Vertical Development

What is a Development Community?

Delving into the “dungeons” of your “self” & reshaping the perceptual foundations of your world(view).

We’re living within a world today where everyone is using the same words but with different meanings behind them. In a sense, it’s like a modern day Tower of Babel but one in which the confusion isn’t immediately apparent until a conflict reveals the true differences of meaning behind the words we use. One obvious example of this is the word “leadership” which can be interpreted in many different ways now, especially as we step into The Future of Work.

Because of this though, when we communicate we want to work towards something, we often have to have to articulate the meaning behind what we want to work towards as well, so that there is no misinterpretation of what you’re communicating. In this post, I’d like to discuss how I’d like to create a development community but also at the same time define the word “development” within the context of this community.

Before I begin though, I’d like to note that I’ve been intuitively wanting to create a community like this for almost a decade but I never knew how to articulate it or categorize it because I’ve never seen anyone else doing it. Coming from a background of building communities online around video games, where I found it fairly easy to build a “guild” community to help players develop and level up within a game, this frustrated me greatly at seeing something I wanted to create but having no bearing as how to create it.

Diving into The Depths of Your “Self”

The primary reason and difference as to why this is a challenge is revealed in the definition of “development” itself, as best described by Carol Sanford in her book Indirect Work.

This is the role of development, to cultivate the capacities for self-observation and conscious choice that enable us to show up as living, creative beings in a living, creative world, to be self-determining rather than predetermined. Development, in other words, is not the same thing as training or knowledge transfer, which are direct ways of working. Development works on our ability to be awake with regard to ourselves, and this is inherently indirect. We become aware of and selective about the influences that shape our thinking and experiencing. We learn to anticipate the systemic effects we produce through our choices and actions. We grow the creative capacity to make new, unanticipated choices based on our evolving understanding of an evolving world.

Carol Sanford

This is why building an online community of practice around video games was so much easier for me because it’s really more about direct knowledge transfer (i.e. how to play the game). With development work though (which can be differentiated by calling it vertical development), you’re not teaching somehow how to play a game so much as you’re awakening them to how our perceived sense of reality is actually a socially constructed “game” of our own creation. Thus you can’t help them directly, as only they can reconstruct their own “lens” (aka worldview) through which they perceive their world.

Hopefully this becomes more apparent as Carol Sanford further describes the key aspects of a development community below (with key points bolded by myself).

I’ve spent most of my adult life participating in, and at times stewarding, communities that are dedicated above all to the conscious development of their members. In such communities, we resource one another, always with the aim of building a field within which consciousness can grow and deepen.

Whether you seek to apply indirect work to an organization, as Phil Jackson did with the Chicago Bulls, or a social change movement, or a town that wants better lives for its citizens, you will benefit greatly from doing so as a member of a developmental community. Developing ourselves is a lifelong effort, and it is hard to sustain force without the challenge and nurturance provided by a community of like-minded seekers.

In my experience, there are several key qualities that distinguish a developmental community from support groups, social circles, professional associations, houses of worship, and other places we rely on for human connection. The first of these qualities is an explicit and transparent agreement to share a developmental method, such as Socrates’s, as opposed to a dogma or rules of behavior. This enables everyone to be self-accountable for the work that they do in the group, which makes the community democratic in the best sense: each member is becoming better and better at governing themself. Also, by making the method transparent, everyone has the opportunity to upgrade their application of its practices and, ultimately, to evolve them.

The second key quality is a certain level of structure that allows the group to gather on a regular, recurring basis to engage in thoughtfully designed developmental processes. A regularly recurring pattern is important because it builds the ability to sustain growth over time. People are able to connect the dots between what they learned in one session and what they will learn in the next, and this allows them to progress as individuals, deepening both their capability and capacity. As the years pass, the group, too, will progress, taking on challenges of increasing complexity and significance. Also, being in a familiar setting with familiar people creates a shared energy field, and this reinforces the quality of intention and dedicated effort necessary to generate the value that the group is seeking for its members.

The third key quality is a shared epistemology based on the idea that people only come to a transformational understanding of themselves and reality when they take responsibility for their own development. People are immersed in an environment where the demand for self-development is ubiquitous, and one that includes older, more established participants alongside those who are stepping onto the path for the first time. The process uses concrete events in people’s own lives as the raw material for their self-inquiry. This is important because the transformational potential of the work is lost the minute an epistemology of self-development drops out and an epistemology of expertise and greater knowledge steps in to replace it.

Finally, I believe that the people in such a community need to view one another as friends, not in a social sense, but in the sense of being unshakably (and at times ruthlessly) committed to one another’s growth and development. These friends in the work don’t seek ease or comfort in their relationships with one another, but rather to challenge and lift one another up to live out the aspirations that each holds for a meaningful life. This is important because we humans love our comfort, and we frequently seek out people who make us feel comfortable. Having friends in the work can serve as a refreshing antidote to this sleepy habit, a place in our lives where we’ve specifically chosen to be among people who have agreed to challenge us.

Adventuring Within Dungeons

When I first read these key aspects of a development community, I must say that I was shocked by what I read. That’s because they’re similar to some of the key aspects of the online communities I helped to cultivate around videos games.

For example, when I was an officer within a “guild” community in World of Warcraft in 2005, here’s some of the key aspects of our culture.

  1. Governing yourself was paramount when you joined. In other words, many people often join communities to utilize its resources without providing their resources in return. Thus when someone joined and continually asked for help without contributing and helping others in return, it became apparent they were going to become a drain on the community.
  2. We met up on a regular weekly basis. All of us had lives and work, so we couldn’t invest all of our time, regardless of how much we enjoyed the community. So as to maximize our time, we decided to meet at least two or three times a week on set days. For example, we normally met Tuesdays and Thursdays between 7-10 PM. This consistency allowed us to progress rapidly “taking on challenges of greater complexity” (such as more difficult raids).
  3. We expected people to take responsibility for their development. And I’m not just talking about their skills in the game but how they perceived themselves in relation to others. In fact, some of the more complex raids were so difficult, that all of the diverse roles required perfect precision and timing to pull them off. So when one or two people would keep wiping the challenge on the boss within a raid, they might think that they weren’t understanding the knowledge or skills to take down the boss, but in reality it was more the individuals not believing in their capabilities in the first place. Once they developed a larger perception of themselves, it was like a switch was flipped and everything became easier, even effortless at times.
  4. We loved challenging ourselves as a group of friends. When we wiped on challenging a raid boss, it wouldn’t deject us but rather inspired us to step back and look at it from a different perspective. So we would have an after-action review, assessing what went right and what went wrong, then make another attempt. In comparison, whenever we grouped with other people outside of our community, they would often want to bypass a raid boss after only one failed challenge on it. In effect, they saw their failed attempts as a bruise on their egos, whereas we saw our failed attempts as stepping stones of learning to understanding and overcoming the challenges before us.

Seeking Heroic Company for Epic Quests

This is why I find it remarkable that what I want to be doing in the present is so similar to what I was doing in the past. The primary difference though is obviously that the context is so much larger which feels both scary and exhilarating at the same time. That’s because you’re not trying to fight and overcome an external challenge outside of yourself but instead are trying to overcome your existing perception of reality within yourself. In effect, your existing beliefs and identity as your “self” are the “monster” that is standing in your way, that you’re trying to “slay” and overcome, thus allowing you to “level up” consciously (which mirrors the psychological metaphors within Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey).

Because of this though, it will probably be hard to find people who are willing to take on this “call to adventure” within themselves. That said though, if I can find even just four people to join me to create a group of five, it would be a great starting point.

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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