Chasing Life

Some years ago, when I did occasional consulting for businesses, I was tasked with assisting a wealth management company in composing a new long-term strategic plan. The fundamental question of any enterprise is, why are we here? Why do we matter? Why should anyone care? Why, why, why. As you might expect, wealth management firms live in a hyper-quantitative world. If it can’t be measured in dollars, or numbers related to dollars, it didn’t matter. So, you can imagine the consternation I caused when I suggested they were not in the wealth management business; rather, that they were in the well-being business.

Their spreadsheets had no row or column for the qualitative aspects of well-being—of human fulfilment. And, to be fair, their clients didn’t know how to relate to them as wealth managers without talking about money and return on investment. Both sides of the conversation were in a box that, while relevant, was not determinative in crafting a fulfilling life. They were in the business of means, not ends, which also meant they were like everyone else in their business: undifferentiated money managers. I argued that if they raised the level of conversation to one oriented around well-being, they would set themselves apart and attract and retain much more business for the firm. They agreed. They did, and they are fabulously successful today. Trust me when I say the idea was the easy part; they (not I) did the hard work to bring it to realization.

Even today, when we assess the value of a product, service, policy, investment, relationship, or any undertaking in general, our default mode of analysis avoids the squishy components of well-being, welfare, or thriving. These terms do not lend themselves to scorekeeping, which in our Western culture is paramount to measuring success. And yet, these terms capture the essence of our pursuits in life—they emanate from meaning. They are why we are here. I know plenty of folks for whom money and shiny objects, or the next adventure, or new spouse, might make them feel successful, whole, and worthy. They are stuck on a treadmill on which there is no finish line—no magical moment forthcoming when they feel they have arrived in a state of fulfillment, or grace, or peace. They are the proverbial hamster on the paddle-wheel of wants and desires. It is tragic, and yet, it is the manner in which most Americans live their lives.

I have always been a fan of Abraham Maslow’s work on the hierarchy of human needs, first published in 1943 as an article titled “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review. Two things most people don’t know about his work. First, he did not put his hierarchy in a pyramidal diagram; consultants who use his hierarchy did that. Second, and more importantly, when he passed away in 1970, he was on the brink of a new addition to the hierarchy: the level of transcendence. As you may recall, the hierarchy he proposed in 1943 began with having physiological needs met, then safety, belonging/love, self-esteem and, finally, self-actualization where one spent their days pursuing inner talent, creativity, and fulfillment. Thanks to Scott Barry Kaufman, a humanistic psychologist, who dug through Maslow’s work papers dating to the time of his death, we now know Maslow was about to update his hierarchy to reveal the next, last, level of human needs.

In effect, in Maslow’s contemplation of transcendence (which theoretically lies beyond self-actualization) he is suggesting a state of mind and presence we might traditionally associate with the after-life in heaven. In his rendering: heaven on earth. (Sign me up for that program!) He described the transcendent state as one of complete absorption disassociated with time and space where the ego is left behind and there are no fears, anxieties, or inhibitions enjoying heightened aestheticism, wonder, awe and surrender while feeling no separation between the self and the world; something akin to what some Eastern spiritual traditions call non-duality. Collectively, he chose the term “peak experience” to describe these events of transcendence which, he believed, “offer the opportunity to see more of the whole truth, unimpeded by the many cognitive distortions evolved to protect us from psychic pain.”[i] He identifies what I would call an event of deliverance from ourselves and the complications and limits imposed by daily life to affect a state of boundless awareness and clarity and love—what gurus throughout history have called a state of enlightenment.

For my own purposes, I breakdown the phases of life into quarters: Preparation, Achievement, Actualization, and Transcendence. While we all continue to require the needs identified by Maslow to be fulfilled to one extent or another in every phase, the modality of our attention and efforts should follow this pattern. That said, many get stuck along the way. Sometimes by themselves, or at the hand of others, or events beyond their control. There are no guarantees on the pathway of life. Indeed, any assurances offered of a smooth ride from one quarter to the next should be met with high skepticism. My own train has been derailed more than once by events largely beyond my control. Generally, by someone whose own life-path was disturbed, or disrupted, or never began with a solid foundation in the preparation phase. For example, if you never gain a sense of durable self-worth in the preparation phase, you will likely stumble—mostly sideways—for the rest of your life. In my personal experience, persons so afflicted often become family wrecking balls. They inflict their own suffering on those they profess to love.

When derailed, all any of us can do is scramble back to our path and hope the wounds will heal such that we can continue to pursue our well-being on our own terms. Maslow believed humans have the capacity to thrive and achieve transcendence before death. He considered waiting until after death to be a conceit and deceit of organized religion. I wake every day to meet the day with the aim of fulfillment, even if it is only to master the otherwise mundane aspects of life. I call it mastery in the moment, one moment at a time. Many of the realities we face today in America and the world are extremely disturbing. We may not be able to affect these realities, but we can manage our relationship with them. Let it be. Let it go. Relax to release and rise. Our traditional metrics of success including all the quantitative measurements of wealth, while necessary to manage the means of satisfying needs, only get us so far. Our higher calling is our well-being. Our highest aim is sweet peace.

[i] Scott Barry Kaufman, Transcend: the New Science of Self-Actualization (New York: Tarcherperigree, 2020), p. 196.