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In this episode, I speak with Scott Barry Kaufman – a humanistic psychologist whose work explores the depths of human potential. Having obtained his Ph.D. in cognitive psychology at Yale University, and an M. Phil in experimental psychology from the University of Cambridge under a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, his interests lie in using his research to help all kinds of minds live a creative, fulfilling, and self-actualised life.

Scott has taught courses on intelligence, creativity, and well-being at Columbia University, NYU, the University of Pennsylvania, and beyond, and in 2015 he was named one of “50 groundbreaking scientists who are changing the way we see the world” by Business Insider.

He also hosts the world’s #1 psychology podcast — The Psychology Podcast— which has received over a whopping 15 million downloads and was included in Business Insider’s list of “9 podcasts that will change how you think about human behavior.”

A prolific writer, teacher, self-actualisation coach, and public speaker, Scott’s writing has appeared in a host of publications including The Atlantic, Scientific American, Psychology Today, and Harvard Business Review and his latest book, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, proposes a new hierarchy of human needs for the 21st century – one that allows for the fulfilment of individual potential as well as the actualisation of transcendent purpose and peak experiences.

Recorded on 12th January 2021.


Nathalie: Scott, thank you very much for joining me in conversation today. It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you.

Scott: Nice to chat with you, absolutely.

Nathalie: From your perspective, with your work in Transcend and all the other body of work that you’ve accumulated through your experience, what do you think is going on in the global human psyche right now?

Scott: Whoa, that’s an easy … What’s going on in the global human psyche? In what regard? You mean with the impending sense of world apocalypse we’re feeling?

Nathalie: Yeah, that’s where I go with that. I did think you’d go there.

Scott: Well, I think that there’s lots of things going on. A core part of it is there’s a real sense in which people are not feeling a sense of belonging anymore. Maybe people, groups who didn’t feel a sense of belonging are particularly not feeling it right now. There’s a feeling of insecurity.

It’s very predictable, from a psychological perspective, that under conditions of discord or unpredictability of one’s future, that people cling on more strongly to their own in-group and their own tribes. You see that ebb and flow, throughout the course of human history, that happening. I think that’s a big part of the story of what we’re seeing right now, is tribal warfare, affiliations. Coalitional thinking is what’s happening, we’re not really united as a species. Not a lot of universal love going around these days.

Nathalie: Yeah. It’s hard to hold that when there’s such a sense of attack. I guess, given the level of disruption and uncertainty, especially the last 12 months … You’re in the US, I come from the UK. We’re dealing with this pandemic together, and there’s the issue of climate crisis, and all manner of things coming all at once. What values do you feel characterize this zeitgeist that we’re living in, this moment in time?

Scott: People’s current values, or what their desired values are?

Nathalie: Let’s go with desired values.

Scott: Oh, well people are desperate for hope, and for unity. And in a lot of ways, self-transcendent values. The psychologist, his last name is Schwartz … I’m blanking on his first name. But, he has a model of values. You can have power values, you can have hedonistic values, there’s all these different categories of values. But, I think that self-transcendent value, people are desperate for that right now, to feel like they’re part of a larger whole that is purposeful and has meaning in their lives. I think there is this profound feeling of lack of meaning loss because of outside forces. We had all of our plans and all of our things, and then the world had different plans for us.

The only way through that, the most healthiest path, is going to be through post-traumatic growth. But, that will require a different set of values than the ones we current are clinging to, which are more along the lines of safety. Which is in the Schwartz value, hierarchy of safety. And conservatism, but not in a political sense. Yeah, keeping the established order.

Nathalie: It’s interesting you mentioned Schwartz, because I was thinking about his values of universalism and benevolence, and how that connects in with the meta value of self-transcendence, and the work that you do.

You mentioned this loss of meaning and purpose. I’m thinking, actually, from a business perspective because that’s one of the things for people who’ve been able to work remotely, that has really come up a lot in the conversation around how we organize, how we work. There’s this idea of desire for purpose, and meaning, and connection, within the workplace. Or, at least within work culture. Do you think that, within the realm of business, there’s a possibility to meet those needs for purpose, and meaning, and connection? Do you see that we’ll come out of this crisis and want something different from our work?

Scott: Yeah. I see a lot of good coming out of all this crap. I do, I think that people will have a re-shifting of their priority structure, their goal hierarchy, with the most future image of oneself at the top, and then all the sub-goals. I think, in some ways, people may just see just how much their prior goals were not harmoniously structured toward realizing that highest level of their goal hierarchy.

Now, they’re not going to frame it that way in their head. “My second level structure of my goal hierarchy hasn’t been consistent with my …” That’s not what I’m saying. But, that’s just my nerdy psychological language.

Nathalie: I like that.

Scott: Yeah, thanks. That may manifest itself in people saying, realizing, “Wow, I’ve been wasting my life.” That’s what I mean. Or, “I’ve been taking so many things for granted.” I took for granted all those times I got a chance to shake my bon-bon in the dance club. I miss that so much. I don’t know, I’ve never quite used that phrase before. I don’t know what a bon-bon is.

Nathalie: I just got this image of this wild psychologist, shaking their bon-bon in a dance.

Scott: Well, you don’t need to use your imagination, go to my new TikTok account.

Nathalie: I’m going to check it out. Because apparently, you do a bit of hiphop don’t you?

Scott: Yeah, I used to be a break dancer.

Nathalie: This is amazing. You’re such a dark horse. That’s a whole nother conversation.

Scott: My new TikTok account has gone viral. You can go to my Twitter account and see.

Nathalie: I shall. I’m going to include that in the show notes as well. But, back to your work, and especially to your book Transcend, which is brilliant and fascinating. You offer this very compelling revised vision of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, to your point about the goals. You share a model which views human development as a process, at least it seems to me, of increasing integration as opposed to some great trek up a mountain, comprising distinct hierarchical stages.

I guess, rather than settling with this popular conception of needs as a pyramid, which actually Maslow, as far as I’m aware, never espoused himself, you purpose this really striking image of a sailboat, in which the boat itself, the wooden part, signifies our need for a secure base, of safety, connection, and self-esteem. And then, the sail represents where we find our growth through exploration, love, and purpose. I love this image that you create. So I want to ask, from this perspective that you have, how do you conceive of self-actualization and transcendence?

Scott: Yeah. I view them as very inter-related because I don’t think that one can fully ever self-actualize. Well, I should stop right there and say no one can ever full self-actualize. That’s ridiculous. What would you do the second after you fully self-actualized? It would be boring, the rest of your life.

But, I will say that the path towards self-actualization is a constant process, North star goal, that we never achieve but we move toward whenever we make decisions that are conducive to growth. I think that one of the biggest ways of growing is to get outside your comfort zone, to lead with your values, to lead with a sense of mission or purpose, usually a pro-social purpose, a humanitarian purpose, really wanting to realize a future image of yourself. When you move toward that future self, or a future vision of society that you see for yourself, I think you’re moving in the direction of real self-actualization, not pseudo self-actualization.

A lot of people think they’re self-actualizing because they’re getting more likes on Instagram, for instance. I’d call that pseudo self-actualization.

Nathalie: We also seem to have these very specific ideas in our minds of what it looks like, externally. Which to me, always struck me as a bit strange because I would imagine that self-actualization, or moments in which one feels one’s being fully one’s self and really in flow, or being most aligned with how one wants to be, that’s a very subjective, internal, quite private experience, even if it’s shared with another. What are your thoughts on that?

Scott: I think that’s a very interesting point. What’s the really private part that you’re zooming in on there?

Nathalie: I’m thinking the experience of self-actualization, it’s not something that you can express publicly and then people will see it, as a hashtag. If you upload an image of you in your self-transcendent actualized state, you’re not going to be able to see a picture of someone and go, “Oh yeah, I can definitely tell that person is hitting the zone. They are self-actualized.”

Scott: Well, I don’t know.

Nathalie: Living their best life.

Scott: I don’t know.

Nathalie: Or, do you think we can? That’s an interesting …

Scott: I think we can. I think I’ve seen many examples of it, but it’s usually examples where you see a beautiful performance where the person has seemed to completely lost themselves to the moment, they’ve surrendered completely to the moment. They’re expressing their true self, or their best self.

When I watch a Jacqueline Du pre video of her playing the Elgar Concerto with Barenboim conducting, from when she was 13 or 14 years old, I think… When you watch something like that, you see a person who is self-actualizing before our eyes. I think it is possible. But, I think that it is also possible to get caught up in the self-esteem drive, and to get addicted to it. But, you can see when that’s the case as well. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Jersey Shore, the reality TV show. The guy, The Situation, I don’t know if he was self-actualizing. Or, maybe he was. I’ve never brought up The Situation in an interview in my entire life. That was his name, his name was The Situation.

Nathalie: That’s terrible. I’m going to have to check that out. I know of it, but I can’t say that I’ve ever watched it.

Scott: I don’t think you should check it out. No, it’s a thing you should check out. But, I think you’re also raising a good point about the potential for spiritual narcissism, which I’ve written about recently. It’s an article for Scientific American about how we can think that we’re growing but what we’re really growing is our ego. We can get really caught up in the benefits that the stuff is bringing us in other areas, external directions. Oh, we’re getting more money, or we’re getting more power and success, and then we lose track of our sense of self. Actually, we’re not growing our self in any more complex, meaningful way, we’re not contributing that much goodness to the world. Abraham Maslow has the quote, “What’s not worth doing is not worth doing well,” and I really try to live my life with that, for sure.

Nathalie: That’s such an interesting observation insight here, spiritual narcissism. I actually had not come across that term, I’m going to check that out. Especially now, and especially with social media, if you’re looking at the short videos or whatever’s posted in Reels, a lot of it’s very self-reflective. It’s putting ourselves in a position where we are filming ourselves, and projecting that out to an imagined audience. I think there is this pressure to follow your passion, and #liveyourbestlife. I wonder if that can get in the way of really, deeply exploring who we want to be, or who we are and how we can better express that. How might you suggest that we begin to both understand and express perhaps our more true, integrated, multi-faceted nature?

Scott: I don’t know.

Nathalie: What steps do you take?

Scott: To embrace my whole self?

Nathalie: Yeah. Yeah.

Scott: I think part of that process… I say I don’t know because part of my whole mission is to help people self-actualize in their own way, and in their own style. These general advice things just don’t work, because you need to individualize it. I do coaching, and I take every client as a very sacred soul. I think we need to treat every human existence as sacred. And when you do that, you realize there’s a whole … Certainly, what works for client A is not going to work for client B.

But, what is important for all clients is to identify and target, to really mindfully understand and see what your inner conflicts are, and to see in what ways are things pulling you apart in different directions from within. And which activities you engage in in your life really make you feel most vital and alive, and get you to that magical flow state of consciousness where all time recedes in the background and the only thing that matters in the whole world, and all of time as Maslow put it, is that one thing that’s in front of you. I think part of the process of becoming a whole person, and bring your whole multi-faceted self to the table, is to completely lose yourself. It seems paradoxical. But, it’s very interesting. Those who are most focused on looking good, or most focused on their own narcissistic concerns, tend to be the ones that report the most confusion about who they really are. Those who are just out there, just giving to others, and living a vital flow life tend to not be so confused.

Nathalie: That’s so interesting, and it makes me think. Because I know that you have a lot of creative outlets, you have a lot of strings to your bow.

Scott: You don’t even know the half of it.

Nathalie: That’s what I’m guessing.

Scott: I can’t mention 25% of the things for this audience.

Nathalie: Well, now that’s just intriguing. We need a separate after dark conversation to dive into those.

Scott: X-rated, yeah. Yeah.

Nathalie: Piqued my interest. But including all of those after dark, x-rated elements, when you’re someone who has such curiosity and you have so many strings to your bow, and I think most people have more strings to the bow then we let on.

Scott: It’s true.

Nathalie: How do we find a way to juggle these things? Because I really struggle with that, I don’t feel like I have a fixed identity.

Scott: No.

Nathalie: I’m doing one thing and then I’m doing another, and I find that struggle very uncomfortable. How do you work with that?

Scott: This is a topic that forms the quarter of what I’m interested in, in helping my clients … Do you want coaching with me? No.

Nathalie: I might actually book a session. You’re good.

Scott: Well, thank you. This is everyone’s concern, and everyone thinks that they’re the only ones that have this concern, and then they realize that that’s being part of being human. We’ve been stuck in one body with all these mishmash of evolved desires, and motivations, and lower level, higher level. It’s really amazing that any human can ever get anything done during the course of a day.

I think you just need to give yourself self-compassion, and have an awareness of our common humanity, and self-acceptance. Accept where you’re at and every mode in which you’re in that mode. Maybe you’ll wake up one day and you’ll be like, “You know what? Today’s really not doing it for me. Just not feeling today.” Be like, “That’s where I’m at.” I think a lot of it is the surrendering to what is, not what your plan was, what you wanted it to be, and get so mad at that. And see, well working within the confines of what we’ve got … Basically be, “What are we working with today?” Or, what are we working with when you’re in a particular mindset, and that’s who you are in that moment, and that’s who you want to get absorbed in.

I’m a really big fan of this idea of absorption, and I don’t think that we allow ourselves to really get fully absorbed in our dark side because we’re scared of it. We’re scared that it’ll somehow take control of us. A human psychologist called Rogers often found with his clients, they would come to him and they would be very scared that if they do too much work with him on unconditional positive regard and acceptance, they would somehow unleash a beast or something. But, he found that, in every case, the more work they did within the humanistic framework, the opposite happened. They became more socialized, they became more loving people.

I found the more I get in touch with my dark side or whatever, the more love I have, the feeling of love I have for people, and acceptance for people’s imperfections, other people’s imperfections. I really do think it’s those who are the most uncomfortable with themselves who project that out to the world the most, and just become horrible humans, for lack of a better term.

Nathalie: Yeah. There’s so many threads I want to pull on. I guess, one of the things that’s really shining through what you’re saying is that there are so many things that we experience in common with one another, a lot of the struggles that we share, and then also, the ways in which we can meet those struggles, are very specific to each individual person or soul. Maslow talked about an enlightened or eupsychian workplace that’s conducive to self-actualization. I wonder that what might look like, or if it’s even possible, if you think businesses can create a workspace and a culture that helps people to self-actualize?

Scott: Yeah. This really gets your bread and butter, this is your bread and butter. I think I want to ask you that question, I’m very curious how workplaces, organizations can adopt a self-actualizing model to happen, laid into leadership principles for instance.  I write in my book, I have a whole section on enlightened leadership and what that looks like. It really is one where there isn’t this power dynamic that the workers feel as though they can’t ever question the boss, they don’t feel like their voice is heard. But also, you tend to find these kinds of environments that stiles self-actualization are those where there’s no opportunities for job crafting. I’m a big fan of the job crafting idea, and the possibilities for whatever job you’re in, to really bring your full self to the table. Maybe not your full self, maybe you want to keep some of that shit for after dark, to continue the way you phrased it.

But yeah, I think that there’s a lot more potential we can be getting out of workers by bringing more of their unique personality characteristics and talents to the table. Maybe they’re on this team, but we know they really enjoy care taking. How can they actually assign them that role within the organization? Even though the job isn’t a care taking job, but they can be the caretaker within the job. Basically, you want to maximize potential here, is what we’re talking about. We leave so much potential at the table because we have such a mis-guided view, a limited view of what sides of ourselves we’re supposed to bring to any given situation.

Nathalie: To that point around leadership, and really drawing out in people those qualities that maybe might make them happier at work, and make them more valuable, for want of a better word, if you had to choose one quality that you felt was absolutely key to the long-term success of a business, especially with all the craziness that we’ve undergone… I’m thinking here qualities that relate maybe to resilience, or compassion, those are the things that spring to my mind. What quality would you choose, do you think?

Scott: Oh, I like creativity. I like creative thinking. Creativity sounds like the outcome, but creative thinking is the process. Thinking divergently, not having one finalized goal on the to-do list, which is, “We’re going to do this.” But, “There’s a whole range of ways this could turn out, and we’re going to be open to flexibility along the way.”

Nathalie: I like that idea. So then, if I were to ask you to imagine your vision of what world you’d like to build, I know we’ve got limited time, but how might you begin to answer that question?

Scott: I want to live in a world where people can recognize the common humanity much more easily and readily, and focus on that, and try to connect. This is my urgent focus now, because of the world, and the way that everyone has become so tribal to cling onto because they don’t feel safe. I’d want a world obviously where people felt safe. They felt safe to explore, not safe for the sake of just feeling safe. But, there was a safety base there, from a secure attachment perspective. I don’t think people are feeling securely attached to their country. I don’t feel particularly securely attached to America right now, I don’t feel like it’s got my back. There’s a lot of people who feel that way. I want a world where we feel a healthy sense of belonging, while feeling comfortable to express our own unique identity as well. But, that requires the secure base first, that people don’t have.

Nathalie: I know this is a massive question, and obviously I’m sourcing from a very small point. But if people are listening to this and thinking, “Oh my God, that sounds like me,” because I think a lot of people are feeling similar feelings right now. What one thing might you suggest that we start at least to engage with? It could be a question, it could be a practice, to help us get to that place of belonging, if we can’t find it within our country, or within our locality.

Scott: My answer to a lot of this stuff is to actually get outside yourself. You can belong anywhere. There’s a certain learned helplessness, I think, to belonging, where people think that they’re trapped within their tribe. I’ve never quite phrased it that way before, I never know what’s going to come out of my mouth. I say shit and some of it I’m like, “What the hell did I just say?” But some of it I’m like, “Oh, that’s pretty good.” That’s one of those, “That was pretty good.” that was a good moment.

People feel like they’re trapped in their tribe, and there’s no getting out of it. But in some sense, they’re creating the reality. You go out there, and you just get outside yourself, you go donate something to a needy person. I guarantee, you’ll feel a sense of belonging with that person, all of a sudden. I just think that part of the problem is just such a self-focus that’s happening around here, so self-transcendent values.

Nathalie: And then finally, I saw an interview with you which was really interesting. And one of the questions that you asked, which I’d like to end by asking you, was what do you most uniquely have to contribute to this world? I thought it was such an intriguing, so I’d like to ask you that question.

Scott: Uniquely, I think humor, love, and truth. Those three things.

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