Designing the Mind

The Magic of Abraham Maslow



Whenever people ask me about my favorite obscure authors, I always list the work of Abraham Maslow. Now I know what you’re thinking, Maslow is an extremely well-known thinker – everyone who has taken an intro to psychology course can identify him. That’s like calling yourself a hipster for listening to Imagine Dragons. But have you ever actually read one of Maslow’s books? Most people think they know everything they need to know about the guy – the hierarchy of needs – the little pyramid with the thing and the thing.

But Maslow’s work goes far deeper than this iconic pyramid – a diagram that he never actually drew himself. His work is overflowing with brilliant wisdom, and a breathtaking vision of psychological health. He is easily among my top 5 psychitectural visionaries of all time, and I’m going to share 5 reasons why.

If you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life. You will be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities.

  • Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature

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Now it’s true – Maslow proposed that there are universal human needs, some of which tend to take priority and come before others in our development, going from physiological needs, to safety, to belonging, to esteem, to self-actualization and transcendence. But his thinking wasn’t nearly as rigid as most assume. And his greatest interest centered around the happiest people on earth.

He studied the people who seemed to embody the best in human nature. And though his methods were less than empirically rigorous, there is a lot to be said for his intuition, and how much he has turned out to be right about as the study of positive psychology has evolved.

I’m going to go through some of the core qualities Maslow concluded were characteristic of the self-actualizing individual:

  • Truth Seeking
  • Acceptance
  • Purpose
  • Authenticity
  • Continued Freshness of Appreciation
  • Peak Experiences
  • Humanitarianism
  • Good Moral Intuition
  • Creative Spirit
  • Equanimity

Maslow found that these self-actualizers often embodied an unconditional acceptance of what is – found in the spirit of amor fati, which I detailed in a previous video. Self-actualizing individuals were less motivated by the need to be right or to maintain comfortable illusions, and this allowed them to perceive reality with greater clarity, detachment, and courage.

They could be highly accepting of themselves, including their weaknesses, and had a firm and integrated sense of identity. They could remain true to their core values and resist social pressure and enculturation. And they could accept their life circumstances, even when they were not ideal, showing great equanimity through adversity.

These people were also highly accepting of others. Maslow observed that self-actualizing people had stronger interpersonal skills than most and were able to give love to others as they were and encourage them to reach their unique potential without being needy or overly attached. However, they often only applied these skills to a small number of close friends and family, and spent much of their time in reflective solitude.

Not highly reliant on moral rules and order, these people were also able to be highly open to experience and spontaneous because a strong sense of who they were and what they valued made it unnecessary to rigidly micro-manage their own actions. They could be maturely expressive and effortlessly creative.

He found that these individuals lived their lives with a constant, almost childlike appreciation and awe for the world. And they frequently had what he called “peak experiences,” moments of ecstasy which could be found in love, aesthetic appreciation, intellectual awe, creative epiphany, social connection, and self-transcendence.

I think we should all be using Maslow’s description of the self-actualizer as a guide to sculpting our minds and lives. Here are some of the stances he took on the peaks of human health, or what he called “the farther reaches of human nature.”

  1. Intrinsic over Extrinsic Motivation

One of the most prominent qualities of these self-actualizers according to Maslow’s view was a tendency to be motivated by intrinsically rewarding processes, such as growth, inquiry, and creativity, rather than by “flattery, applause, popularity, status, prestige, money, honors…”

The more highly evolved person could be less reliant on external rewards because a higher degree of autonomy and self-sufficiency allowed her to internalize her sources of satisfaction.

The motivation of ordinary men is a striving for the basic need gratifications that they lack. [Self-actualizing individuals] no longer strive in the ordinary sense, but rather develop. They attempt to grow to perfection and to develop more and more fully in their own style.

  • Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality

Today, we have even more evidence for the power of intrinsically rewarding goals. Numerous studies have shown that intrinsic motivation, which consists of doing things we find enjoyable and engaging in themselves, can be more powerful than extrinsic rewards, like compensation or recognition. It can be far more effective to choose goals we already have strong desires pushing us toward than to reward ourselves for going against our desires.

While external rewards can improve motivation in some cases, in others, they’re just like Elon Musk’s tweets – completely unnecessary and actively self-sabotaging. Overwhelming evidence suggests that extrinsic rewards, or what Maslow called deficiency needs, can not only be weakly motivating, but can actually hurt our motivation and yield inferior work than intrinsic drive.

One study found that the less evidence of extrinsic motivation in school, the more likely students were to be successful twenty years later. Amazingly, a lack of interest in external rewards appears to be positively correlated with attaining those external rewards. A group of art students who were more intrinsically motivated were more likely to have created work that received positive recognition and superior evaluation.

Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, points out three properties of intrinsically motivating activities: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. If an activity provides us with a creative challenge that contributes to a meaningful cause, it can fuel us more than activities for which we are extrinsically rewarded.

These mastery motives can remove the effortful strain we typically associate with hard work and major accomplishments. Struggling to motivate ourselves toward our goals is often a product of choosing goals that don’t align with our personal passions and values. If you want to be highly driven, you have to find a way to connect your goals with your innate fascinations.

  1. Values over Desires

Maslow believed that each person had within them a kind of blueprint for who they were to become. Some “instinctoid” seed inside them containing everything needed for the acorn of today to grow into the oak tree of potential. And that blueprint, that seed, is found in our values.

This inner nature is not strong and overpowering and unmistakable like the instincts of animals. It is weak and delicate and subtle and easily overcome by habit, cultural pressure, and wrong attitudes toward it.

Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being

Values and desires can be easily confused. Both could be described as preferences of an affective nature, but they are different in meaningful ways. When you reflect on your values, you don’t feel a sense of craving, a motivational force pulling you toward them. They are always there, but unlike desires, they allow you to neglect them if you choose. As I argue in Designing the Mind, desires are the screams you can’t ignore, but values are the whispers it is often hard to notice.

In the ideal mind, desires are modulated: bent to our will so they serve our values. Values are to be uncovered, worked toward, and embodied. This inner core, Maslow thought, was partially unique to the individual and partially shared among all humans. And it was the key to achieving deep satisfaction. He listed a number of “being values,” or B-values, that were generally shared by the most fulfilled people:

1. Truth

2. Goodness

3. Beauty

4. Wholeness

5. Aliveness

6. Uniqueness

7. Perfection

8. Completion

9. Justice

10. Simplicity

11. Richness

12. Effortlessness

13. Playfulness

14. Self-Sufficiency

What’s more, he listed a number of “metapathologies,” or spiritual diseases that he believed could stem from the absence of these higher values. Although Maslow listed many different symptoms that result from the neglect of our virtues, such as alienation, hopelessness, and despair, every single “metapathology” he proposes is eerily symptomatic of clinical depression.

And the guaranteed path to “metapathology” was to fail to look into that blueprint inside your mind – to fail to inquire into your own deepest values and live according to them.

  1. Growth over Comfort

Maslow was a strong supporter of choosing growth over comfort and safety in our lives. Maslow said:

One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.

Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science

You must understand that your mind is not a delicate machine to be protected from variability and stress. The mind can be made better through stress and discomfort. When you force yourself out of your comfort zone, you gain reference experiences that teach you the things you feared aren’t so bad. You defend yourself against the threats to your comfort, expanding your comfort zone until everything is comfortable, and all barriers to value alignment have been demolished.

A life limited to your comfort zone will almost certainly hold you back from your potential. You cannot build a robust mind by sheltering yourself from reality. Avoiding uncomfortable surroundings will make you vulnerable when things don’t go according to plan. Avoiding uncomfortable feedback will keep you from developing your ideas and developing into the person you are capable of being. Avoiding uncomfortable beliefs will shield you from the truth. And avoiding uncomfortable situations will create barriers that may keep you from ever knowing who you were capable of being. You must learn to do what scares you.

That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.

Kelly Clarkson

—Just kidding, that one’s Nietzsche

The older you get, the more resolve it requires to choose change and growth, and the harder it becomes to sacrifice security and comfort and order. But choosing anything other than growth is a sure path to regret. And Maslow thought allowing your craving for comfort to stand in the way of your unique potential was one of the most common barriers to living a great life.

Do not confuse a life of comfort and ease for the good life. The good life is one of pushing your boundaries, incrementally overcoming yourself, striving for greatness—whatever that means for you. The happiness that results from the absence of discomfort is the happiness of mediocrity. Live your life, not as if you were trying to hoard a precious treasure, but as if you were crafting your own autobiography with every decision—because you are.

  1. Altruism over Narrow Egoism

Maslow was all about taking apparent dichotomies of human nature and merging them together. He saw ways to merge facts with values. Ways to merge the scientific with the spiritual. And ways to merge altruism and egoism.

We typically assume that being a “good” and altruistic person means putting our own happiness aside and making sacrifices for the good of others. But Maslow was set on breaking down this false distinction. When we fully comprehend the meaning his notes were meant to capture, we can understand how these boundaries dissolve for ourselves.

An interesting aspect of the B-Values is that they transcend many of the traditional dichotomies, such as selfishness and unselfishness, flesh and spirit, religious and secular. If you are do­ing the work that you love and are devoted to the value that you hold highest, you are being as selfish as possible, and yet are also being unselfish and altruistic…When I pursue ‘selfish’ gratifications, I auto­matically help others, and when I try to be altruistic, I automatically reward and gratify myself also.

He referred to a set of higher needs that provide higher pleasure. When we get in touch with our deepest nature, we get in touch with these higher pleasures and unlock a higher level – you might even say another dimension of happiness.

Happiness and goodness, he argued, were not at odds with one another, but one and the same. And he used the concept of “metamotivation” to communicate how these happier, more developed beings were fueled toward their altruistic missions.

Some people believe they simply lack the selfless altruism needed to overcome their ego and do great things in the world. But Maslow’s insights make clear that this is an illusion. The great sages throughout history were not the selfless saints they are often assumed to be. They just had the wisdom and introspective insight needed to see that what was good for the world was also good for them. They were better at being selfish.

In a paper called “Helping as Coping,” Elizabeth Midlarsky offers five different levels for the effects altruistic acts have on our well-being:

  1. A greater appreciation for one’s good fortune
  2. Improved mood and positive affect
  3. Greater perceptions of self-efficacy and competence
  4. Increased social integration
  5. Enhanced meaning in life

Altruism is supposed to be all about others – it is thought to entail great sacrifice. And yet, if you look closely at the benefits listed above, it doesn’t seem so sacrificial. Maslow recognized what few fully grasp today: The Venn diagram of the happiest people and the most virtuous, admirable people is a perfect circle.

The evidence available shows that B-Values are more often chosen by “healthy” people (self-actualizing, mature, productive characters, etc.). Also by a preponderance of the “greatest,” most admired, most loved people throughout history.”

– Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature

  1. Self-Becoming over Self-Contentedness

Maslow’s notion of self-becoming closely mirrored that of Nietzsche, who penned the phrase “become who you are” which inspired my book of the same name. But in many ways, Maslow wrote about this concept with greater clarity. He was focused, not only on helping individuals achieve unusual levels of health, but also to become, more and more fully, who they were.

We already have a start, we already have capacities, talents, directions, missions, callings, and then the job is, if we are to take this model seriously, to help them to be more perfectly what they already are, to be more full, more actualizing, more realizing in fact what they are in potentiality.

—Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature

With brilliant vision, Maslow argues that the gradual embodiment of one’s values is the fundamental task of psychological health. And much like spending time on 4chan, betraying or ignoring those inner ideals would plant the seeds of pathology in your mind.

Do you want to find out what you ought to be? Then find out who you are! ‘Become what thou art!’

—Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature

The act of becoming who you are is the act of carving out your ideal self—of experimenting and discovering ways to bring form to the formless. The act of bringing greater and greater refinements to the crude shapes of character that exist in you now.

I could go on and on about the magic of Maslow, but if these ideas interest you, I would strongly encourage you to dive straight into some of his work. I’m particularly fond of his books, Toward a Psychology of Being, and The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. They feel like instruction manuals for becoming the most deeply fulfilled version of yourself.

Does Maslow’s description of the self-actualizing individual sound like you or anyone you know?

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