Updated: Mar 27
How to live is a question that is central to the work we do at Alive, this blog explores a possible answer. We propose that time spent pursuing self-transcendence through the acquisition of skills and in the service of others is time well spent. "Self-transcendence summarises everything that it is to be fully human. We express all that we are to the world and do so in a way that goes beyond our own ego and has a net positive impact on others."
The big idea
A question that is central to the work we do at Alive is “how we should use our time and ultimately spend our life?” What path? What pursuits? And what practices are worthy of dedicating our lives to? This question should be fundamental to all of us. We must continually ask it of ourselves throughout life and the answers we give should be challenged. As Socrates said, “the examined life is not worth living”. Without a strong idea of what is worthwhile to commit ourselves to or an understanding of what will provide the most return on our investment, we can flounder and drift without a strong sense of direction and conviction. Henry David Thoreau’s famous quote “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation” is a statement that perfectly captures the despair felt by those who fail to answer this question with sufficient rigour.
In this article we would like to propose an answer to this questions that considers all the elements that make up a good life. What we will discuss today integrates the concepts of Techne (the acquisition of useful skills), mastery, purpose, self-actualization and self-transcendence. The path we propose is centred around an ongoing focus on skill acquisition, learning, personal development and a continual refinement of our purpose. The primary motivation for walking this path being the life-long process of self-actualisation and the eventual self-transcendence we can reach through the application of our abilities in service to others.
We will explore why the pursuit of productive knowledge is such a rewarding path and unpack the virtuous cycles it can create for ourselves and others if we learn to apply this knowledge in a way that is universally beneficial. The goal of self-actualization is ultimately to become all that we are, not to become more than what we are but to unlock every strain of potential we already have in our being. This is a worthy objective but we also hope to show people that this isn’t the end. Once we reach this point our next phase of development is through the self-transcendence that occurs when we let go of our personal objectives and begin to see ourselves as part of the larger whole, understanding our ultimate role is to meaningful contribute to the world. This analysis will leverage the work done by Scott Barry Kaufman (PHD) in his recent work “Transcendence”.
What’s the evidence?
We will now explore why this path is one that is productive and profoundly meaningful. We will showcase how a focus on skill acquisition in a particular domain can satisfy our most basic psychological needs. We will explore how an expanded approach to personal development across multiple domains can satisfy our higher needs and unlock multiple opportunities for ourselves in life. And finally, we will demonstrate why an altruistic purpose and viewing self-actualisation as something we pursue for the good of others, is the ultimate end goal that pushes us towards fulfilled states of self-transcendence.
Satisfying our core needs: as human beings we have basic security needs that serve as the foundation of our psychological health. Dedication to mastery and techne in your chosen field satisfies the need that is most elusive in our modern era when it comes to security- the need for self-acceptance and self-esteem. Those who develop a sense of competence in one domain through hard work and effort, become more confident in their personal abilities in many other areas of life. The journey from fool to master teaches us humility and forges a perspective that sees of all of life’s challenges as ultimately surmountable with enough deliberate effort or practice. This is a deeply satisfying way of operating in the world and creates a sense of identify that is anti-fragile. When we are challenged, we do not question ourselves and doubt who we are, we instead ask more productive questions that are focused on how we can get better and eventually overcome the obstacle. It is now adversity which builds us up stronger and adds additional layers to our character and strengths. It is through mastery and techne that we develop the growth mindset required for unshakable confidence.
Igniting flow: A less conceptual example of how the acquisition of skills and process of mastery gives us a psychological boost is revealed through an understanding of the triggers and benefits of flow states. Flow sates have been written about extensively, so we won’t go into too much detail here but if you want to learn more we highly recommend checking out the Flow Research Collective. Flow has been scientifically validated as one of the most pleasurable and addictive states we can experience. When we are in states of flow our attention is heightened, we experience hypo-frontality (the quieting of the ego and the self-assessing mind), we process information faster and our lateral thinking expands, even our sense of time itself is even bent during this blissful state. This is mainly the work of norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins that are released when we are clear of distractions and engaging in meaningful work.
To achieve these states, we require two things 1. A challenging task to keep us within a desired level of focus and 2. A purpose that can make this day to day work meaningful enough in order to trigger flow.
1. Mastery and Techne ignite our curiosity and keep us in the zone of proximal development. If we have fostered a deep curiosity and passion for a project or skill, this energy is likely to trigger flow. This type of passion is likely to occur when we get into the complexities of anything and give ourselves enough headspace to be fully immersed in a project, often the more we look into or think about a subject the more intriguing things become. Furthermore, mastery itself keeps us within the zone of proximal development. Flow requires that our level of ability is continually challenged just the right amount, not too challenging to the point of invoking stress but not so easy that the task becomes boring. The proper and balanced pursuit of mastery keeps us in this zone.
2. Flow states also only arise when our work is deeply important and meaningful to us. To be completely undistracted means we must have a deep sense of connection to our work and understand on many levels how it is benefiting us and have a deep justification of it’s importance to others. Without this many other things will enter our mind when we sit down to work as our brain fights conflicting messages about what’s worthy of our focus and mental resources. We need our executive attention network to be dialled into our work and it will only do this is we have a strong emotional and intellectual connection with our chosen path. Therefore, we are more likely to become focused on work that is connected to our purpose. The more we understand why we are doing a task and the more we are invested in the process of self-actualization, purpose and self-transcendence, the more we can experience flow along the way.
Flow is an interesting state, it’s one of the few phenomenological events on the planet that can be labeled as “addictive, deeply pleasurable and relatively short term” and simultaneously be productive for our long-term goals. It’s the intersection between instant gratification and long-term satisfaction that makes flow such a win-win experience.
Beyond the basic needs
Beyond the satisfaction our safety and emotional needs, this path also fully satisfies our growth needs, the need for purpose, passion, exploration and opportunity. What we are really are really looking at here is a theory of how to use your time and energy in a way that maximises the level of fulfilment, opportunity and satisfaction across your life.
Meta learning and transferable skills: This is where the crucial concept of meta learning comes in. Mastery and Techne will not only sharpen the saw in relation to a particular craft, if we put deliberate time and effort into understanding the process of learning itself we build the skills we need to become proficient in all our other pursuits. When we learn about learning, our ability to get better at our chosen game improves but our ability to improve in any other game improves as well, thus meta-learning is the game of getting better at games and allows us to multiply our efforts. Along the way we also inevitably pick up many transferable skills that may be only indirectly related to our pursuit but are highly useful as they are also indirectly related to other areas of life and anything we may do in the future. In general, it is better to invest our time in something that will have flow on effects and benefit ourselves and others into the future, rather than invest in things that only benefit ourselves in the present. Learning is the ultimate example of this.
Meta-learning: Beyond a philosophical level this has many immensely practical benefits for everyday modern life. The world is changing quickly. As the story goes, the jobs of the future likely don’t even exist yet. What does this mean for the next decades of our lives and careers? It means that transferable skills and a deep understanding of learning itself is becoming exponentially more important in our dynamic society. In an increasingly VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), those who focus their energy on transferable skills and meta-learning will have an edge as they are able to climb multiple competence hierarchies (i.e. quickly develop your abilities across multiple domains and successfully adapt to new environments quickly) and unlock new opportunities for further growth and development. Meta skills related to learning e.g. mental models, an understanding of pedagogy, productivity, organization, speed reading, mnemonic techniques and even our ability to focus will have huge flow on effects to almost all that decide to pursue them. The time we focus on developing ourselves is never wasted and has a compounding return on time invested.
Transferable skills: Inevitably, the application of our newly learnt skills in the world will bring challenges that allow us to build a strong a strong base of transferable skills such as communication, negotiation, influence, strategy, teamwork, creativity, leadership, critical thinking, problem solving. Beyond the process of learning technical skills, self-actualization relies on the development of skills related to emotional balance. A strong psyche will also be increasingly important as our world shifts and changes, those who develop a meditative like focus, self-awareness, resilience and intellectual curiosity in the face of challenge, will have a huge advantage.
The notion of these transferable skills is also important as it goes beyond satisfying our need for esteem or growth, it can also be applied to our need for love and connection. These needs can seem the most illusive to many as they appear to be most satisfied in those people are either naturally endowed with or gifted in these areas. However, many studies show that relationship building itself is a learnable skill and if we turn the growth mindset we have fostered to this pursuit, we can enrich our social life tremendously. Furthermore, to be more pragmatic, the pursuit of an altruistic purpose combined with high levels of competence across multiple domains will also increase your social value, people will recognise all that you do and are capable of doing for them. Strong relationships are forged out of a generosity (of non-material resources), if you have a greater ability to give help to others, your social world will open.
Service and self-transcendence
We will now turn to focus on the importance of applying our skill in the proper manner. The application of our skills must not be thought of as simply our destination or the journeys end point but as the foundation that ignites this process throughout and fills this pursuit with meaning. Fully applying ourselves to any purpose that aims to have a net positive impact on the world (in any capacity) will give us sustained satisfaction both in the short and long term. We have already discussed how in the short term having a grand purpose that guides your daily efforts and helps us achieve states of flow & focus. If your purpose and your effort is something that benefits other people, our social drives kick in and our commitment to the cause is further energised. Service to others also does more than just increase our motivation, it also gives us a deep sense of satisfaction. One of our primary needs in life is to feel significant, that is to feel valued in the eyes of others, service satisfies this need. When we combine our personal feeling of significance with the altruistic benefit we get from pro-social behaviour, our lives are infused with positive emotion and a sense of meaning. The continual application of these skills in service of others creates a cycle of learning - doing/serving - reward, the love of this cycle and the emotional benefits it provides turns our purpose into a passion.
There is also a lot to be said about how our efforts shape our society, the world over the long term and even future generations. According to Erik Erickson’s theory of psychosocial development, when we reach adult life the primary question we ask ourselves becomes “how can I impact the world”. Erik’s observed that an individual’s satisfaction or stagnation in this period will be related to the ability of us all to answer this call and believe their actions have a generational benefit. Thus we must ask ourselves, are we committing our time, energy and resources to pursuits that are good for others both now and in the future? If we can answer this question with a resounding yes, theory suggests we will be more effective, more satisfied and look at our lives with joy.
How to make the change
In order to start living a life aligned to this path there is an ongoing effort in the following four areas that needs to be in place.
The formation of our purpose and a structured method to frequently assess it’s value and refocus ourselves around it.
An understanding of how our purpose translates into goals and actions, combined with an understanding of the skills required to be impactful in our chosen domain.
Continuous effort to enhance our personal capability i.e. lifelong commitment to personal development.
Commitment to a structured process that ensures consistent progress towards personal growth and the fulfilment of our purpose.
1. We have written extensively about how to form and align your life around a overarching purpose, you can read more about this initial process here.
2. Goal setting to translate our purpose into action: Firstly, we need to look at our overarching purpose and then divide this up into a series of high level and long-term goals. If your purpose is your aspirational mission statement, something you are always striving for but has no limit and thus cannot be “achieved” then your goals are the milestones you set to measure movement in the right direction.
Goals need to be set over multiple time horizons to be most effective. If we set big goals over multiple years (e.g. 3-5) we need to continually break these down to an increasingly tangible level until they can align and direct us to meaningful action in the present. For example, a good system for yearly goals is to break them down into monthly goals, then break the monthly goals into weekly and leverage the weekly goals to guide our daily actions. At any point you can look at your monthly/weekly calendar and determine whether how you re spending your time aligns with your priorities. With this process our daily actions and striving is infused with meaning as we understand how they directly link to our purpose.
Understanding how your skills map to your purpose and goals: If we are going to dedicate time towards acquisition and application of skills, we need to ensure they are appropriately mapped to our purpose. We need to narrow our focus and effort correctly, too narrow and we may miss out on building the transferable skills discussed above, too wide and we will never have the energy or time necessary to develop the level of competence required to be truly impactful.
What we need to do is develop a T shaped approach to our personal development. This involves selecting a broader selection of transferable skills we are interested in and we know will serve us well and combining them with the 2-3 specific skills we need to master in order to really be effective in our chosen domain (the domain that is mapped to the area that will allow you to best live out your purpose). The transferable skills will be mostly the same for everyone, there are a base of skills that are flexible enough to be applied to any task/pursuit. The specific skills we select will require more analysis. We may need to study people in our field who have been successful in the past to determine what made them great, we may need to analyse our own strengths and weaknesses to determine how to best leverage our current abilities or we may simply need to evoke a process of trial and error, pushing ourselves the limit so our crucial development needs become evident.
The skills T focuses our time, energy and attention on what is most important to our craft. The exercise of developing this matrix itself will also be beneficial as it helps you understand your craft or domain in more detail. We often focus on the output of our work (what we could achieve or produce) but focusing our attention on the inputs and the process (what we need to do to make this a reality) will afford us a more useful and complete understanding of our work.
3 & 4 Creating the process: Once we then know where we are going (purpose) and how to get there (skills) we need to put in place a process that will be the engine for our self-actualisation. This process will map out the routines and practices we need to effectively cycle between the acquisition of skills and their application through service. The meta work here is important (the deliberate effort we put into planning and the systemising of our efforts) Habits are key when it comes to long term achievement so the more we can habituate our effort the more seamlessly and consistent our progress will become.
The question then becomes “how do we develop a process that reinforces our path (techne – mastery – self-actualization – self-transcendence) and helps us manage our time”. The goal setting discussed above should be the foundation or this routine. Goal setting and strategy activities should be conducted with regular frequency with a review completed at the end of each goal cycle and key insights noted.
When translating the goals into actions, this is when we craft our process. The actions themselves need to be routinised, if you want to invest time in something you need to make it a deliberate and consistent practice. Practice is everything when it comes to mastery and personal development. Don’t just fit it in wherever you can, look at your week and your month, think about how much time you need to accomplish your goals and then put that in your calendar for the week. The more systematic the better, know when you are doing the work and what you are doing in each of those allotted time slots.
There are two things we can do from a psychological perspective to ensure this routine is adhered to (without this conscious reflection commitment can be difficult to manifest) 1. Get clarity on your “why” by revisiting your purpose and clearly linking the actions to goals and the goals to your purpose. 2. Get clarity on the action itself, the more specific you can be when deciding exactly you are going to do, when you are going to do it and why this is the most effective way of working, the more likely we are to conduct ourselves with conviction and discipline.
Infusing Service and transcendence into your process
Balancing acquisition and application: We need to remember to structure our actions in a way that balances our time between the acquisition of skills and the application of skills to benefit others. This goes to the heart of the dichotomy between selfishness and selflessness. Of course our ultimate aim on this path is to serve others and make a significant impact on the world, but if we are just beginning on this path, it may be a better idea to put more effort into building your capability and putting yourself in a better position to be able to make a difference. In this way, the dichotomy between selfish and selfless melt away, the things we do for ourselves are done in order to directly or indirectly have a net positive on those around us. This is proper selfishness, filling your own cup so that you have surplus for others. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind when splitting your time then between direct service and development is to think about how close you are to your desired level of effectiveness in a given domain. If you are far from your desired level of competency it may be worth investing more time in learning, practice and being a mentee rather than teaching, training or coaching. This doesn’t mean we don’t yet apply our skills for the benefit of others, it means that when we do we make our actions very specific, targeted and intentional so others can benefit while we maximise experientially learning. E.g. I want to get better at communicating my ideas to others so I spend lots of time learning about the art and practicing, then I look for specific opportunities to apply this skill to my field in service of others and really value the preparation and debrief I put into that moment.
Service and transcendence: Everything we have discussed previously is focused on our basic needs and striving towards self actualisation, if we want to go to the next level (transcendence) we need to focus our efforts towards the service to others. Self-transcendence is the next stage of psychological development beyond self-actualization in Maslow’s deep theory of humanistic psychology. Self-transcendence summarises everything that it is to be fully human, when we perfectly express all that we are to the world and do so in a way that goes beyond our own ego. As Scott Barry Kaufman put it in his book Transcendence “healthy transcendence is an emergent phenomenon resulting from the harmonious integration of one’s whole self in the service of cultivating the good society.” It is about increasingly seeing ourselves as part of a larger whole and thus focusing our personal development efforts directly toward progress for the whole of humanity as the ultimate goal. Transcendence requires that we are motivated by higher ideals beyond the fulfilment involved in self-actualization such as meaning, love, purpose, goodness and wholeness.
So how do we invoke this cycle of continually engaging with what’s simultaneously good for us and good for the world?
1. Map the activities of service that relate to your purpose. What activities would have the most impact on the world and allow you to fully apply the capability in your skill T right now?
2. Ensure these activities align with your goals, carve out time for these activities and make them a central part of the deliberate practice and activities you created earlier.
3. Learn from those you serve. Listen to the end user or beneficiary of your efforts and iterate your approach until you feel your personal desires and definition of progress blend with their vision for a better world. In this way your own striving becomes the striving of the community, your own definition of success is married to the success of others and the fulfilment of your own purpose grants others the ability to move closer to their own state of fulfilment and transcendence as you satisfied their needs and help them on their journey.
*note there is also an important environmental lens to put on all of this. As we reach transcendence and our ego begins to recede, we also begin to recognise our interconnectedness with the earth itself and thus recognise that truly omni-considerate decisions and actions must include the needs and desires of our planet. Recognising that we never truly exist as individuals, we are dependent on others, the environment and on innate material as mundane as the air or heat from the sun.
The new experience
At Alive we explore positive feedback loops that help to enhance our experience.
This way of life is abundant with these positive cycles. These feedback loops allow us to exponentially increase our level of skill, personal satisfaction and of course, our impact on others. We will describe three mains loops to illustrate this concept.
The process of meta learning. As discussed, learning about learning is an important part of the journey toward mastery. This process creates a feedback loop as many of the techniques associated with improving our learning ability focus on enhancing our neuroplasticity. As a result of increased neuroplasticity, we are able to meta learn faster while simultaneously acquiring new skills more efficiently.
Growing wisdom as we apply our knowledge. Wisdom is the ability to turn theory into action and utilise the skills we have gained. As we begin to use our knowledge and skills in the world we grow in our wisdom and our ability to apply knowledge. This wisdom makes us better at identifying new opportunities to apply our skills and knowledge and thus the cycle of learning and doing both repeats and intensifies.
Service and it’s impact on our brain chemistry. Altruism itself creates a virtuous cycle in our lives. When we help someone else we get deeper satisfaction and happiness than when we do something for ourselves. This boost of positive emotion puts us in a far better position to have a positive impact on others, we are more likely to interact with people from a place of abundance rather than scarcity. Our cup is full and we begin to give more to others, as we do this, the act itself begins to replenish our cup even more.
At Alive our central interest is in showcasing the synergy between our three main areas of focus, physiology, psychology and philosophy. This way of living or life philosophy has a clear positive impact on both the way we feel mentally and our physical health.
Psychology: We have discussed extensively the positive psychological benefits; the induction of pleasurable flow states, the mental flexibility derived from skill acquisition and the emotional balance secured through commitment to serving others. This philosophical approach to life has the ability to satisfy our basic and higher psychological needs from safety, all the way to growth, exploration and purpose.
Physiology: Our goals orient us in the world, we will be directed in all our actions by whatever our primary goal is. Everything related to that goal or the things that help us get closer towards to it will become more salient to us and will be considered far more important in our unconscious and conscious mind. Sub goals then become the crucial foundations we focus on in order to achieve the higher order goals. Achieving optimal physical health will become an incredibly important underlying goal in order to ensure we are able to achieve what we have set our minds to. We will desire the direct mental benefits and improved cognition that come from well functioning physiology, we will realise that we need to implement the practices that give us the physical and mental energy to thrive and do our best work. Due to this process we will have all the motivation we need to firmly commit ourselves to healthy practices.
Let us now summarise exactly what changes in our everyday experience as a result of walking this path and working towards transcendence.
Free from the drive to pursue basic needs we are is free to pursue the higher motives of transcendence. When Maslow studied individuals characterised as “transcenders” (those that are “becoming better human beings for others, as well as for themselves, and finally of transcending the ego”- Scott Barry Kaufman) there were remarkable difference in the quality of their conscious experience compared to others studied in baseline groups. Particularly the frequency and intensity with which they reported having “peak experiences”. Peak experiences are universally reported across culture as moments of extreme joy, awe, flow and engagement with the present moment. They are often described as a state of extreme pleasure and a temporary loss of the ego.
Beyond this Maslow also went on to describe what is know as a “Plateau experience” that is common among transcenders. This is an enduring peak experience in which individuals feel a greater sense of unity of their consciousness and the world and a sustained quietening of the ego. In this state Maslow described seeing the extraordinary within each moment of everyday life and finding the sacred even in circumstances typically regarded as mundane. When we leave our ego behind and are free from self-concern, we are open to experience the world as it is; free from our internal chatter the world emerges in front of us in a way we have never seen it before.
These peak and plate experiences Maslow describes ultimately indicate that this path towards transcendence leads to higher highs and deep, profound moments. The following is a list of values that were most commonly used by the transcenders Maslow studied to describe their experience.
Goodness, beauty, truth wholeness and dichotomy transcendence, aliveness, uniqueness, perfection, necessity, completion, justice, order, simplicity, richness, effortlessness, playfulness and self sufficiency.
This account makes it clear that there is something special and unique about the transcendent path. Again, we must stress that this process is a journey and not an endpoint, it involves continual striving and development throughout life, but as evident, the rewards can be well worth it.
Read: Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization by Scott Barry Kaufman
Listen: Mindscape 91 | Scott Barry Kaufman on the Psychology of Transcendence
Watch: Mastery by Robert Greene: a talk at google