Self-Actualizing in the 21st Century: A Q&A with Scott Barry Kaufman

We’ve all seen the pyramid.

At its foundation are physiological needs—shelter, food, clothing. Just above are psychological needs, like safety and belonging, followed by esteem needs—respect and freedom. And at the pinnacle beams self-actualization, representing potential fulfilled, a life well-lived.

The pyramid is an unfortunate metaphor.

In his newest book, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman reexamines Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, as well as his work on self-actualization and transcendence. Kaufman explains that Maslow didn’t think of human development as a step-by-step climb up a pyramid. Life to Maslow and Kaufman is more complicated and more meaningful than that.

Kaufman’s goal is to bring Maslow’s ideas back to life, along with those of Maslow’s fellow humanistic psychologists of the mid-1900s—those concerned with “what it means to be fully experientially human and how that understanding illuminates the fulfilled or vital life.”

In his refresh, Kaufman brings Maslow’s hierarchy and humanist ideas into the twenty-first century. He provides a new metaphor for the hierarchy of needs, one that better captures their ebb and flow. The book also provides an important counterweight to the barrage of messages demanding we focus on personal achievement—even if what’s being achieved is happiness.

Finally, the book indirectly poses a challenge to behavioral scientists. That behavioral interventions are designed to “help people make better decisions” or “help improve people’s lives” is a common refrain. But in what ways? And by how much? Many in the field are self-aware about wanting to solve larger problems. How might revitalizing the work of humanistic psychologists, whose aim was to help people realize their potential, encourage today’s behavioral scientists, who are equipped with the tools to reach more people than ever, to aim higher? With so much focus on the ways minor details can have a big influence on behavior, it’s refreshing to zoom out and think about what it’s all for.

I spoke with Kaufman about what self-actualizing in the twenty-first century means, as well as the tension between growth and security. We also touched on the advice he would give to policymakers who want to create self-actualizing citizens. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Evan Nesterak: Let’s start by dispelling a myth. Is it true that Maslow did not author the famous pyramid many of us are familiar with?

Scott Barry Kaufman: That’s right. I looked through a lot of his writings, and he never actually drew a pyramid to represent his hierarchy of needs. It was management journals that ended up doing that. He was very clear that human development is a constant developmental process where we move two steps forward, and then we fall back a step. Life is not like a video game where you reach one level like connection and then some voice from above is like, “Congrats, you’ve unlocked esteem and then we never have to worry about that again.” He’s very clear life is not like that.

Self-actualization is a term many of us are familiar with, but we may not have a precise definition for it. Can you define self-actualization for us?

Maslow defined it as becoming all that you could possibly become, the best aspects of yourself fully developed. (Now, there are some aspects of the self we certainly don’t want to become all that they’re capable of becoming.) He said, a person must do what they can do—an artist must paint, a poet must write poetry. We have these potentialities within us that we can feel deep inside and that would offer so much benefit to ourselves and to the world. Self-actualization is bringing those potential realities to as full expression as possible.

We need a metaphor that doesn’t look like a linear pyramid where we climb some sort of mountain. Life is not a trek up a mountain.

You write that we need a new metaphor for self-actualization in the twenty-first century. Can you tell us the metaphor that you landed on?

Yes—we need a sailboat metaphor. We need a metaphor that doesn’t look like a linear pyramid where we climb some sort of mountain. Life is not a trek up a mountain. Life is about integration and being a whole person, just like a sailboat is a whole vehicle. A sailboat needs multiple parts to operate. It needs to have a secure structure. But security’s not enough or else it won’t go anywhere. It also needs growth—it needs to open a sail and go in a direction, usually a purposeful direction, even with the unknown of the sea crashing against it.

Could you say more about two aspects of your version of a twenty-first century hierarchy of needs—what you term growth and security?

There are different modes of existence. When you’re in a deficiency mode of human existence, you are trying to get the world to conform to you, so we make demands on the world. When we have a serious deprivation of food, everything looks like a hot dog. We walk around in this constant state of “Feed me.” When we’re seriously deprived of connections, we walk around in that state of deprivation—“Everyone please accept me, please like me, please love me.” When we don’t feel respect, we demand people respect us. That’s why security of those basic needs is so important.

But if we can satisfy them to a certain degree, we can really work toward the “being realm” of human existence or the “growth realm.“ In that realm of human existence, things do not serve as a means to an end. Things are an end in themselves. We’re driven by more transcendent values that are outside of ourselves. We even treat people as ends in themselves. We can admire them for who they are uniquely, as sacred, different from us, without trying to change them or try to make them satisfy some deep deficiency within our soul.

We’re here to make a rose into a good rose not turn a rose into a lily.

One could perceive self-actualization as very individualistic and transcendence as melding with others and the world. How do self-actualization and transcendence connect with one another?

Transcendence rests on a healthy foundation of self-actualization. At the highest level of human consciousness, I don’t think we have to treat self-actualization and transcendence as at odds with each other. At the highest level of transcendence, there’s a great connection with the world and a great unity between self and world. What is good for you is good for others. The idea of selfishness breaks down. It doesn’t even make any sense to be selfish at that level of transcendence.

I want to pull a quote you cite from Maslow’s journals that really stuck out to me. “It would seem that every human being comes at birth into society not as a lump of clay to be molded by society, but rather as a structure which society may warp or suppress or build upon.” How do you interpret this observation?

We’re not born blank slates, and we are all born with potential realities for lots of things, and not just things that we have in common with the human species, like our need for belonging and security. But we also come prepackaged, so to speak, with our own individual potentials for our temperament—what kind of personality are we going to develop, our intelligence, our creativity. We have unique talents, unique interests, that are at least partially influenced by genes and their interaction with the environment. The environment plays a very important role. It can stand in the way of these potentialities that want to express themselves desperately. It can block them. Maslow was quite right. I stand by Maslow’s quote. Maslow has another good quote where he says teachers are horticulturalists—we’re here to make a rose into a good rose not turn a rose into a lily.

If you were advising policymakers on how to create self-actualizing citizens, what would your advice be?

A lot of it starts in changing the model of education from one where we’re intensely focused on standardized knowledge. We change the reward structures. We reward things like individual development, individual growth, interest, engagement, love of learning. 

I think a lot of it really starts in education, and then we build up to societal level. As Maslow said, we need to make a society where virtue pays, where people who are making the most money in our society, they’re good people. They’re people whose interests are harmonious with the interests of the collective good. This is the way I would start.

Even in our time of such great uncertainty and stress, we must not neglect our higher possibilities.

Was there anything that surprised you while you were writing the book?

I was surprised just how many neuroses Maslow had himself. When I really dug into his life and his writings, I found it really interesting that he had all these conflicts within himself. I thought he’d be just this self-actualized being. Only at the very end of his life did he really start to reconcile some of those long struggles he had within himself—his spirituality and his tenderness versus his rational scientific side were always fighting. And also his need to be seen as a martyr of some sort, to be seen as this great prophet, but also this desperate need to be liked and to connect with others. That surprised me, seeing the paradoxes within him and his own personal life.

What inspired you most while writing the book?

I was inspired by so much. I was inspired by the writings of the humanistic psychologists in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. I would even go back to Alfred Adler and Karen Horney in the ’30s. It just lit me up reading these writings for this time period and seeing such relevance today. Maslow matters; humanistic psychology matters. I’m trying to resuscitate it and show the world that, even in our time of such great uncertainty and stress, we must not neglect our higher possibilities. They’re still there, and they want to be actualized. They need to be actualized.