Getting Real

How the social foundations of our world are being shown to be visibly outdated by an invisible virus.

Flammarion Engraving, Wikipedia

Social contracts are just social constructs that we’ve collectively created. They are often invisible to us, working within the background of our lives, providing us with a stable foundation that allows to makes sense of and navigate our world collectively together.

Yet when our world changes around us, we need to update these social constructs we navigate by or else risk going off course and crashing into a reality we didn’t see in front of us. In effect, our world has changed but the maps we’ve created to navigate them by haven’t.

And just as we have created them before, so too can we recreate them again. We just have to make the conscious choice to do so.

The hard part is recognizing and realizing that these social contracts aren’t permanent truths of reality that are sacred and untouchable but rather social constructs crafted to help visibly manifest our collectiveness within reality. Until we can make these seemingly invisible aspects of our lives visible, shifting them from something we’re subjectively immersed within to something we can stand back and objectively reflect upon, we won’t be able to let go and unlearn them, allowing us to construct newer ones in their place.

And of course, even more difficult to recognize and realize is that our perceived identities are entwined with these social constructs as well, being social constructs themselves. In effect, we are not our jobs. We are something so much larger than what we currently believe we are. We just need to see that our perception of ourselves is just a belief, one that once empowered us long ago but now limits us today. By letting go of that old belief, as a relic of our past, we can learn to step out of it and see a larger belief (and Self) we can step into in turn, thus empowering us once again.

To sum up, we’re in a time now where so much doesn’t seem real anymore because we actually lost touch with reality a long time ago. To realign ourselves once again, we need to get real, seeing and listening to reality as it truly is now rather than how we once believed it was and expect it to be. This is how we will collectively traverse and converse our way into the new world emerging in front of us.


Reintegrating With Real Work

But, just as thinking about postwar planning started as early as 1940, we should already be considering how to reintegrate people into work in the medium term, for example by lining up training for new jobs and helping revive suspended businesses

We cannot just allow people to fester at home for anything up to six months under, the flimsy pretence that they are ‘working from home’, and then expect them to slot back into the economy with ease. Let’s get real.

Len Shackleton, Coronavirus will only ‘revolutionise’ the working habits of the privileged

Taking Back Our Work

Pull the emergency handbrake on business as usual and, individually and collectively, accept the choice of hitting one of two buttons: the panic or the pause. Let’s embrace the pause.

Lisa Richardson, Communications Strategist, Arc’teryx

This is a moment where the source code of capitalism can be reworked.

Max Levine, CEO, Nico (Neighborhood Investment Company)

The idea that companies, markets, the capitalist system could ever stop, change course, and focus on what matters seemed absurd just a few weeks ago. The question for business becomes: What’s possible for companies today that was impossible, and what’s impossible today that was once possible?

Some of what was accepted now seems absurd.

Almost all of the advertising on TV seems absurd—messages imploring consumption for a lifestyle that doesn’t exist right now. Relics of a past era that look naive — simple optimism and individualism from an era that feels ancient already.

After that, we will need a time of massive reconstruction. We will need to reconstitute careers, teams, companies, and communities. But having seen behind the curtain, and now knowing that the old premise of radical individualism and relentless shareholder primacy are mirages that don’t stand the test of time or strain, companies will be called to operate radically differently.

The social contract that applies to capitalism has been rewritten. Creating value for shareholders at the expense of everything else will seem radically out of touch. Creating value for the world now seems the only viable thing to do.

Perhaps in that, we can find the inspiration and agency to take back to our work: We can achieve what previously seemed impossible. This mind-set shift could create the next era of great leaders, companies, and massive value for the world.

Sebastian Buck, The Impossible for Capitalism is Suddenly Possible


The Everlasting Present

Research does show that when you take people away from the things that are familiar to them, it’s surprisingly easy for people to lose track of themselves—their identity, the things that are important to them.

Most of us have not faced a situation even remotely like this. So we have no previous experience that we can use to interpret it. We have no guidance about how we should be responding.

I think it conveys a sort of dreamlike quality. It doesn’t feel real because we have no points of reference.

Susan Clayton, Psychologist, College of Wooster

Our routine is the scaffolding of life. It’s how we organize information and our time. And without it, we can feel really lost.

Adrienne Heinz, Clinical Research Psychologist, Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD

Precarity comes from uncertainty, by having to deal with challenges that are bigger than ourselves. Now we’re facing a pandemic we cannot face on our own.

Part of our surreal situation, I feel, is that this coronavirus—we cannot see it. But it’s dangerous, and people are dying from it.

Elena Portacolone, Sociologist, University of California

Right now, many of the patterns we know and love have been obliterated

What she meant was we can’t plan for the future, because in the age of the coronavirus, we don’t know what we’ll be doing in six months, or even tomorrow. We’re stuck in a new kind of everlasting present.

Matt Simon, Why Life During a Pandemic Feels So Surreal


The Ever-Changing Career

Even before the coronavirus crisis, there were clear signs of workers around the world feeling anxious about navigating the future of work and staying relevant in a changing economy.

But it’s not all about hard tech skills. Equally as important are human-centric and soft skills.

The reality is that career decisions will happen more spontaneously, and through happenstance, amidst uncertainty and rapid change.

What this means for career management is that individuals need to be in a state of constant readiness, and flexible and spontaneous in their career decisions.

…a protean career is one where the individual drives their own career based on personal values, and where success is based on how satisfied you feel with life and work, not necessarily how much money or power or fame you obtain.

Tomoko Yokoi, There’s never been a better time to build a “protean career”


Listening To The Signal Within

Depression and anxiety are signals telling us that our needs are not being met, and I would say the single most helpful thing we can do going forward is to allow ourselves to hear the signal. What we’ve done for a really long time in our culture is either insult those signals by saying depressed and anxious people are just weak or feeble. Or we’ve pathologized the signals by saying they’re purely biological malfunctions. What we need to do is hear and respect the signal.

Once you hear the signal and you respect it, you’ll start to think differently. First, it means that your pain makes sense. So don’t judge yourself. Don’t shame yourself. There is nothing “wrong” with you.

And secondly, it means that when we begin to rebuild after coronavirus, we’ll have learned something really valuable about the kind of society we want.

Johann Hari, Coronavirus, Anxiety, & The Profound Failure of Rugged Individualism

Grieving Your Lost Identity

Psychologists note that losing a job often equates to the grief of losing a loved one; the emotional trajectory can include any of the stages of grief, which run from shock and denial, through to anger and bargaining, and eventually to acceptance and hope.

Damien Fowler, Unemployment During Coronavirus: The Psychology of Job Loss

The Infinite Possibility to Play

The coronavirus as a catalyst of change.

Giorgia Vezzoli on not wanting “everything to go back to the way it was” before the coronavirus (resonating with my last post on how the side effect of the coronavirus is it’s giving us an opportunity, a time out, to reset ourselves societally).

And I don’t want to, I certainly don’t want to go back to a world of grown-ups.

I want to be in a small world for children, where life is an infinite possibility to play without leaving anyone on the sidelines.

Where nobody is another’s game but everyone is played and brings joy and their difference to make us learn.

Giorgia Vezzoli (translated by Massimo Curatella)

“Many Have Seen This Coming”

Transitioning and adapting to the New World we’ve all been teleported to.

Harold Jarche is talking about after the shit has hit the fan due to the coronavirus.

The network era starts in 2020. Everything before was a prelude.

The new normal, when it comes, will be different. Teaching will be turned upside down. So too will curricula, academic disciplines, and their institutions.

Work will change. Consider that at this moment our essential workers are cooks, cleaners, delivery drivers, and front desk staff. Non-essential personnel like executives, analysts, marketers, and programmers, can stay home.

Many of us have seen this coming. I have been writing about the changes to network era work and learning over the past 16 years. But now everyone can see it. We can reduce commuter congestion by 50% through distributed work. This will reduce carbon emissions as well. There was only one thing stopping it from happening before — management. A microscopic virus took care of that.

Now that management is no longer in charge, every worker has to take charge of their own learning. It won’t come from a program that HR will deliver, after 12 months of development. 

Many have been working on trying to make these changes to society for decades. But for the most part, it’s always felt like the work was always within the background of society, never really getting enough momentum to move into the foreground. Because of this, most people have had to be willing to be ignored and invisible, as Deborah Frieze describes these trailblazers.

‘Walk outs’ are the trailblazers. These are the folks willing to turn their back on the dominant system, eager to be free to experiment with the future.

If you’re ‘a walk out’, then you’re willing to feel ignored, invisible, and lonely a good portion of the time. That’s because what you’re doing is so new and different, people can’t see you work even when it’s staring them in the face. These can be difficult dynamics to live with, especially when you know you’ve done a good work, that you’ve already solved problems others are still struggling with. That’s why we, ‘walk outs’, need each other.

Deborah Frieze

For myself, it feels like a big flip has occurred. Everything that was hidden within the background of society is now moving to the foreground and everything that was in the foreground is now shifting to the background.

A quick example of this is how blatantly obvious and visible it is that certain people and businesses care more about their own economic livelihoods than they do about the lives of their own employees and customers. It’s really making people stop and question everything in their lives now (i.e. “Is it worth dying for a $15/hour job?”).

And I think that is what this event, more than anything, is affording us an opportunity with right now. It’s giving us a societal reset or time-out. One where we actually have the time to experiment and play with newer ways of being, along with newer social constructs, while we’re within this extended liminal space (since it sounds like it could potentially last for at least a few months or more).

It’s funny. I’ve always described this journey as if one was travelling to a new world. Within the span of a couple of weeks though, it seems like we all have been tossed into this new world, for better or for worse, and everything has changed, regardless of how unprepared some people are for it.

The only way forward is to adapt.

We’re in another world now.

Aaron Wherry, Parliament Hill Bureau, CBC

We’re asking our lowest-wage workers to get back to work while our shareholders jockey for handouts. Which ones do you think we should pay first?

Vince Mancini, Uproxx

If the future of work requires restructured workplaces, redefined roles, rapid learning, and reserves of trust—and it does, organizations are being challenged to do all that and more as they address the coronavirus pandemic. While we have long spoken about VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environments, we are finally and undoubtedly facing one.

Coronavirus, it turns out, might be the great catalyst for business transformation

In fact, where we once saw the future of work unfolding over years, we now believe that with coronavirus as an accelerant, everything we’ve predicted about the future of work will unfold in months. 

Heather E. McGowan, Forbes

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.