). He names the ten characteristics in the article, and you can ‘take the quiz’ to see how self-actualized you are today. I love quizzes like this. I have done the Myers-Briggs at least 5 times. Others I love are Gregorc Mind Styles, Insights Discovery, and the Gallup Strengths Finder. The most useful ones tell you what you already know about your strengths, and also offer advice and insights on how to manage your blind spots.
But the most interesting aspect of Kaufman’s article to me was Maslow’s interest in self-actualization and its relationship to self-transcendence. We can understand self-actualization as ‘achieving one’s full potential’ and self-transcendence as ‘decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness,’ (again, not read the paper; it’s linked in Kaufman’s article) or basically subsuming and/or integrating oneself within a greater whole. At first you may think that these are mutually exclusive states of mind and being. The coolest thing is that it’s not actually an either/or proposition; it is absolutely both/and:
While self-actualization showed zero relationship to decreased self-salience, self-actualization did show a strong positive correlation with increased feelings of oneness with the world.
Self-actualized people don’t sacrifice their potentialities in the service of others; rather, they use their full powers in the service of others (important distinction). You don’t have to choose either self-actualization or self-transcendence– the combination of both is essential to living a full and meaningful existence.
It reminds me of another subsection of Chapter 3 in Leading Change in Healthcare, wherein Suchman et al discuss holding the tension and balance between self-differentiation (clear sense of individuality) and attunement (deep awareness and acceptance of how we are connected and resonant with those around us). It also reminds me of Brené Brown’s work on trust; she describes eloquently in Rising Strong how we can neither trust others nor be trustworthy ourselves without clarity and boundaries around who we are and our core values, and living in that integrity all of the time.
Once again, I find encouraging and validating evidence for something I really feel I have known since an early age: We are all our best selves and our best communities not in competition, but in collaboration. Cohesion in diversity weaves a stronger social fabric of connections, more flexible and elastic. But that means we need to know exactly what we as individuals each bring to contribute. Personal, intrinsic meaning and purpose are foundational for substantive interactions with others and resilient communal relationships.
Our world can meet each and every one of our physiologic, psychologic, and self-fulfillment needs—we can provide this for one another. We can each strive for our own goals, alongside our peers, and still help each other on the rocky, uphill parts. We really need to stop with the scarcity thinking and get on with the business of working together, maximizing each of our strengths, and making society better for all of us.