Scott Barry Kaufman is a good man. He’s a cognitive scientist who studies human potential and has taught at Columbia, NYU, and UPenn. He’s also a ginormous optimist so studying the work of fellow humanistic psychologist, Abraham Maslow, was the perfect project for Scott.
Scott never met Maslow in person, yet somehow he developed a strong affinity for him. Scott writes in his book, “Transcend: The New Science of Self Actualization”:
When I discovered Maslow’s later writings, sprinkled throughout a collection of unpublished essays, journal entries, personal correspondences, and lectures, I immediately felt a deep resonance with his thinking and vision, and deep admiration and affection for his life and work.
Here I go talking about Scott like I’ve met him. It’s weird. We have of course never met, but after reading his book, I feel like I have a lens into Scott and his mind. I’ve heard people talk about authors like they are their friends, and particularly during this last year of isolation, books have provided solace for many people, including myself.
Just listen to what Maslow has to say about friendship:
At a higher level…then something else happens that it’s possible for me to feel very friendly, as I do, to count among my friends Abraham Lincoln, Socrates…Spinoza, I have great affection for Spinoza, great respect. At another level, corresponding to love or admiration or respect for the being of the other person…It could be said that I have love for William James, which I do. It happens sometimes, I talk about him such an affectionate way that people ask me, ‘Did you know him?’ [to which I reply,] ‘Yes.’ Which [of course] I couldn’t have.
Scott Kaufman, like Abraham Maslow, has an uplifting, transcending energy. Perhaps they can both be considered as utopian thinkers, but, hey..whatever.., I’m on board. I plan to read soon Straw Dogs, John Gray’s book, which is supposed to be cynical as hell about human beings. Maybe then I’ll get my head out of the clouds and finally stop thinking so positively about our human potential, and my life will become easier, because, god damn, it’s hard to always be changing and becoming a better person!
But, till then, until I read John Gray’s book, which one Goodreads user has labeled as “the most depressing and pessimistic 200 pages I have read in a long time,” let’s stay positive, optimistic, and loving, by exploring the work of Scott Barry Kaufman and Abraham Maslow.
A clunky, old metaphor for our needs
You are probably familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If not, it’s that triangle thing that looks like a food pyramid, but instead of a menu of foods, it has a menu of needs. It looks something like this:
Similarly to the food pyramid, the hierarchy of needs is not to be taken for face value. Maslow never intended for the needs to be like a hierarchy. It was schools that took the needs and falsely taught them as a hierarchy because… I don’t know, it’s probably easier that way, and, well…who cares.. schools are masters at teaching misconstrued information and not progressing in thought, over and over again throughout history, so whatever let’s not get hung up on school policy.
Let’s instead get back to what Maslow actually intended to teach us.
A new metaphor
Maslow didn’t see life as a story of achievement, of mastering level by level until you’ve “won” the game of life. Like other humanistic psychologists, Maslow emphasized that life is not a competition; it’s an experience.
Scott has created a new metaphor of a sailboat. He writes:
Life isn’t a trek up a summit but a journey to travel through - a vast blue ocean, full of new opportunities for meaning and discovery but also danger and uncertainty. In this choppy surf, a clunky pyramid is of little use. Instead, what is needed is something a bit more functional. We’ll need a sailboat.
I absolutely love this next paragraph:
As we sail through the adventure of life, it’s rarely clear sailing. The boat itself protects us from seas that are rarely as calm as we’d like. Each plank of the boat offers security from the waves. Without it, we’d surely spend all our energy trying to stay above water. While even one plank is better than nothing, the bigger the boat, the more waves you can endure. Likewise in life, while safety is an essential foundation for feeling secure, adding on strong connections with others and feelings of respect and worthiness will further allow you to weather the storms.
And here is a visual of the sailboat:
As you think about how you can open sail in your own life, keep in mind that you must do it in your own style. We are all gifted with different talents; some people are meant to be writers; others chefs, musicians, physicists, doctors, talking heads, business people, jugglers, professional cuddlers, comedians, etc. It’s never too late to explore new parts of yourself, try new things, and meet new and different people.
Oh, and lastly (this is my advice - not Maslow or Kaufman’s, although they would probably approve it):
Don’t be a square. Try hard to be zany and weird and surround yourself with quirky people. Otherwise, you wake up one day and realize you’ve been living in a space suit, conforming to others’ expectations, desires, and wants.. and never fulfilling your own true potential.
Take care, my friends! Be well, and till next time.