Third Factor Reads: Transcend by Scott Barry Kaufman

TRANSCEND: THE NEW SCIENCE OF SELF-ACTUALIZATION
By Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD
432 pp. TarcherPerigee (April 7, 2020). $26.00.

When we prepare content for Third Factor, we keep a target audience in mind. The broad pool of intense, creative people is our starting point, but when we have cause to focus even further, we find ourselves zooming in on those people who aspire to something higher in themselves. To be sure, most of these people haven’t gotten “there” yet; they may not even know where “there” is. But they’re humble enough to know it, and they’re interested in trying to walk that path with others like them.

Scott Barry Kaufman’s latest book offers this crowd a compass for their journey. Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization pairs the latest research on the journey that is psychological growth with the story of one of the most famous psychologists to study it, Abraham Maslow. You’re probably familiar with Maslow’s famous pyramid of needs, that graphic that puts security needs like shelter and food at the base and self-actualization at the top.

But that pyramid isn’t quite right, as it turns out. As a matter of fact, Kaufman reports, Maslow didn’t even design it himself (it was someone else’s popularization of his ideas). And so, to better capture Maslow’s ideas—and to reflect our modern understanding—Kaufman offers a clear new symbol: a sailboat.

Transcend, in essence, is an operating manual for that sailboat. In the hull, you find the needs related to security—what Maslow called deficiency needs, including safety, connection, and self-esteem. If you don’t have those, you’ll spend your energy trying to get them to keep that boat from sinking. But when your deficiency needs are met, you open up the sail by moving to what Maslow called being needs—exploration, love, and purpose. When you’ve got those in place, you’re ready to sail off on life’s grand journey.

So, dear readers, what are you struggling with—deficiency needs, being needs, or perhaps some of both? Wherever your boat may need a tune-up, Transcend offers insight you can use. Connecting you to the research and the story of Maslow’s own journey that make up the main part of the book is the appendix, where you’ll find concrete exercises you can do if you’re serious about fixing up any part of your boat.

Openness (of Your Sail) to Experience

All of the various being-needs are likely to interest to Third Factor readers, but there’s one part of the sail that brings this crowd together, and that’s exploration. In the chapter on exploration, we find the psychological construct of openness to experience—and that’s essentially another way of talking about what Kazimierz Dabrowski called overexcitability (OE). OE, after all, can be described as unusually high levels of various domains of openness to experience.

Dabrowski, moreover, wasn’t the only psychologist to note the key role of openness in the creative person’s growth. As Kaufman writes,

The concept of “openness to experience” played a central role in the thinking of the founding humanistic psychologists. For both Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, the height of self-actualization was creativity, and one of the key drivers of creativity was openness to experience. Carl Rogers simply defined openness to experience as “the opposite of psychological defensiveness.” Rogers conceptualized openness to experience as a mode of cognitive processing where one is open to all of one’s personal experiences, receiving conflicting information without forcing closure, tolerating ambiguity, and seeing reality clearly without imposing predetermined categories onto the world.

This passage reveals so much about why overexcitability is both a challenge and a gift. All of these things that Rogers describes here are difficult to pull off, more difficult still for most of us to master. But it’s always seemed to me that precisely from that tension that creativity—and growth—can bubble up, like magma from vents in the ocean floor that eventually creates continents. And I know of no quick and easy way to harness raw intensity and sensitivity and turn it from a vulnerability into a strength.  You’re probably gonna have to work at it.

Maslow and Dabrowski

Given that they seem to be talking about a similar process, one might wonder if Abraham Maslow and Kazimierz Dabrowski ever had a conversation. The answer to that is yes, they did. The two men met in 1966 and became friends, corresponding with each other until Maslow’s death in 1970; Maslow even contributed an endorsement that was printed on the back cover of Dabrowski’s 1972 book, Psychoneurosis is not an Illness. (Piechowski, 1999; Tillier, n.d.)

Dabrowski’s collaborator Michael Piechowski has argued (most famously and controversially in the 1977 volume they coauthored—and that Dabrowski rejected) that, though Dabrowski himself didn’t see it, Abraham Maslow had essentially proven the power of Dabrowski’s theory. The snapshots of Maslow’s life and work in Transcend make it easy to see why. Kaufman doesn’t talk much about Dabrowski (though he does make a brief cameo). Toward the end, however, the book begins exploring Maslow’s “Theory Z,” a set of insights that he published in 1969 on the difference between transcenders and non-transcending self-actualizers (who were described by what he called Theory Y):

While arguing that transcenders also fulfill the expectations of Theory Y [ed. note: i.e., they are free of deficiency needs and driven by their desire to actualize their potential] Maslow argued that they also transcend Theory Y, having more frequent “illuminations or insights or cognitions which changed their view of the world and of themselves, perhaps occasionally, perhaps as a usual thing.” Maslow proposed that transcenders are “metamotivated” by higher ideals and values that go beyond the satisfaction of basic needs and the fulfillment of one’s unique self. These metamotivations include a devotion to a calling outside onself, as well as a commitment to the ultimate values, or the B-values, the values of Being. (220)

It strikes me that there’s something in Maslow’s transcenders that lines up with what Dabrowski’s level V, secondary integration, making this book a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the process of positive disintegration.

There’s one last question I want to highlight that, I think, will be particularly salient to those nonconformists and eccentrics who are often drawn to the idea of positive disintegration: to be a transcender, must you sacrifice your unique self for the sake of others? Or should you disregard what others think and be wholly who you feel you are?

Healthy transcendence is an emergent phenomenon resulting from the harmonious integration of one’s whole self in the service of cultivating the good society.

Scott Barry Kaufman, Transcend

The answer, as the book illuminates, is neither. It’s a balancing act. I could quote passages that show the psychological support for this argument, but instead, I’ll direct you to pick up the book yourself, because the question is so much deeper, so much richer, and so much more complex than any single passage could do justice to. Transcendence, in the end, is the ultimate balancing act—the result of perfectly balancing the deficiency needs and the being needs and then launching yourself up from that integration. In Transcend, Scott Barry Kaufman defines it this way:

Healthy transcendence is an emergent phenomenon resulting from the harmonious integration of one’s whole self in the service of cultivating the good society. (218)

If that resonates with you, if you want someone to walk alongside you as you try to find that balance in your own life, head over to your favorite bookseller and put in your pre-order. Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization goes on sale on April 7, 2020.

Find Your Copy

  • Barnes and Noble
  • If you’re going to buy it from Amazon, you can follow this link if you’d like Amazon to give 10% of the profit back to Third Factor.

Interested in discussing Transcend with us? Starting April 14, 2020, we’ll be discussing a chapter every week over at the Third Factor Discussion Group.

Coming in our May/June issue: Our interview with Scott Barry Kaufman.  Follow us on Twitter or Facebook if you don’t want to miss it! You can also join our mailing list to get new issues sent straight to your email box:

Editor in Chief at Third Factor jessie@thirdfactor.org Web Posts

A divergent thinker who can't abide an echo chamber, Jessie has served as assistant to the Consul General of Japan, Google Policy Fellow, and CIA leadership analyst. She is now an independent writer and analyst.