The Era of Self-Transcendence – Part 1

It is quite true that we live by bread alone—when there is no bread. But what happens to our desires when there is plenty of bread and when our bellies are chronically filled?
— Abraham Maslow

My colleague Sébastien Fauré and I recently attended a retail summit in Mexico, filled with a number of global retail and consumer brands, from Ralph Lauren to BCBG Max Azria to Johnson & Johnson. As we met a series of global marketers, ostensibly to talk about digital strategies and “omni-channel optimization”, we were amazed to find that many conversations took a much more profound turn as we discussed what consumers are really looking for from brands today.

We met one CMO, a brilliant entrepreneur working at an exciting new subscription retail company – where members receive a fabulous sample box every month that consists of apparel, accessories and tech gadgets. Half way through our coffee chat, he let us know that the fan communities his marketing team was managing were looking for far more than just “stuff” and even a traditional online community. In his words, “We’re living in an age where people are feeling more isolated than ever. They’re craving a sense of meaning. Beyond their own selfish needs. Self-transcendence. And that’s what we’re here to give them as a brand.”

“Self-transcendence” was not a topic we were expecting to discuss at a retail marketing conference, but it opened our minds to something that’s been right under our noses.

In the mid-20th century, a remarkable young psychologist in the United States developed a framework for understanding human needs and drives, which has since become universally recognized for its usefulness in understanding what makes us tick at a fundamental level. His name was Abraham Maslow, and he called his framework “the hierarchy of needs”, which was later coined “Maslow’s hierarchy”.

I hardly need to introduce the Maslow hierarchy (or pyramid) to most of our readers, but it’s worth noting that later in his career, Maslow added another layer to the top of the pyramid, and once again anticipated a tendency that we are now seeing in full blossom: self-transcendence.

Self-transcendence is the idea that we have an inherent need as human beings to go beyond our immediate personal needs. Even beyond actualizing (realizing one’s full potential) and even beyond serving those in our immediate circle, to a place where we contribute to a larger whole and feel a connection to humanity in general. For some, this takes the form of larger movements, such as environmentalism or the fight against global poverty. For others, it is experienced through spiritualism in its many forms, such as meditation, yoga or tai chi.  For many, it expresses itself in service to others within a larger cause, such as civil rights or humanitarianism.

Sooner or later, nearly all of us need to feel part of a much bigger, meaningful whole – whether that is the planet, our human species, or some sense of a cosmos within which we are playing a meaningful role. At a deep level, most of us can sense that there is something bigger going in this universe than just the physical objects that move around the planet. That, in the famous words of Oprah, “we are more than just our bodies”.