Career Design Lab

Becoming a transcender

Becoming more fully yourself is good for your wellbeing but a meaningful life calls for self-transcendence. 

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Although my laptop is persistently trying to autocorrect, this post is not about transgender but transcenders. In addition to sharing almost all the letters, these two words do have one meaning in common, though. Those who identify themselves with either word are people who are becoming more fully themselves.

Knocking down “Maslow’s pyramid”

It was Abraham Maslow who initially coined the word transcender in connection with his theory of human motivation and the hierarchy of human needs. This hierarchy is commonly depicted as a pyramid of progressive levels of human motivation, starting from physiological needs and ending with self-actualization at the top.

According to research by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, these are all misconceptions. Maslow never saw the hierarchy as a lock-step progression from one level to the other, neither did he picture it as a pyramid. Moreover, in his later writings he placed self-transcendence to the top.

Transcending self-interest

Self-actualization is about identifying strengths, developing identity and fulfilling one’s potential. It can easily appear, as critics have pointed out, as a selfish and individualistic preoccupation. However, in Maslow’s view, self-actualization is a bridge to transcending self-interest and serving the greater good.

A bit paradoxically, transcenders are people who have a strong sense of self and who let go of their self-interest by devoting themselves to higher values and greater causes. They are not preoccupied with their happiness or achievement but see themselves as part of a greater whole. They fulfill their potential in service of values such as justice, beauty, truth, simplicity, and excellence.

The daily practice of a meaningful life

A transcender’s life is one way to lead a good life, one that philosophers and scientists claim to lead to meaningfulness and wellbeing. Transcenders may be a rare breed but all of us have the capacity to transcend self-interest – given the right circumstances.

When it comes to work, a good question is whether our organizations and management practices support wellbeing, growth and self-transcendence and hence, a life of meaning. Or, are they feeding our desire for hedonic happiness and the pursuit of instrumental values, such as competition and achievement?

At a personal level, self-transcendence is a question of the values you steer your life and career by. Sometimes the circumstances make this steering harder, sometimes they help us flourish. So self-transcendence is not another metric to start measuring yourself by. It is a process, and a daily practice of leading a meaningful life.

Kirsi La Pointe

Blog writer

Kirsi LaPointe, D.Sc., develops and facilitates new career programs for Aalto University students and alumni based on the principles of career design and life-wide learning. Her research and expertise focus on career transitions, meaningful work practices and inclusion, and she is particularly interested in practice-based, narrative approaches to studying identity, work, and careers.

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