This week marks 50 years since the passing of a great mind and teacher in human potential psychology. Abraham Maslow (April 1, 1908 — June 8, 1970) is regarded as the father of humanistic psychology not merely because he founded the principal academic journal and professional association of the field.
But more so because his genuine belief in, passion for, and commitment to the subject resonated so strongly in all his contributions of only part of a lifetime, before his death from heart trouble at the age of 62.
Did his work receive more attention in the 1970s and 1980s simply because of his early passing? Maybe. Did he gain more notoriety because some American business schools and management journals promoted, albeit incorrectly, his “hierarchy of needs” as a pyramid to climb in their curriculums and publications? Probably.
But a gem of original insight and sincere compassion — focused on the highest human ideals and aspirations — should not be ignored simply because he and his work were popular and misunderstood. And what a closer examination of Maslow’s work reveals — even with the current tower of academic psychology, driven by experiments and data, discounting his work as “unscientific” — is that he may have been on to something really big that even he didn’t see. In this essay, I will share the views of others who have seen the magisterial path he divined.
What Hath Abraham Wrought
My favorite teacher of evolution is the late, great Stephen J. Gould. The first book of his I read was Ever Since Darwin, which was mostly a collection of his monthly essays on all things concerning the evolution of life in the journal Nature, where he compiled a streak of something like two decade’s worth of pieces. That title was obviously meant to signify the importance of the revolution that came after Charles’s work The Origin of Species.
For the field of psychology, one could write titles like “Ever Since Freud” or “Ever Since James.” But if we really wanted to modernize our focus on the arena of human potential, and what has often been called “positive” or “transpersonal” psychology, it would of course be “Ever Since Maslow.”
I have three excellent books which have illuminated the life and work of Maslow in unique ways. I will highlight slices of each coming up, in particular the one published only two months ago which is a treasure trove of insight and inspiration on all things that Abe studied and loved.
First, let’s talk more about what we knew of the thinker and his legacy in 1999 — before those three books were published and the dot-com bubble burst over Silicon Valley, causing one author and Stanford grad to seek solace, wisdom, and inspiration in the works of the man who had spent his last few years as a consultant to private enterprise in Menlo Park, CA.
Who Was Abe and What Inspired Him?
According to Wikipedia biographical information…
Born in 1908 and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Maslow was the oldest of seven children. His parents were first generation Jewish immigrants from Kiev, then part of the Russian Empire (now Ukraine), who fled from Czarist persecution in the early 20th century.
His most significant published works were arguably these 3 books…
Motivation and Personality (1954)
Toward a Psychology of Being (1962)
Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences (1964)
His Wikipedia entry relies heavily on a biography by Edward Hoffman, The Right to be Human: A Biography of Abraham Maslow, published in 1988 by St. Martin’s Press. From that book and the 2008 “Abraham Maslow: A Brief Reminiscence” in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, we learn the following…
In the spring of 1961, Maslow and Tony Sutich founded the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, with Miles Vich as editor until 1971. The journal printed its first issue in early 1961 and continues to publish academic papers.
Maslow attended the Association for Humanistic Psychology’s founding meeting in 1963 where he declined nomination as its president, arguing that the new organization should develop an intellectual movement without a leader which resulted in useful strategy during the field’s early years.
From here, Maslow’s professional efforts seem interesting, but academic. That is until we learn of his early life experiences and observations of anti-Semitism, poverty, racism, and ignorance and the impact they had on him and his evolving views of the human predicament.
While developing his ideas of human passion, creativity, skill and higher performance — what he came to call “peak experiences” — he also realized that what held so many back from actualizing their potential was their negative, stifling and destructive environments. From Motivation and Personality…
“We should never have the desire to compose music or create mathematical systems, or to adorn our homes, or to be well dressed if our stomachs were empty most of the time, or if we were continually dying of thirst, or if we were continually threatened by an always impending catastrophe, or if everyone hated us.”
Inequality and Persistent Social Injustice
It is said that Maslow was an early and vocal proponent of free or reduced-price school lunches to make sure that children in poverty were being met with essential nutrition for their growing bodies and minds. Fifty years later, with an economy nearly twenty times the size (U.S. GDP first breached $1 trillion in 1969) and overflowing with unbelievable wealth, it’s very likely he would be even more dissatisfied with our efforts to take care of the most precious and vulnerable in society.
In February, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, arguably the world’s most important apolitical economic decision maker, spoke about income inequality as the nation’s biggest economic challenge in the coming decade:
“We want prosperity to be widely shared. We need policies to make that happen.”
According to a Washington Post article by Heather Long, @byHeatherLong, Powell said at the time that he was concerned that income growth for middle- and working-class Americans “has really decreased,” while “growth at the top has been very strong.”
“The U.S. lags now in mobility. And that’s not our self-image as a country, nor is it where we want to be,” he said.
There is of course frequent criticism that the primary monetary policies of the Federal Reserve tend to benefit the upper class involved with the machinery of Wall Street finance and investment. The “Fed” would defend its actions by noting its simple dual mandate to promote maximum employment and price stability, providing monetary liquidity that encourages investment, job creation, and aggregate economic growth to benefit all citizens, while controlling inflation and speculative excesses.
This week after a policy meeting by the central bank, where he also addressed the recent racial unrest and mass protests against aggressive and violent policing tactics that have systematically targeted people of color, Powell talked about the jobs picture and its impact on minorities…
“A lot of the lost jobs [during the pandemic shutdown] were from people who work in the service economy dealing with the public, for example, and relatively, compared to other jobs, relatively low wages,” Powell said. “Unemployment has gone up more for Hispanics, more for African-Americans, and women have borne a notable share of the burden beyond their percentage in the workforce. That’s really, really, really unfortunate.”
Recently I wondered what Abraham Maslow would say about the wonders of the human brain revealed to us by neuroscience. This year, we also get to ponder what he would conclude about our progress on economic equality, race and social justice. Now we’ll discuss a book that sheds light on his early experiences with race and class.
The Maslow Impact Was Deep
So who can be counted as finding inspiration in Maslow’s work and expanding on it in their own contributions to the diverse approaches within humanistic psychology? The list is long and a separate book could be written by each of many professionals and practitioners, within and beyond the field itself.
I mentioned I’ll be sharing three unique books and the newest one is both a treasure of thought on achieving one’s potential and a tribute to Maslow’s life and work. Just published in April, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, was written by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and the book is a delight on multiple levels, not least because he gained access to Maslow’s “unfinished theory of transcendence, sprinkled throughout a cache of unpublished journals, lectures, and essays.”
Kaufman had already published important work on an expanded view of intelligence that emphasized creativity over natural talent. According to Wikipedia, “most media attention has focused on Kaufman’s attempt to redefine intelligence” through his books Ungifted and Wired to Create.
I look forward to learning if Kaufman found inspiration and direction in the works of Howard Gardner, author of the 1983 Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, or from neuroplasticity pioneers Paul Bach-y-Rita and Michael Merzenich, or from the “deliberate practice” research of Anders Ericsson. Or, was Kaufman’s research more original and cross-disciplinary than I have any idea? That will be the question for another article.
To give us an idea of the humanistic movement that Maslow helped ignite, Kaufman writes in the introduction to Transcend…
Maslow was not alone. Between 1930 and 1970, a group of like-minded thinkers arose — including Alfred Adler, James Bugental, Charlotte Bühler, Arthur Combs, Viktor Frankl, Erich Fromm, Eugene Gendlin, Karen Horney, Sidney Jourard, Jim Klee, R. D. Laing, Rollo May, Clark Moustakas, Carl Rogers, Donald Snygg, and Anthony Sutich — who all saw the limitations of the experimental psychology, behaviorism, and Freudian psychoanalysis of the day. These disciplines, they felt, did not do justice to the individual as a whole; they left behind humanity’s immense potential for creativity, spirituality, and humanitarianism. Referring to themselves as the Third Force, they attempted to integrate the insights of the more traditional perspectives while exploring “what it means to be fully experientially human and how that understanding illuminates the fulfilled or vital life.”
And from this Third Force springboard of humanist energy, Kaufman grabbed Maslow’s journal notes and expanded his model and unfinished theory of transcendence, integrating those ideas with the latest research on attachment, affection, security, growth, creativity, purpose and other “building blocks of a life well lived.”
What Impacted Maslow?
Kaufman describes various pieces of Abe’s early life to give us a picture of who he was and what he believed…
“Maslow’s own working-class upbringing as the eldest son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and being the target of constant anti-Semitic bullying as a child, influenced his lifelong focus on social change.” (page 7)
“In 1938, early in Maslow’s professional career as a psychologist,” he secured a grant along with other researchers “to spend an entire anthropological summer among the Northern Blackfoot Indians on the Siksika reserve in Alberta, Canada. Maslow became very fond of the Blackfoot way of life,” with observers remarking that his six-week visit “shook him to his knees.” (page 4)
Kaufman goes on to relate how impressed Abe was with the Blackfoot society, devoid of crime and violence and overflowing with community, generosity, and caring families. From Maslow’s own words in the posthumous The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (1971) he experienced the shock of encountering European-Americans who lived nearby…
“Those Indians on the reservation were decent people; and the more I got to know the whites in the village, who were the worst bunch of creeps and bastards I’ve ever run across in my life, the more it got paradoxical.”
How to Get From Safety to Transcendence
Kaufman reconstructs Maslow’s ideas in 3 major sections of the book: Security, Growth, and Healthy Transcendence. But when he starts at the so-called bottom of the pyramid, he not only tells the stories of Abraham’s early experiences with hate and poverty, we get an update on the world of 2020 that might make him weep….
“Nearly half of children living in poverty in the United States today witness violence, more than 130 million children have witnessed intimate partner violence in the home, and over 200 million have suffered some form of sexual abuse. Millions more experience emotional abuse daily, such as a parent intentionally inducing feelings of guilt, shame, or fear to serve their own emotional needs, or denigrating or destroying things the child values.”
Kaufman doesn’t just wax poetically and use a few statistics to justify his views. Transcend has literally hundreds of endnotes tied to the scientific literature on everything he’s talking about. For a theorist so young at 41, I have never seen so many citations to academic journals and research. Ever. Maybe his early mentor was his springboard as Kaufman received his B.S. from Carnegie Mellon University, where he was the late, great Herbert A. Simon’s last research assistant.
One thread of the book I am particularly interested in is the research that makes connections between the safety and security needs of children — and how well those are met — and their growing confidence in themselves and their environment because those needs, well met, produce predictability. And being able to predict our physical and social environments is strongly associated with healthy, robust cognitive and emotional development. While stress and anxiety can produce learning, love and trust do it much better.
As one more example of the excellent research that Kaufman explores, he opens the section of Chapter 1 titled “Trauma On the Brain” with this quote from researchers who run the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard…
Ensuring that young children have safe, secure environments in which to grow, learn, and develop healthy brains and bodies not only is good for the children themselves but also builds a strong foundation for a prosperous, just, and sustainable society. — Nathan Fox and Jack Shonkoff, “How Persistent Fear and Anxiety Can Affect Young Children’s Learning, Behavior and Health” (2011)
The Hierarchy, the Pyramid and the Shamans
Kaufman also does us and his virtual mentor — the book is dedicated to Abe — the good favor of deconstructing the pyramid that is so often associated with Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” The thoughtful Abraham never built such a structure for his model of human transcendence. The pyramid was created and celebrated by American business professors and consultants.
So Kaufman clarifies the intent of Abraham and then elevates the model into a much more fluid metaphor. I won’t tell you what he uses because it’s really the ultimate tribute to Maslow. If you do nothing else today, spend $10–20 and pick up a digital version or two of Kaufman’s book (I have it on both Kindle and Audible, read by the author, but I gain nothing for you using this link). I promise that you will not be disappointed. And please leave your comments below either way.
Before I found Kaufman’s book, I was already immersed in a study of peak performance — for the past 3 decades, on and off — and so I regularly encountered wise thought-leaders who knew Maslow’s work. In fact I’m currently writing my own book on the psychology of trading in the stock market where I wrote this in February…
How amazed and in awe would Maslow be at the discoveries of neuroscience in the 5 decades since he left this earthly life? Neuroplasticity would be the definitive proof of some of his grandest ideals of self-actualization and achievement.
And what of the studies of addiction, autism spectrum, mindfulness, meditation, CBT for severe disorders (anxiety, grief, phobias, OCD, etc) and visualization techniques used in all these areas?
But maybe the biggest smile might cross Abraham’s angelic face if he saw the research surrounding the new name for his “peak experiences,” flow.
Flow Gets a Dedicated Scribe
The second excellent book I’ve been reading that places Maslow at a crucial juncture in the history of thought about achievement and motivation is Steven Kotler’s 2014 The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.
Kotler could be considered a journalist-shaman for what he has accomplished on behalf of us mere mortals in the realms of extreme psychology. I knew of Steven’s work only as recently as 2016 from his collaborations with Peter Diamandis in the technology innovation books Abundance and Bold and finally decided to explore what the hell he was talking about as the progenitor of the Flow Research Collective. The Superman book appeared to be only about extreme athletes like big wave surfers and free-climbing mountain adventurers.
But Kotler has always had a much more ambitious goal as his project would suggest. And in Superman he drew the lines I never knew existed because (shamefully) I had never explored flow in the literature, only in my own experience.
Fortunately for all of us, Kotler researched and made the connections between Abraham Maslow’s “peak experiences” and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow.” The results, for me at least, were kinetic.
After more than a decade in the 1990s as a gonzo journalist following extreme adventure athletes around the globe from mountain peak to gargantuan wave, Kotler had collected over 80 broken bones to prove it. When he decided to catalog his experience (plus breaks) and combine it with his own work in meditation and the study of mysticism, he ended up diving deeper into the research of the explorers who had done it before him, like William James, the godfather of transcendental psychology — before Freud’s imprisoning version.
This inevitably led Kotler to subsequent “godfathers” in peak experiences like Maslow and then to the Hungarian immigrant Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (chick-sent-me-high) who started researching a particular aspect of peak human performance in 1965 after he saw what Abraham was up to. Since Csikszentmihalyi is the headliner who turned Maslow’s peak experiences into just flow, Kotler goes to good lengths to give credit where it’s due.
After describing the war-torn life of Csikszentmihalyi in Europe, including losing family and being imprisoned at age 7, Kotler notes that Mihaly ended up with a deep curiosity about the human condition at the University of Chicago in the 1960’s. There he studied one of the hottest topics in psychology at the time, motivation. And Maslow was already doing revolutionary work on that subject, overturning the behaviorists and their extrinsic focus on carrots and sticks. Kotler writes…
“High achievers, [Maslow] came to see, were intrinsically motivated. They were deeply committed to testing limits and stretching potential, frequently using intensely focused activity for exactly this purpose. But this focused activity, Maslow also noticed, produced a significant reward of its own: altering consciousness, creating experiences very similar to those [William] James had dubbed ‘mystical.’ Except, the key difference: few of Maslow’s subjects were even religious.”
Kotler describes how Maslow “secularized” James’s terminology, transforming “mystical experiences” into “peak experiences.” Again from Superman…
“During a peak experience,” Maslow explained, “the individual experiences an expansion of self, a sense of unity, and meaningfulness in life. The experience lingers in one’s consciousness and gives a sense of purpose, integration, self-determination and empathy.” These states, he concluded were the hidden commonality among all high achievers, the source code of intrinsic motivation…
Kotler goes on to tell the tale of how Csikszentmihalyi took inspiration from Maslow and created his infamous happiness study, where his goal was to ask normal people about what motivated them and produced their deepest enjoyment and greatest satisfaction. From a wide cross-section of socio-economic backgrounds, Mihaly found that “when they were at their best was when they were experiencing sensations very similar to Maslow’s peak experiences.” Thus was born the science of flow.
I would pull more choice excerpts from The Rise of Superman for you but there are too many to choose from over so many incredibly written chapters. Indeed, the whole book is too awesomely written and fun. The cerebral webs Kotler weaves are hypnotic, just like his topic. I only hope to write as he does some day with story upon shock upon revelation upon insight, and onward to the next transfixing story. So I want to encourage you to also pick up Superman.
And where exactly Kotler caught the flow bug I’m not sure, but I’m going to find out soon as I just dove into his newest work Mapping Cloud 9: Neuroscience, Flow, and the Upper Possibility Space of Human Experience. So far, it reads like a gonzo sociological-scientific history of altered states and peak performance, as if it’s the more complete backstory to the epic Superman — the Episode 1 to Star Wars if you will.
As I just get into the early chapters of Mapping Cloud 9 on audio, I can hear Kotler reveal his lifelong pursuit of spirituality, peak experiences, extreme athletes, and later the science that explains it all, including flow states. He has an explicit goal with the book to not only define the splits that have happened between hard sciences, like those of the brain and behavior, and the so-called softer realms of spirituality, mystical experiences, and high performance — he wants to bridge the splits again. He writes…
“The greatest leaps forward over the past fifty years, maybe the past 150 years, have been when scientists got together with people from the spiritual traditions and we bridged that gap. So a lot of what I’m trying to do over the next 6 to 8 hours is say ‘Hey, there are really big questions out there. There are people with deep deep spiritual practices who have all kinds of knowledge bases that the scientists are never going to have access to, but if you can’t learn a little bit of the language of science we’re never going to listen to what you have to say.’”
Mapping Cloud 9 is only on audio and I just bought it on June 7, the day before our esteemed’s 50th year since moving on. I hope to report back on the 51st with more knowledge and insight.
“How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow”
Our third unique tribute to Abraham comes from the world of business. In 2001, Chip Conley owned 20 boutique hotels in the San Francisco Bay Area that served the heavy jetset traffic of Silicon Valley elite entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. You can probably imagine how business dried up a bit during the dot-com bust.
In fact, when I reached for my bookshelf and grabbed his 2007 Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow, I immediately wondered how much actionable wisdom he might have now for peers in the travel and tourism industry facing the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. Heck, he had to deal with SARS too, the original coronavirus threat!
As his hotel business, Joie de Vivre, was on the ropes and each quarter grew depressingly worse, Conley also grew more than a little worried, writing “My business, my confidence, and my self-worth all took a precipitous fall.” He found himself searching one day in a bookstore for answers, looking for inspiration in the poetry section initially, glancing around to make sure no one saw him. He later stumbled into the psychology section and found Maslow again…
“I started leafing through Toward a Psychology of Being, a book I’d enjoyed twenty years earlier in my introductory psychology class in college. I couldn’t put the book down. Everything Maslow was saying made so much sense: the Hierarchy of Needs, self-actualization, peak experiences. In the midst of the crisis that was threatening my business, that was challenging me personally as I had not been challenged before, this stuff reminded me why I started my company.”
But Chip’s focus wasn’t on himself and his fortunes. As he explains…
“When you name your company after a hard-to-pronounce, harder-to-spell, French phrase for ‘joy of life,’ as I did, you must have different motivations than the typical Stanford MBA. The goal I set for myself just a few years out of Stanford, was to create a workplace where I could not only seek joy from the day-to-day activities of my career but also help create it for both my employees and my customers.”
The connections to Maslow ran even deeper for Conley as he learned more about the man and his work. Maslow had done consulting in Silicon Valley and down to San Diego with companies that were applying his emerging methods to management of human potential — a still radical approach in the 1960s. Maslow’s first treatise focused on the topic didn’t fare well on the first round with the difficult title Eupsychian Management. But later reissued as Maslow on Management in 1998, for Conley, it was all good nutrition for his hungry entrepreneurial psyche…
“Although I knew I wouldn’t find a book that would say, ‘Here’s how you can get out of your funk and create peak experiences at Joie de Vivre,’ I began to wonder: if humans aspire to self-actualization, why couldn’t companies, which are really just a collection of people, aspire to this peak also?”
Since his book Peak was published in 2007, you may be wondering how Chip Conley survived the next crisis in 2008–09. I was going to research that but after I found out he was a major investor in AirBnB, I decided he’s better at adapting than any of us.
You can learn more about his latest business views and philanthropic pursuits here.
What Else Would Abraham Have Taught Us?
I hope I’ve inspired you to learn more about Maslow and to explore further insight from Kaufman, Kotler, and Conley.
On many levels, he was just getting started as he entered his sixth decade in the 1960s. In Kaufman’s preface to Transcend, he described Maslow’s emerging theory “that healthy self-realization is actually a bridge to transcendence” where self-actualizing people were motivated by higher values beyond themselves to contribute to the world. Kaufman writes…
This created a deep paradox for Maslow: How could so many of his self-actualizing individuals simultaneously have such a strong identity and actualization of their potential, yet also be so selfless? In a 1961 paper, Maslow observed that self-actualization seems to be a “transitional goal, a rite of passage, a step along the path to the transcendence of identity. This is like saying its function is to erase itself.”
But by far one of the most emotional revelations from Kaufman’s preface was this passage…
During the last few years of his life, Maslow was working on a series of exercises to transcend the ego and live more regularly in the “B-realm” — the realm of “pure Being.” He was also working on a comprehensive psychology and philosophy of human nature and society. In a journal entry dated December 26, 1967, just as he was leaving the hospital after his heart attack, Maslow wrote:
“New worries about the journals. What to do with them? The way I feel now, I just don’t feel up to writing all the things I feel I ought to, the world needs, my duties. Wouldn’t mind dying as a result, but I just don’t have the stamina to do them. So the thought is save it all in little memos in these journals & the right person to come will know what I mean and why it must be done.”
That person is probably Scott Barry Kaufman. I’m glad he brought Abraham back to life and I think you will be too.