This episode is part of a mini-series designed to look at reinvention (i.e., making your single life more remarkable). Peter McGraw welcomes Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist and author, to talk about Scott’s revision of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Scott debunks some of the mythology around the hierarchy, including that Maslow never drew the pyramid that many of you are so familiar with. Keep an ear out for the moment Scott opens up about his singleness and the opportunity it provides him to “date” many ideas, hence the title of this episode.
Listen to Episode #57 here:
Polyamorous With Ideas
In Solo Thoughts Episode 5, I talk about how single people need a new narrative, a new way to think about their life, a story. In it, I present the three Rs: Recognize, Rebel and Reinvent as a way to think about single living in a world that pushes you towards marriage. This episode is part of a mini-series designed to investigate the reinvention step, looking at how to structure your life in order to live single and live remarkably.
I welcome Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist and author to talk about his revision of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Scott debunked some of the mythology around the hierarchy, including the fact that Maslow never drew the pyramid that many of you are familiar with. His revision is useful for identifying what makes your life good or not so good. Something to look out for is a lovely moment we share when Scott opens up about his singleness and the opportunities it has provided him as he has lived an unconventional academic life. In short, it allows him to date many ideas, hence, the title of the episode.
As always, please rate, review and tell others about the show. Thank you to those of you who have reached out with appreciative messages. This is a lot of work and those messages encourage me. I appreciate you. The last thing, the bonus material is back and can be found on the Solo Slack channel. In it, I talk about the four ultimate concerns of human existence. That is, where our existential threats lie and wait. To access it, apply to join the community on the Solo page of PeterMcGraw.org. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Our guest is Scott Barry Kaufman. He is a humanistic psychologist exploring the depths of human potential. He’s taught courses on intelligence, creativity and well-being at Columbia University, NYU and the University of Pennsylvania among other places. He hosts The Psychology Podcast and is the author and/or editor of nine books including Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, which is what I want to talk to him predominantly about. Also, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, he co-authored that with Carolyn Gregoire and the Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. In 2015, he was named one of the 50 groundbreaking scientists who are changing the way we see the world by Business Insider. Welcome, Scott.
Thanks for having me.
This is long overdue. I’ve been eager to talk to you ever since. I’ve read Wired to Create, which informed some of my thinking on my previous book. I want to talk to you about transcendence, well-being and living a good life. Before we do that, what is a humanistic psychologist and how did you become one?
There’s probably no mold, but humanistic psychologists tend to focus on the whole person and try to understand what it means to live a vital life that’s experientially alive, full of meaning and wholeness. Therefore, humanistic psychologists don’t ignore the suffering of humans or the dark side of humans, but try to integrate all of ourselves with acceptance and love.
While reading your book, Transcend, I kept using the word complexities of trying to understand being a person and being a person well. As a result, my sense of this is that as humanistic psychologists, they often don’t do the thing that a lot of other psychologists do, which is to drill down to a tiny phenomenon and then exert careful control in order to figure out relationships. This idea of the whole person raises the complexity of it all. I’m not saying this in a pejorative way but at times it feels a little philosophical the work of humanistic psychologists. Is that a fair thing to say?
It’s fair especially if you look at the humanistic psychology of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was almost all philosophical like Rollo May and Erich Fromm. The art of loving is philosophical. He is labeled a humanistic philosopher. That is true, but I’m scientific. I try to do studies and integrate some of these ideas into modern-day personality psychology, research intelligence and creativity.
The rise in certain improvements in terms of statistics, experimental methods and mathematical modeling make these things a bit easier than in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
They didn’t have a lot of the psychological methods available to them statistically, but I’m not sure that many of them were interested in statistics either. I don’t know if Erich Fromm was opening up an SPSS statistical package and was like, “I wonder what the correlation coefficient is,” but I am.
That’s true. There’s been this bifurcation of philosophy and psychology. I like your approach, which is you don’t have to choose. They complement each other.
Also, modern-day positive psychology and humanistic psychology are kismet.
You needed the humanistic psychologist to pave the way to accelerate the Positive Psychology Movement, which is only what would you say maybe 30 years old?
I’m not that old. It was in 1998 when it was founded.
Let me preview here. Readers are probably like, “These two nerds know a lot about this stuff,” and I don’t know anything. What I want to do is talk to you about your work. I want to do it a little bit through the lens of the single person, the person who is unmarried, maybe for now or forever. I recognize that oftentimes, the bias in the sciences, in the media, government and so on is that marriage is an inevitability. You’re treading water until that happens. This is a big goal. This is something that ought to be done for a variety of good reasons. I believe that a good model of living a good life has degrees of freedom where you can live a good life without being married.
In your book, Transcend, the main character is Abraham Maslow, the creator of what’s typically known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you’ve taken an Introductory Psychology course, you’ve learned it. If you’ve taken a consumer behavior course and in a business school, you’ve learned about it. You might have stumbled upon it in the popular press. It’s a well-known model. I like this part of your book because I feel like I get to know Abraham Maslow in a way that I had never got to know him. Could you talk a little bit about this person who still has an impact on the world?
I think he was a brilliant guy, ever creative ahead of his time in the field of psychology. He was trying to shift the entire field of psychology away from such a focus on what’s wrong with humans and how we don’t have much of an agency to this idea of their higher reaches of human nature. I still think to even in modern psychology, the field is still not focused on the higher reaches of human nature. This can be hard to find a job as an aspiring psychologist wanting a tenure track position, who says in their application, “I want to understand the self-actualization.” They’ll rather take the person who’s studying the VA, ventral visual system of the brain or something. That’s considered much core in my field than wanting to study what’s transcendence.
Call me whatever you want to call me, but that’s who I am. I’m much more interested in understanding what humans could be, not only always focusing on what humans are. That’s what Maslow was all about. He was all about what humans could be and it resonated with me. It fired me up when I read his personal diaries and his writings. It came across to me as loving and hopeful, but while not ignoring the dark side of human nature at all. He called himself a realistic optimist and I think I would call myself that as well.
I call myself a rational optimist. We’re close. I am prepping a Solo Thoughts episode that draws on a bit of Matt Ridley’s work. There’s a book called The Rational Optimist that I like quite a lot. One of the things that I think is cool about this is you went back to the original writings, which is something that a lot of people don’t do reading his diary, his papers and so on. As a result of it, you have uncovered some of the myths of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you don’t mind, give the readers a brief primer to jog their memory about the way the world sees Maslow’s work. Also, if you don’t mind talking about how it’s been misinterpreted and its take on this mythical status that’s not exactly accurate.
A lot of people think of the pyramid with a connection to self-esteem and security. Physiological needs at the bottom, then safety and then belonging and love. Next is esteem, which could be seen from others or self-esteem and you go up to self-actualization and you’re done, call it a day. That’s a gross misrepresentation because Maslow will never even draw a pyramid. First of all, that wasn’t a thing. He was a developmental psychologist at heart. He thought human development was constantly this two-step forward, one-step-back dynamic, where we’re always striving for growth, but we can fall. It seemed to go backward, but we haven’t completely returned to the ground level. Also, a lot of people can be suffering one moment in their life and then those needs become prevalent. Needs is cursing in the background in a different context in their life. He tried to make the point that life is not like a video game. These levels never returned to the early levels.
I like that. I wrote down the idea that life is not a video game. The hierarchy is a pyramid. Some management consultants evidently made that and thus, it’s made the rounds as a model.
I saw the earliest version of that. Todd Bridgeman and colleagues reproduced it in a great article journal article in trying to trace the origins of the pyramid. One of the first iterations was a step ladder with the self-realized man at the top with a flagpole putting a flag in and conquering. It is masculine.
Isn’t it a surprise that the management consultants who advise competitive people who are trying to become wealthy and build big businesses would set this up as a series of steps that you have to achieve?
There is no surprise.
I want to reflect on a couple of things that you said that I like. I like the idea that life is messy. You have good days and you have bad days. You have victories and you have defeats and yet, there is a striving to live this good life and to make your situation better off. Some people by virtue of luck, by virtue of their hard work, by virtue of their skills are doing better than others. It accommodates this change developmentally in life. The other thing is I like where you are going with your revision of this is that it allows for individual and cultural differences. It allows for differences in terms of development. That there is no one way to live a good life.
One can live a good life without even self-actualizing. Some people live a good life through their connections and their community and are quite content with that. People can choose what works best for them. I wanted to emphasize that in this book. This book gives you various options on the table, by the end of the day, you have to choose what good life works best for you, own it and accept it. For some people, it’s a lot harder to fully express themselves because of the environment. What they want to self-actualize is not societally acceptable or not acceptable by some political factions. Also, I try to acknowledge that people come on this journey of self-actualization at different places and different unique challenges.
This is why I wanted to have you on the show because my readers are people who are walking in the unconventional path in many ways. Hearing you talk about this reminds me of a story from a previous episode, but I can’t remember. I was talking to this woman about her travels in Central America or South America and someone was helping her with her travels. I don’t know if this person was helping carry bags or helping in some way with the tour, but this man was quite impoverished and yet quite proud that he was able to purchase the pair of shoes that he was wearing.
For him, owning a pair of shoes that he was living a good life. It’s striking to hear that story, but it’s also heartwarming that someone’s situation could be such that they are striving. I think what would be the cases. He goes, “I’ve now owned these shoes. What’s next? What might I turn my attention to next?” That’s a nice reminder of we should be a little careful to set out self-actualization as defining it as this amazing world-changing and life-changing thing.
I’ve also found it interesting. I saw a documentary on North Korea once and Americans assume that everyone in North Korea is depressed. It’s funny because Americans don’t realize how depressed they are. It’s like, “You’re going to talk about another country that they must be depressed because they don’t have freedoms? We have a lot of freedoms and we’re all the most prescribed with antidepressant medications in the world.” This documentary struck me how they interviewed people from North Korea. I guess when the cynic could say, “They were forced to say that. They’re scared to say that.” They were like, “I’m happy. I feel like so many of my needs are met. I don’t want to think about it.” I don’t want to be misquoted here and be like, “Scott is pushing for a totalitarian regime. This is what Scott’s saying and that’s what we should have. He wants to turn America into North Korea.”
What I am saying is we have many assumptions of, “That homeless person must be suffering.” There’s research that shows that in the slums of Calcutta, a lot of the individuals that live on the streets there report higher levels of life satisfaction than the average American. There’s something else going on there if you can cultivate a sense of community. Some people are happy and feel satisfied in life with living in a society where there’s a lot of social aspects to it. A lot of people helping each other and caring for each other in a personal way. Look, we need to keep an open mind.
What it does is it suggests that there’s no one right way to do this. This term self-actualization gets thrown around a lot. I like this definition and I might have pulled it from your book. I might be quoting you back to you is this idea of becoming the person you’re able to become. I liked that because I liked the word able. Just because you have a lack of resources or in a bad situation, doesn’t mean that growth is not possible. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be satisfied with life. It doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t say, “I’m living a good life.”
When are we going to talk about being single?
What I want to do first is talk about your revision to Maslow’s work because I want to get that and I want to turn our attention to the implications for single living, if we can. I like what you’ve done with this. I’ll tee it up and turn it over to you. You’ve turned the pyramid into a sailboat?
I have. I think that’s a better metaphor for life.
Life is something that is to be experienced as an experience through the vast unknown of the sea. We try to integrate our whole sailboat as much as possible or all the parts and try to hormonally operate together. We want the boat to be secure. We want to open our sail and move towards a purposeful direction with our values despite knowing that these things could come crashing down on us at any time. There are many aspects of it where there are other sailboats in the sea with us. We’re not the only ones in the sea folks, even though we’re moving purposefully in our own direction. The waves can come crashing down on all of us getting ruined all of our plans at once, we then all realize we’re in the sea together. There are a million different aspects of this analogy that are better than a static pyramid scheme. Life’s not a pyramid scheme. Those who think of it go to jail.
I like the idea that there can be a storm on the horizon, the wind might not be blowing in the direction that you want it to. You talked about sometimes, you catch the wind and you’re moving and it feels good and right. Also, on the basis is you want a secure boat. You don’t want a boat that tips over easily. You conceptualize this analogy as there are these two parts of the boat, the base of the boat and the sail. Which each of those represents?
The base of the boat represents security and stability, like an anchor. The sail represents growth or what some psychologists refer to as plasticity. You have to be adaptable. You have to be vulnerable to the threats. Vulnerable, not in the sense of being vulnerable, but in the sense of being vulnerable.
I think about this is to be brave. Bravery is an act of vulnerability.
That’s what I’m saying. It’s brave to act despite your vulnerabilities. I’m going to think about that. It is interesting, my reframing of the whole thing.
This idea of security, so what makes up security? It’s not like you throw out Maslow’s ideas entirely. What you do is you reincorporate them. He talked about the value of safety and security as an important starting point in many ways to be able to pursue growth.
I would like to think that if he were alive, he would be like, “Celibate makes a lot more sense, Scott.”
I have a feeling he would say that. In many ways, this is not an indictment of Maslow’s thinking. You’re standing on the shoulder of a giant and someone will likely stand on your shoulders someday. That’s an important thing to acknowledge is that you don’t have the sailboat without the makings of the pyramid. What makes up security in your revision here? What are those elements? Let’s talk about this practically for a moment as a person. If a person’s taking stock of their life and they’re going to use your sailboat analogy. They want to think first about security. They want to think about the base. They want a boat that doesn’t tip over easily. What are the things that they should be assessing and thinking about and perhaps trying to improve or address?
First of all, there are some things that one can’t control like environmental factors that we live in. It causes us a lot of unpredictability in our environment and harshness. Growing up with parents who are abusive, it’s hard to control that. There are safety concerns, but I have also talked about the need for connection and seeking out high-quality connections that aren’t necessarily belonging in connections. A lot of people search for belonging, and join groups and put organizations and activism and things. Maybe they don’t even care about the cause, but they’re trying to connect with people. They want to feel like they belong in some way. They still feel lonely. I talk a lot about the importance of real connection. Having a couple of people in your life can be enough.
You’re talking about movements and so on. I haven’t read the original research. I’ve heard someone speak about it, so I should be careful about repeating it. The idea that when you have a social movement, let’s say protests, people who are engaged politically. There are two styles of people. People who care about the core issue. There are the people who are like, “This is a fun party.” Not in that sense but, “This is energizing. This is fun.” There are people here to make friends with, to date, to belong to something. You need both of those people because you need a lot of people in order to create social change. What’s fascinating is that social change is in part motivated, accelerated by people who want to belong to something that feels right.
I’ve been interested in looking at violent extremism. There also are radical social movements and looking at what needs that fulfills. As a humanistic psychologist, I look everywhere. I’m like, “What need does that fulfill?” That’s my question about every behavior that I see.
I feel the same way. First of all, I don’t think that is a bad thing. I think that is a feature and not a bug. The idea that once you have a model. A good model and good theory help you solve problems. If you’re able to apply it widely and explain things and solve problems, then it suggests that you’ve got a good model. We’ll start to tease some of the singleness stuff, is anybody who’s a frequent reader of the show knows how I talk about how important it is to have a team. It’s fundamental especially if you’re not pursuing the one that you have. This should be personal and professional. That is professional support in your life. If you can have a therapist or at the least, you should have a good barber that you can talk to you about your problems.
Also, friends and families, both deep and shallow connections that you can rely on to celebrate good times and to commiserate difficult times. People that you can pick up the phone or text when you’re in need and having that broad network in many ways is even more beneficial than having that one person in the sense of, “You’re not wholly reliant on a single other that’s there.” I like the idea that your notion of connecting belongingness gels with this have a team philosophy that I don’t think people are often taught and encouraged to do it or even that married people are encouraged to keep. That their friends and family get crowded out as they focus their attention on their own partnership and family.
You know a lot about that topic.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. On the growth side of things, this idea that you have a good enough boat is not going to tip over easily. You have this chance to grow. What are the elements in that sail that lead to this chance to catch the wind?
The base of it is exploration. That’s the spirit, which pervades all forms of growth. We have a purpose. We have love. There’s no real order to us there. The whole unit, exploration, love and purpose operate together in tandem to realize transcendence to allow us to ultimately get outside of ourselves to transcending our ego and contribute to the good society. A lot of people shoot for transcendence on a faulty foundation.
What do you mean by that?
Maslow referred to it as pseudo growth, but I call it a pseudo transcendence. We can go back to the violent extremism example. A lot of them want to have transcendence there. They’re yearning for a spiritual connection of oneness with all humans. They’re desperately lonely and so they try to have that fulfilled by some of them blow themselves up. That didn’t satisfy their need for connection. It’s a folly foundation. They are living in a deprived state of transcendence, whereas the transcendence that I’m talking about is one that’s motivated by love, exploration and purpose, but in an integrated fashion. Hitler had a purpose, but I wouldn’t say that he was having healthy transcendence. I do distinguish between healthy transcendence and unhealthy transcendence.
This notion of transcendence is something that Maslow was working on in his own revision before he died. Is that right?
He was. For a couple of years of his life, he was working on lots of ideas. He called it plateau experience, which is this experience in our lives where we feel this transcendence and appreciation and wonder on a more even kill basis as opposed to these one-off or magical peak experiences or high. It’s more of a mid-level experience of transcendence. He was working on this idea of Theory Z, arguing that there are these transgenders, which is a specific type of self-actualizing person that is transcending things. He was interested in all these ideas.
I got some advice from a friend. I’m on leave now and I have thrown myself into this project. I had this insight that a friend gave me where she said, “Pete, you’re not building a business. You’re building a movement.” That was a profound observation and it was reflected in another friend who said, “Pete, don’t worry about readers’ counts. Make something that you believe is going to be useful, valuable, and meaningful for people and all that other stuff will get sorted.” He pushed me to focus on the meaning of this project, rather than the achievement of this project. It’s been quite licensing.
To be honest, that’s a fundamental motivator for me is the pursuit of freedom.
In some ways, I am. I certainly don’t like to be told what I can’t do. I don’t like being told what I should be doing, especially because I believe that a lot of the people who are telling you what to do this, their reasons and rationale aren’t always in my best interest and are based upon faulty logic and science. In a world where we were regularly realizing that we were wrong about things, it’s like fat was bad and sugar was good and now it’s the reverse. I’m always cautious when someone says, “This is good and that is bad,” because I’m not always sure that’s going to hold up.
This is where the pyramid and the idea that life is a video game does people a disservice is that imagine you’re in a world where you’re focused on security. You’re trying to put shoes on your feet. If you believe that you need to be self-actualized, that you need to be transcended, now getting the shoes on your feet is not as satisfying as it ought to be and is not seen as enough of a step in the right direction. I was focused on safety and security on my boat for many years. I had to force myself to move from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset and I still struggle with it. The way that you have set this up is it takes a lot of pressure off. It gets people to be a little bit more reflective in terms of building a boat. It’s hard to build a boat while you’re in a storm. It’s a matter of time.
Here’s the interesting thing though, for some people, but there are individual differences even in that. You put Jocko Willink in a storm, he’s going to fucking dominate the storm.
For people who don’t know, he’s a former Navy SEAL. He’s a podcaster, author and speaker. He talks about leadership and talks about taking ownership.
Your point is well-taken.
It’s consistent with this idea that being focused on the person in a positive process that is there is great. I have a question for you. Maybe it’s connected to the growth side of this, but there is a lot of work on well-being. There’s the traditional work that I’ve talked about on the show about meaning versus pleasure as paths to well-being. I’m a big fan of Martin Seligman’s model, the PERMA Model, which I’ve talked about at length in previous episodes. My sense is these models, and in the book, you talk about sources of well-being and there are dozens of them or so. Things like positive emotions, which are connected to the PERMA Model. Positive relationships, mastery, personal growth, autonomy and etc. How do you reconcile these models of well-being with your sailboat analogy?
With the framework that I put forward, you can see any form of positive psychology topic in there. What do you want to map it onto? Which model of well-being? There’s the Carol Ryff model and Martin Seligman’s PERMA Model. All the components are there in my sailboat. Martin, with who I worked for years, we ran the Imagination Institute together. He emailed me and said, “I love the sailboat.” Mine is a model of human needs, whereas there are these different types of well-being. They’re more in the outcome, the good outcomes in life, whereas I’m more interested in the needs. I think can we integrate these things into.
I was not even considering that it’s reconcilable, but I was thinking about how to fit these models. For the average person, none of these things are truths. They’re approximations. They are our attempts to put words in logic and to be able to explain the human condition in a way that you’re able to then derive predictions, perhaps prescriptions to helping people with those complexities of living a good life. Let’s turn our attention to singleness. Scott, are you single? Would you say you’re single by choice or by chance?
Not by opportunity. That means by choice. I’m a free spirit.
You are indeed. Not only do I admire your work, I admire the way you’ve gone about crafting your career. For readers who don’t know academia, you’ll appreciate what Scott has done much more when I described this. Typically, what ends up happening in academia is you do your research, you write your dry esoteric papers, you get an assistant professor job somewhere. You then teach your classes, you do a limited amount of admin and you churn out lots and lots of papers. You hope and pray, and if you’re good and lucky, you get this so-called magical thing called tenure, and then you can start doing the work that you want to do.
What usually ends up happening is you end up doing the same stuff that you did before because you’re good at that and the academy finds a way to keep it rewarding what is often small thinking. You haven’t followed that path. You’ve had elements of that path, but you have broken yourself out. You’ve pivoted your career. You’ve taken a big step outside of the academy with these books that are written for a much broader audience with your podcast, with the work that you do in terms of talks and media. I’m curious how and why that happened? Do you think in any way your singleness has contributed to it?
You inspired me. If I ever write an autobiography someday, the perfect title for it would be The Unconventional Academic. I started on a conventional path. I did all the things that one does to be a conventional academic. I went to Cambridge University and I studied traditional IQ measures with Nicholas Mackintosh, who was a British psychometrician and behavioral theorist researcher.
Maybe the people at Oxford would disagree with me, but it doesn’t get much more traditional than Cambridge.
It doesn’t. Also in Yale with PhD, and all this stuff, it’s a conventional path. I always knew that if I wanted to change this system, I needed to do the classics first because I used to want to do musical theater. My voice teacher is like, “We need you to do opera first.” Musical theater was thought of as not a serious thing as much as opera, which was serious and needed good vocal training. I don’t know if that analogy hits anyone.
I’ll give you my version of this. When I first started studying humor and decided to write this travel log memoir, pop science book, one of the things that I decided that had to happen was that I was not going to take my foot off the gas with regard to my academic publishing. It nearly killed me to do both simultaneously. I knew that I needed to have the peer-reviewed vetted, scientific, traditional work that was going to underlie that in order to start this new branch that was there. Now, I can forego some more of that traditional work because that’s the game. That’s the rules of academia and the foundation. That’s what you needed to do. It sounds like you set out on that path at first and then built the base.
It seems like we had parallel paths in an external way. There are a lot of complexities to your question, which is requiring self-examination on the spot. There are a lot of elements. The more you become friends with me, it’s something that my friends like about me, so that’s nice. I’m a quirky guy and I think that there are combinations there. When I was at grad school at Yale, my grad advisor, Robert Sternberg, could tell you that redefining intelligence. In college, I discovered the writings of Robert Sternberg and Howard Gardner and all of these ideas of going beyond intelligence. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was so single-minded in, “I want to redefine intelligence. I want to help children. I want to make some impact in the education field.”
I also was accepted to work with Howard Gardner at Harvard Graduate School of Education. People said, “You could probably have a bigger impact not being an ed school, but starting off and getting a psychology PhD and then trying to make an impact in education. That’s the route I took. I always had the idea that I was going to someday branch out into something more real world. That was that. I’ve got struck by the blogging bug in grad school with Psychology Today. Sometimes you don’t know that there are some things that are so you until you do them.
Matthew Hudson, who’s at Psychology Today at the time was doing an article on humor. He interviewed me about this intersection between sex and humor. I was doing some research work with Jeffrey Miller at the time on humor as a meeting display. There were parts of it that were funny. Matthew Hudson after the interview said, “We’re starting this new blog network at Psychology Today. Does that interest you at all? Would you like to be one of our initial bloggers?” I got that bug and I was like, “I always loved writing.” I loved writing as a kid. I did creative writing a lot. I always lived in my fantasy world. I always lived in my head as a kid because I was in special ed. That’s a whole other story, but I developed this whole fantasy life.
As I started doing a couple of blog posts, and then I was hooked. My advisor at Yale at the time, it wasn’t Robert Sternberg anymore. He left after my first year. My advisor, who was more of a neuroscientist, he’s like, “You’ll never get tenure if you’re blogging.” I was like, “I don’t care. This is what I love.” I started to ignore people or even grad school were saying, “Scott, you need this amount of publications if you are going to get this.” I was like, “I’m going to follow my heart. I made a bet on my heart and moved to New York with my good friend Elliott who got a philosophy postdoc. He was my best friend at Yale. We were suitemates. We shared a bathroom. He moved to New York and I was his roommate. I got to New York and I was an adjunct professor again. I didn’t hit the ground running out of PhD in any traditional way.
I started working on my book, Ungifted. That was my dream then was to write Ungifted and change the education system. That’s what lit me up. You asked me, how does this all relate to being single? It all relates to being single. That’s what I wanted to do. This is such a deeply personal thing, but I remember there’s a woman at Yale who I was dating. We’re on my bed in the dorm room and she’s like, “Do you want to be my boyfriend? Do you want to take this seriously?” I said to her, “I don’t think I can do that. I have a new theory of intelligence I have to come up with.” That’s what happened.
At this age of my life, looking back, do I have regrets? I feel like I don’t want to live life with regrets. We choose things. Someone may have chosen to be that woman’s boyfriend and get in meshed and all that world, and then not do their theory of intelligence. They get to a certain age and they say, “I regret I didn’t do the theory of intelligence.” The grass always looks greener. Some say, “Scott, you can have it all. You’re allowed to have better ways to chip and come up with a new theory of intelligence.” People have told me that. They’re like, “You have this binary dichotomy or you had in those early stages of your life.” It’s tricky because does one do nine books with a family? What are the trade-offs in life? I’m continually thinking about that and trying to weigh all the stuff. I do have a free spirit. It’s part of my essence being a free spirit to have fun. I have a lot of fun with women.
That’s something you should be unapologetic about. I don’t think it’s embarrassing at all. I think society wants you to be embarrassed by that because society wants you to choose one person and stick with that person until one of you dies. That certainly undermines how wonderful it is to meet lots of people across life. Some of those relationships might be short and some of them might be long. There’s a lot of growth that comes from those. Those relationships may become romantic. They may become friendships. They may bounce between. There’s a lot to be said for someone who decides to embrace that element of their life, in the same way, that people who may embrace it are a loner in their life. They are asexual or aromantic and that there is nothing wrong with that and to acknowledge the fact that, that those things provide opportunities in other ways, in the same way, that pursuit of marriage might inhibit opportunities.
Thank you for being open-minded and accepting. I appreciate it. I take back that in the end, this is embarrassing. That’s not something I talk about in public. That’s part of my private life that people haven’t asked me on a show. I’ve never talked about this before, but I am the type of person that if you ask me, I’ll tell you. I do believe in owning my life as I believe others should own their life. I’m certainly not ashamed. That’s not what I meant. There’s no shame there. Let me take it back. I’m embarrassed, but I’m feeling something now because I’ve never talked about that. That domain in my life is not something that I found relevant in discussing in the work that I do and talking about creativity. It hasn’t come up.
I thank you for your bravery. Thank you for your vulnerability, Scott, because that’s what you’re doing. The issue is why don’t we have this conversation, is my point. Why is it that people can’t say, “This is a choice that I have made? It may not be forever, but at this point I’m comfortable with it.” I’m astounded by your productivity. I’m good about not being envious, but your ability not only to write a lot of words but to write them well is incredible to me. I’ll be frank, I think that if you had written those words in peer-reviewed academic journals, I think the world would be worse off.
I like the idea that you were willing to bet on yourself. I might have overstated my focus on safety and security as a younger man because as you were talking, I think about moments where I went against the grain. For example, when I was in graduate school, I played and coached on the lacrosse club. I was the old man on the team. I remember making a decision that choosing to play this sport and play it at a high level was probably going to cost me 1 or 2 papers as a graduate student. My question was, “Was I willing to forgo that physical side of my life, that bit of excitement that I could have, the fresh air, camaraderie and competition?”
If I waited, it was going to be gone because this was a sport that you needed to be youthful for. I decided to go forward with it. The other thing I did, which I marvel at in hindsight was I took an entire semester off from graduate school and traveled around the world on Semester at Sea. I did some work on the ship, but I didn’t do nearly the amount that I would have if I was in the laboratory. If I have known the stakes were as high as they were, I might not have done it, but I was naive enough. I valued that adventure enough that I was willing to open my sail.
I think that these things, sometimes they’re an explicit choice and sometimes they’re an implicit choice. My choice came much later. I became focused on the outside world as an academic in my late 30s and some of it was a consequence of my decision, my recognition that I probably wasn’t going to have a family and kids. How was I going to use that extra time, energy and resources? There are two fundamental elements to this. This show is to celebrate the good parts of single living, and the other one is to acknowledge that one of those good parts is the opportunity that it provides you that are there.
Are you single?
I’m single, but I date.
Do you have fun with women too or men or whatever?
Yes, I do. I have fun with my male and female friends, and I have intimate fun with women.
Have you heard of Bella DePaulo?
We are pals. She’s been one of my most popular guests in episode two, The Science of Single Living. She also is walking a similar path that you and I have where she is compelled to step out of the academy.
Being her, we’re blogging in Psych Today when it started. There was a small group of people. I read her work early on. Maybe that subconsciously influenced me.
I called her the Godmother of Single Living. She was at the forefront. She was doing this stuff. I feel early and she was way early, years ago. One thing I want to highlight, and this is something for the readers too is worth paying attention to, as you think about your sail is that you noticed that you had something with the blogging in particular. Even though it was unpopular and unconventional, you leaned into it without knowing where it would take you.
I followed my heart and I knew what I loved. If someone tells me, “Don’t do something,” then I do exactly that thing even more full force. My grandma called me stubborn when she was alive.
What’s interesting for me is that I don’t have that gift of writing. For me, it is something that I’ve had to work hard to develop, but what I have recognized is and if I may be immodest for a moment is, “Can I talk?” The podcasting agrees with me. I’m already on my second podcast and I can imagine this will be the case in the academy wherein the same way that there are academics who write books for others than an academic audience that you’re going to start to see more academics lean into this medium that talks about reach. That is a good one.
If you google my name, what are the popular search terms for your names? The number one is Scott Barry Kaufman’s wife is. People are searching to see if I have a wife. Isn’t that crazy? Number two is Scott Barry Kaufman’s net worth, LinkedIn, intelligence, Columbia, books, where does he live and then test.
Maybe the test one is undergraduates trying to find one of your old tests.
That’s a good point. That’s probably my students.
I have no idea what mine will say. That’s illustrative. One is because you keep your professional and personal life separated, people are curious about that. Thank you for your willingness to bring them together here. It’s interesting that their first step is to think about your marital status. If you want to talk about how pervasive this path is, we know that they’re not saying, “Is Scott Barry Kaufman single?” They’re asking, “Does he have a wife?”
People are like, “Who is this person’s wife?” It’s like, “Mind your own damn business.”
What I want to be able to do is to say for people to be comfortable. I put bachelor into my social media profiles and I remember being reluctant to do it. It was a moment in time where I felt like I crossed a threshold, and I did it in part because no one has any problem saying husband, father, wife or mother. People will lead their profiles with that. Yet, I found myself like, “How will I be judged? What will that say?” I put it in there in part as an act of defiance and in part to try to co-op this language.
I’m proud of you. It’s trying to see what people lead with in terms of their identity. You found the need to do that or not found the need. That didn’t put it in a positive way because it’s a good thing. It felt empowering to do that. That’s not even part of my identity. A lot of people feel the need to put he, her and they. They lead with that. That’s my pronoun. If you look at people’s bio, it’s interesting to see what people lead with. I lead with, “I’m a humanistic psychologist,” because that’s more central to my whole being, but it’s interesting to think.
I don’t put my whole life on display with social media while other people do, but I did the bachelor thing. If I was a husband, I’m sure I wouldn’t put husband on there. I’m not typically that type of person, but I put bachelor in there because I wanted to support this endeavor, solo, which I was reluctant to put out into the world and I thought it was going to be empowering. Let’s get back and maybe we can finish with this is for the single readers, recognizing that the people may be single for now, maybe single forever, maybe single by choice or by chance or some combination thereof. The one thing that they all share is this belief that being single is not less than.
That this is a time in life to be celebrated and to be embraced. When you think about your new model and what you understand about the whole person, what advice would you give for them to think about your life? They should get your book and read it deeply. It’s filled with such good information, including an appendix with exercises and things to do that. It’s a worthwhile read for people who want to dive deeply into this, but what advice do you have for them in terms of embracing the opportunities and celebrating their singleness?
There are a lot of trade-offs in life and you have to own your trade-offs and the things or where is your heart sending you. I’ve fallen in love with ideas and it happens periodically. I then read a new book and that’s done. I’ve fallen out of love with it. I then have a new one that I fall in love with. We’re talking about ideas. I’m polyamorous with ideas. It is the first time I ever thought about that, but I’m going to tweet that.
I like the idea that you can fall in and out of love with things. That is that you can move from topics, career paths, hobbies, places in life and that some of these things are serial. You can’t do it all at once.
One could try, but I’m getting in the flow state and sometimes we get in a three-year flow state and read a book. I love to put my entire being into something. I’m not committed to being single. It’s not like I’m committed on a stack of Bibles that I will be for the rest of my life. If I’m in a close relationship and even might get married someday, I could see myself putting my all into my family. I would like to have children someday or a child. I have that drive for children. I often say to people I want a child without a wife. I have a huge paternal instinct. I would love to nurture a child and help them realize the best version of themselves. If someday, I have a family and I even have a wife, I could see myself putting my all into that. Whatever it is, I’ve just happened to choose ideas to do that.
Scott, this is fantastic. I am going to release you of this so you can go back to your next big idea. Are you able to tease what that might be?
I’m working on a big project relating to vulnerable narcissism.
I’m going to have you back someday to talk about vulnerable narcissism.
Let’s do that. I want to commend you for your amazing acceptance and open-mindedness, and drawing out of me some things I’ve never mentioned public before.
This was fun. I’ve learned a lot and I’m going to let you go, but I’m going to have some bonus material that I’m going to do on my own, which I pulled from your book. This is for the Solo community. For those of you who are not aware of it, I have a private Slack channel for the community. I’m going to post the bonus material there. You can sign up for it and apply for it on the Solo Page on PeterMcGraw.org. I’m going to talk about Irvin Yalom’s four givens of existence. I was unaware of this work prior to reading your work, Scott. I’m going to talk about those and it will make a lot more sense to people. With that, Scott, thank you for your time. I appreciate you.
- The Psychology Podcast
- Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization
- Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind
- Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined
- The Rational Optimist
- The Science of Single Living – Previous episode
About Scott Barry Kaufman
Scott Barry Kaufman is a humanistic psychologist. He has taught courses on intelligence, creativity, and well-being at Columbia University, NYU, the University of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. He hosts The Psychology Podcast, and is author and/or editor of 9 books, including Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind (with Carolyn Gregoire), and Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. In 2015, he was named one of “50 Groundbreaking Scientists who are changing the way we see the world” by Business Insider.
Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share!
Join the Solo community today: