Exploring Human Potential

Opening ourselves up to becoming something more, yet respecting where we came from.

Tiago Forte retweeted a post by Daniel Thorsen on Twitter talking about his recent Emerge podcast with Robert Kegan on The Five Stages of Adult Development (And Why You Probably Aren’t Stage 5).

While this podcast is slightly long (at just over an hour in length), it is an amazing and valuable introduction into understanding how there are stages of psychological development that go beyond what we conventionally and societally think of as an “adult”. For anyone fascinated with creativity, social innovation, and releasing the untapped potential of people, I would put this on my top ten list of things you should listen to this year, not just in terms of understanding how this works but more importantly understanding why this is so essential for the development and growth of our species as a whole, especially within the VUCA world we are now living within.

My Own Exploration of Stages

For myself, I researched Robert Kegan’s work in a slightly backwards sort of way. I initially learned about there being “stages” of development when it was hinted by Peter Senge within his book The Fifth Discipline. Later in 2013 when reading Anti-Hero by Richard Wilson from OSCA, he gave an overview of Robert Kegan’s stages of psychological development. Shortly thereafter I discovered Bill Torbert’s Action Inquiry work (initially found via a HBR article) and then extensively read Dr. Susanne Cook-Greuter’s Vertical (Ego) Development work as well. Only after reading these other perspectives on the stages of development, did I return to Robert Kegan’s work and read it in more detail.

Note that there are others going beyond this existing work as well, such as Terri O’Fallon’s STAGES model, which is “metaphorically (being) compared to the periodic table of elements”, thus helping to show an “underlying structure” of “meaning making” relating to “wisdom skills”. What’s amazing about this work is that Terri is experimenting with a Voyant-like application that would allow the analysis of text (i.e. blog, essays, books, lectures, etc) to assess the stage of a person, rather than the typical sentence completion tests used previously.

While I find all of these people’s work amazing in their detail, it is Richard Barrett’s own Barrett Model that I have gravitated to the most recently, because it seems the most easiest and accessible for people to grasp, aligning values to each stage of development as a “shorthand way of defining (them)”. While other people use nine stages or even twelve stages within their models (to show more transitional detail), Richard uses seven stages of psychological development but integrates Robert Kegan’s latter three of five stages as “plateaus of growth” within his model.

I also prefer utilizing these plateaus alongside the stages as well because they can metaphorically help us see our lives playfully within the narrative of an ongoing heroic adventure (tying into Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey) whereby the “hero” leaves the safety of the City (the metaphorical equivalent of the Socialized Mind), travels into the Borderlands (the metaphorical equivalent of the Self-Authoring Mind), and eventually is able to independently survive within the Wilderness on the “edge” of the world (the metaphorical equivalent of the Self-Transforming Mind).

Commonalities Between Different Development Models

As I noted above, all of these development models are just different perspectives of the same thing, so there are commonalities between them all.

All models see stages as different ways of meaning making and identity which in turn defines the way we perceive, see, and filter the world around us like lenses. In effect, our view of the world and our identity are entwined, being one and the same. This is why when evolving, leaping, or teleporting to a higher stage, it can feel like your identity is begin shattered and disintegrated before you reintegrate a new one. Thus as even Daniel Thorsen indicated at the start of his podcast above, it’s “a little bit like dying” but instead of grieving for a lost loved one, we are grieving for a lost loved identity which previously protected us and helped us navigate our life up until this point.

All models don’t see one stage as “better than” another stage because the goal is to try to maintain a spectrum of all attained stages at the same time for optimal flow. Richard Barrett’s model exemplifies this the best, in my opinion, by showing how we need to maintain lower stage values to attain and maintain higher stage values. Thus forcing someone to rush to a “better” higher stage, before they’re fully prepared for it, can be just as traumatic as forcing someone to stay at a lower stage, when they’re fully prepared and want to evolve to a higher one.

All models see age thresholds in being able to reach the latter stages (i.e. need to be at least 40 years or older to reach Robert Kegan’s Stage Five Self-Transforming Mind). My belief is that it not only takes time to evolve to these latter stages (if you even achieve them at all) but it often takes a diversity of experiences to do so as well. Therefore I believe if a person had a lot of diverse, intense experiences (lots of blissful highs and crushing lows) earlier in their life, they could theoretically reach a higher stage earlier than normal but only if they had the ongoing support to do so. That said though, these thresholds still wouldn’t be stretched by that much (i.e. someone in their mid-thirties might be able to achieve a Self-Transforming Mind but I doubt someone in their twenties would).

BTW a side point to relate to this age requirement for stages is that I believe that understanding one’s passion and purpose in life in a clearly articulated sense evolves as one gets older. Thus a twenty year old shouldn’t really be worrying about why they can’t figure out their passion and purpose in life at their age. Instead they should just be living their life with as many diverse experiences as possible and noting which things they seem to gravitate towards the most from those experiences. In doing so, their passion and purpose (and thus their larger identity and True Self) will naturally emerge in the process of just living their life and “connecting up the dots” reflectively looking back upon it.

How An External Crisis Can Be A Catalyst For Our Inner World & Identity

Now taking the commonalities I’ve just mentioned above, I’d like to cover the points mentioned within the latter half of the podcast interview with Robert Kegan. Specifically the question arises of how do we individually step forward and evolve to help society and humanity as a whole, when our very individual evolution can seem like a direct threat to society in turn. This mirrors with the “so hopelessly dependent upon the system” quote by Morpheus from The Matrix movie and also with organizational antibodies often encountered when trying to socially innovate and transform an organization.

I think the best way to try to understand this external rift internally is to relay some of the experiences and feelings I had on my own journey of growth and transformation. For myself, I was basically functioning primarily within a Socialized Mind back at the turn of the millennium but with some emerging Self-Authoring tendencies within the background of my life. When the Dot-com Bubble burst in 2001 and I got laid off, this effectively produced an external crisis in my life that became an internal catalyst for transformational growth.

When this occurred, I initially went through what is effectively known as the stages of grief, mourning for the identity I had loved and lost. After finally accepting the situation after a year or so though, I started doing freelance web development work but also starting researching why the concept of “work” wasn’t working for me and what could be done about it as well. In effect, I didn’t want this external situation to define my life and started to learn, grow, and evolve from it, trying to self-author my own path forward with some sense of autonomy and freedom, thus finally bringing my Self-Authoring Mind more dominantly to the surface.

I specifically remembered at the time feeling like most of the jobs I’ve had in my life, including my current freelance work at the time, didn’t encapsulate all who I was. But then the next obvious question that arose from that was, “Who am I?” Thus besides researching organizational development, I also started pursuing personal development, trying to understand myself from as many different perspectives as I possibly could, leading me to eventually understanding the meaning and purpose of my life as a whole.

Trusting Yourself To Overcome Conflicting Feelings & Beliefs

What I’ve just described above in the last two paragraphs are Richard Barret’s two stages of Individuating and Self-Actualizing which encapsulate Robert Kegan’s single stage of a Self-Authorizing Mind. What’s remarkable about Richard Barrett’s two stages is that they clearly defined a shift in internal feelings for myself at the time. In effect, initially I was angry with society for letting me down and not keeping its side of the “bargain” in my life. But later, when I started committing to forging my own autonomous path and finding out my purpose in life, I kept feeling like society (as my internal ego of programming) was getting angry with myself for not keeping my side of the bargain.

For example, I would often experience very disconcerting dreams that would put me within absolutely absurd social conundrums that were effectively impossible to figure out. In effect, I was internally going through a sort of Kobayashi Maru training exercise in my sleep trying to role play and figure out how to step beyond society’s programming and expectations of responsibility to it. To summarize this feeling as a whole, my desire to step beyond my Socialized Mind and start listening and accepting the desires of my Self-Authoring Mind felt like I was going crazy at times and I couldn’t trust myself.

This is effectively what your ego wants though, as a representation of society, to maintain its control on you. “Don’t trust yourself. Just trust the larger collective. We’ll show you the way. Just follow our path and everything will be all right.” Yet I was realizing that following someone else’s path, even my own ego’s (from the perspective of myself as a soul), wasn’t helping me. If anything, it was taking me further from where I wanted to be.

For me, this was the larger shift to fully accepting my Self-Authoring Mind. It was not about accepting and taking responsibility for my self within society but rather about accepting and taking responsibly for my self within the larger context of my Self that was unfolding from within me. To put it another way, I was putting more trust within the authority of my Self, even though I didn’t yet fully know at the time where my path was leading me.

From Ego To Soul: Applying The Two Loops Model To Our Evolving Self

I think one of the best ways to get over this conundrum of a continually evolving self, so that we move beyond being in conflict with our past existing self or our emerging future Self, is if we apply the Two Loops model of change to ourselves. By doing so, we can begin to have a perspective whereby our past existing self and our future emerging Self are both valued parts of a bridge to help maintain and sustain ourselves as a whole. This directly correlates with the previous perspective of one stage of development isn’t better than the other one because the idea is to try to maintain them all as a spectrum or overarching bridge, opening a pathway between our ego and our soul.

In this way, we begin to recognize the multitude within us (often experienced by highly creative people), as we become protectors and hospice workers for our older sense of self that is dying, while also being trailblazers and illuminators for our newer emerging Self that is being born. In this way, we are able to fully support and stabilize the transformational bridge between the older and newer aspects of our continually evolving identity, whereby our old self has a dignified death helping to nourish and sustain the birth of our new Self.

So again, we don’t choose one perspective or the other as being dominant during a transformation change, treating them like competitors or enemies against each other, but rather see both perspectives as collaborators who are working together to maintain the stewardship and continue growth of one’s evolving identity and Self overall.

By Nollind Whachell

Questing to translate Joseph Campbell's Hero’s Journey into The Player’s Handbook for the roleplaying game called Life, thus making vertical (leadership) development an accessible, epic framework for everyone.

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