Posted: 30 Sep. 2020 4 min.

Maslow's forgotten mountain top: Self-transcendence

Topic: Talent & Lifelong Learning

Sometimes it’s great to visit the old classic textbook theories – you know, those that are part of the curriculum at business schools and universities, the ones you have probably heard about, maybe even studied, but probably haven’t thought about for a long time. You probably only remember them vaguely; yet, they are a part of how you see the world and how you perceive the people around you.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from 1954 is one of those theories. Famously shaped as a pyramid, it tells the story of how we as humans seek to fulfil different needs – and in a certain order going from the bottom towards the top. The sequential order means that the pyramid is essentially a growth theory based on the thesis that in order for motivation to arise at a certain stage, the previous stages must be satisfied.

When Maslow proposed the model in 1954, he included the five hierarchical levels that are now world-famous and to a large extent embedded in the way we think about human growth:

  • At the bottom, physiological needs, the lowest level: food, water, heat, sleep, rest, breathing etc.
  •  Then, safety: resources, family, a place to live
  • Then belonging and love: friendships, intimacy, relationships
  • And then, self-esteem: self-worth, respect from other people, success, independence, etc.
  • And finally at the top, self-actualisation, the highest level: the sense of fulfilment, learning, creativity, each of us living up to our fullest and highest potential

In itself, the pyramid is an interesting construction and holds many interesting themes. But what is even more interesting is that Maslow actually added another top layer shorty before he died, criticising the original model for lacking motivations beyond the personal self. Because, as he saw, people are not only concerned about doing well for themselves, but also doing well for the benefit of the greater good. And so he added a new layer at the very top – a layer he named transcendence.

A peak experience

What does transcendence mean? Well, it is actually a quite powerful feeling – a so-called ‘peak experience’ as Maslow would describe it. To transcend means to surpass something or go beyond – in this case go beyond ourselves. Transcendence thus happens when we seek something bigger than ourselves: the community, the transformation, the meaning of things, faith, spirituality or just a purpose we believe is more important than just our own existence. It’s like slowly reaching for the mountain top of growth and you finally see the light. 

Maslow himself defined the experience of transcendence very poetically as a feeling of “limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of great ecstasy and wonder and awe, the loss of placing in time and space with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable has happened, so that [we are] transformed and strengthened even in [our] daily life."[i]

[1] Abraham Maslow: ‘Religions, Values and Peak Experiences’ (1964)
[2] Corsini, Raymond J. (1998). Encyclopedia of Psychology. United States: John Wiley & Sons – from

The famous pyramid that puts physiological needs in the bottom and self-actualisation on top was actually revised by Maslow himself, admitting that the ultimate need is not fulfilling ourselves, but serving a greater purpose.

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