The difficulty in applying this concept to individual learning is that, in this case, you are the system. It’s a little disconcerting being accelerated, turned inside out, and then sucked into an alternate dimension where everything you were sure was true is wrong. Or worse, irrelevant.
The interesting thing about constraints is that they are never on you. They are constraints on your context, shaping the space of possibilities you allow yourself to consider. You can’t change anyone’s mind (have you noticed?), but you may be able to change how they perceive their context. If you succeed, they may be able to step out of the criteria by which they enumerate their options. Life does not present itself in the form of multiple-choice questions. It is we who choose the choices, and we do it together.
What all this has to do with learning is that the deepest assumptions can only be revealed through experience and stories, not by reading books or having intellectual arguments. We do these things through the same old lens, and thus cannot examine the lens. It takes another free mind, reaching up and taking off our spectacles, to show us the cracks and the foggy areas. At some point, this way of listening turns into a way of thinking, as you apply it to your own thoughts. Unmoored from your own certain beliefs, you step back from what seemed just a moment ago to be your very identity, only to find that it is just a mental object. With each step backward, you distinguish your self one by one from bodily sensations, from emotions, from opinions, from thoughts, from principles, from values, from systems, from goals. They are all tools, to be taken up and put down again when no longer needed.
This backwards movement, if we are not afraid to embrace it, even accelerate it, starts to take on a pattern of its own once again. It starts to consume itself, emerging inward into a deeper, more complex flow. Moving backward with increasing speed, we start to feel as if we’re falling, the former selves flying by like the floors past a runaway elevator. There is no way to look down, to see where we’re going, only where we’ve been. But this provides just enough information to allow us to steer: toward discomfort, toward fear, toward our best guess of where the next bottleneck may lie.
What my series of mid-life crises has taught me is that identities are malleable and temporary.
An identity is an information construct – a loose collection of beliefs, values, viewpoints, priorities, goals, and principles for living held together by a story about who you are. Humans cannot survive psychologically without an identity. It’s the narrative glue that gives meaning to the chaotic storms of electrical activity cascading through our brains.
Like changing clothes as the weather turns, identities serve you for one situation but not necessarily others.When your identity wears out and no longer serves you, it’s time to find a new one. As the saying goes, the identity that got you here won’t get you to where you want to go next.
At certain liminal moments of unpredictable change, such as during a mid-life crisis, the superstructure of our identity becomes especially fluid. There’s a brief window in which we have the chance to shake it loose and build another.
It all begins with gathering the data you need to understand what life is asking of you: your symptoms, your learnings, your desires, and your questions.
You see, there is a tendency in us to find suffering aversive. And so we want to distance ourselves from it. Like if you have a toothache, it becomes that toothache. It’s not us anymore. It’s that tooth. And so if there are suffering people, you want to look at them on television or meet them but then keep a distance from them. Because you are afraid you will drown in it. You are afraid you will drown in a pain that will be unbearable. And the fact of the matter is you have to. You finally have to. Because if you close your heart down to anything in the universe, it’s got you. You are then at the mercy of suffering. And to have finally dealt with suffering, you have to consume it into yourself. Which means you have to—with eyes open—be able to keep your heart open in hell. You have to look at what is, and say, “Yea, Right.” And what it involves is bearing the unbearable. And in a way, who you think you are can’t do it. Who you really are can do it. So that who you think you are dies in the process.
You know the women in my audience. Well we’ve spent part, if not most, if not all of our lives trying to amputate those parts of ourselves that did not fit. You know we’ve tried to be pleasing and we tried to what’s expected and we suck at it. And we eventually reach a point where we realize we are so depressed or stuck or numbed out, that the only way to save ourselves is to figure out how to be ourselves on purpose.
Most people have no concept of where their motivations come from, what stage of psychological development they are at, what stages they have passed through, or what stages they still need to master to find fulfilment in their lives. The only criteria they have for making choices are: what makes them feel happy in the moment, or what gives their life a sense of meaning and fulfilment.
Happiness, meaning and fulfilment are not synonymous. What makes us happy is the satisfaction of our ego’s needs, and what gives our life meaning and fulfilment is the satisfaction of our soul’s needs. Often people gain a sense of meaning from dealing with situations that are intrinsically sad, unjust or unfair, or physically or emotionally challenging. Alleviating poverty, rectifying injustice and caring for the sick, elderly or dying are not always “happy” experiences: what makes these experiences meaningful is our ability to make a difference. When we are able devote our lives to such pursuits, or whatever activities we invest our time in that make a difference, we find fulfilment.
At a certain point in life, and in certain circumstances, meaning can be just as important to our psychological survival as oxygen and water are to our physical survival. Finding meaning can also act as a source of resilience.
I’ve been watching the Showtime series The Man Who Fell To Earth and I love how the show’s writers are using the alien Adept and Drone caste system as a social commentary for our own world. The Drone’s do what they’re told by the Adept who are the only one’s capable of creative thought and direction. For a comparison, Drones would be Kegan’s Socialized Mind, while Adepts would be Kegan’s Self-Transforming Mind.
During the show, the main character (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is a drone, comes to Earth to help his Adept master (played by Bill Nighy) who arrived on the planet some 40 years earlier. As the main character struggles to adapt though, he transforms and has to become more than a Drone. The scene above perfectly articulates the frustration of his experience (i.e. “Why didn’t you tell me?!”), as he talks to his Adept master, but also the necessity of feeling that frustration for his transformation to occur.
This moment perfectly articulates what so many people misunderstand about vertical development as a whole. Someone can tell you what a higher stage of development can be like and you can think you “know” it but you won’t fully understand what it truly means until you actually have to experience it. So you actually have to go through the challenge, the frustration, and even the pain to be able to break through to the other side.
Unfortunately the scene doesn’t fully play out in the video clip, as Bill Nighy as the Adept also says the following in the scene which perfectly describes the vertical development process.
Every step you’ve taken creates the next step you have to take.
You can only be here as an official pain in my ass because you’ve reached a level of understanding.
You used to imitate.
And now, thanks to me, you can generate.
BTW this reminds me of an amazing interview of Seth Godin by George Stroumboulopoulos in 2012 where Seth said most people aren’t prepared for the changes that are coming because our entire societal systems and mindset are defined on “doing what you’re told” (aka Drone / Socialized Mindset).
Seriously? Perhaps society needs to take a long hard look in the mirror. We are “constructing our own reality, detached from the complexities of the real world.” We are the “pressing threat” to this planet and our very selves.
This is why people can’t understand and solve “wicked problems.” They are caused by mindsets and behaviours that we ourselves are blind to.
Actually, there is an existential danger inherent in using AI, but that risk is existential in the philosophical rather than apocalyptic sense. AI in its current form can alter the way people view themselves. It can degrade abilities and experiences that people consider essential to being human.
But people will gradually lose the capacity to make these judgments themselves. The fewer of them people make, the worse they are likely to become at making them.
Finally, consider ChatGPT’s writing capabilities. The technology is in the process of eliminating the role of writing assignments in higher education. If it does, educators will lose a key tool for teaching students how to think critically.
These quotes highlight what I’ve noted before. AI isn’t so much an existential threat, as much as we are an existential threat to our very sense of selves as human beings. We are completely ignorant and oblivious to how we are misinterpreting the meaning of things (i.e. this type of AI being “great” because it makes our lives easier) because most of society is stuck at a lower level of meaning making. Thus our base psychological desires and needs are causing more harm than good in the world because we’re misinterpreting what “good” and “bad” is, even applying these labels to things that aren’t one or the other, they’re just…life.
A little over a week ago, I noticed Tiago Forte mentioning on Twitter that he was interviewed by Matt Gray. Not familiar with Matt, I decided to check out the video because Tiago had mentioned that this year he was going to start focusing more on deeper wisdom work and I though it was going to focus on that specifically. While it did touch on this a bit, it didn’t go as deep as I wanted it to though, although it was still very revealing of Tiago’s everyday life and the struggles he’s going through.
What really surprised me though is when I started perusing Matt’s other videos on YouTube, I stumbled across another one entitled How To Make $100,000/Month Doing What You Love. I laughed when I saw this titled because these click bait titles are common all over the Web, trying to entice people to watch or read them, with the content often being quite shallow. Not wanting to click on this one, I nevertheless decided to trust Matt and clicked on it and was proceeded to be completely blown away by the person he was interviewing.
Chris Do is “an Emmy award-winning designer, director, CEO and Chief Strategist of Blind and the founder of The Futur—an online education platform with the mission of teaching 1 billion people how to make a living doing what they love.”
What amazed me about Chris and the interview is that it had very little to with showing someone some formulaic steps to making $100,000/month and more about teaching people the foundations of vertical development which in turn helps you to discover who you truly are, thus releasing your potential in the process (and thus as a by-product, helping you to making $100,000/month). So resonating very closely with my belief that “The Future of Work is about being yourself.”
But what’s even more amazing is that I’m not even sure if Chris is fully aware of the larger context of vertical development, even though he has an amazing grasp of the foundations of it and is able to articulate them in a very simple and relatable way.
First off, here’s some quotes by Chris that kind of set the stage for understanding why vertical development is important because it can give us the capacity to tackle these things.
3:20 / So here’s the real challenge then, to find things that give you joy, that spark your inner curiosity, the things that make you get out of bed, that propel you forward versus to push you. And I think this is a really interesting phenomenon for all of us to solve whether you’re 12, 22, or 99 years old, to find work that you love that gives you meaning, to give you purpose, and when you find that, to figure out a way to make money from it.
7:05 / …but that inner creative voice and you need to fight all those external voices so that that creative person can be allowed to explore and find something. So when you do things that give you joy, that you do with relative ease where you lose track of time, is a pretty good indicators to what you should be doing.
7:50 / The world does not need another commercial or a music video. We have to be honest with ourselves when we say like “yeah, it serves a very specific purpose” but it’s not elevating humanity.
8:55 / I think it is sometimes misleading to look at what somebody’s doing today and assume that that’s the way it always was.
9:53 / So what I want to do is to tell everybody, it’s very important for you to learn how to articulate your thinking your ideas and your opinions to other people but it’s more important that you practice articulating thoughts because you gain clarity through articulation.
Now where Chris begins to start talking directly about vertical development is when Matt asks about him about limiting beliefs and how to overcome them paradoxically. And what’s interesting here is how our limiting beliefs are often entwined with how we believe the world should work, like a script or a narrative. This is more commonly referred to as your worldview, as it filters the way you look and perceive the world and yourself, like a lens.
What’s also amazing here is that I’ve said before that I see so many notable authors talking about vertical development but not knowing it exists in this larger context, so they often name it something else, something that’s relatable to them and their unique story.
12:14 / Yeah this is going to be a big reframe and I’m working on a series of ideas called the Paradox Principles. I think Paul Arden already wrote or already figured out the best title for a book and the book is called “Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite” and I really believe that. Like we think the path to getting our fame fortune, and whatever it is we want in life, is to take this express bullet train elevator up to the top and skip all the necessary steps.
But I know this. People who are in love with the journey in the process will go much further and farther than people who just want the result. Because what happens is when you don’t get the result that you want, in the timeline in which you figured out for yourself, which is artificial to begin with then you get frustrated and you get discouraged and then you stop and you try something else. And you can spend 5, 10, 15, 25 years of your life going from one thing to next never finding a thing that you’re good at and becoming a jack of all trades and not being valued by the world.
So I think what we have to do is take a big step back.
Chris mentioning the need to step back is quite poignant because it gives us the ability to become aware of ourselves and how we are perceiving the world with our beliefs, thus allowing us to step out our worldview (as we step back from it) and begin to step into another unknown large space of possibilities. Again not just in terms of how we perceive our world but also how we perceive ourselves, because the two are entwined.
This process becomes a journey of self-discovery, as he describes below. One in which we experiment with our identity, often playfully exploring beyond the borders of it, but keeping a journal of our explorations so that we can navigate between these emerging aspects of ourselves and make sense of a larger self emerging which in turns forms the foundation of a larger worldview we can live by.
14:42 / So I think the way to go is to make the commitment to yourself that I’m on a journey of self-discovery of personal development and this is just my form of public journaling and it’s important for me to share my thoughts just so I can learn about myself.
In relationship to this, Chris then refers to Vinh Giang, who teaches public speaking, and something notable he said about storytelling. Why this is important is because our worldview is effectively a story, more specifically a narrative of belief because while stories usually have a beginning, middle, and end, narratives are open ended. More importantly, if we have our own narrative / worldview that we’ve self-authored and constructed ourselves, we can navigate our life much better because we have something to compare it against.
15:09 / He said that we all need to practice storytelling. And why is that? Because we need to have a strong story of ourselves, so that when someone else tells us who we are, we have something to compare it against.
Now where Chris really dives deep and gets to the heart of vertical development is when he begins talking about “the forest” as a metaphor for the different types of “typography” of life in response to Matt noticing how Chris’ approach to life sees more of an organic process versus something that is “written down and stuck to.” Chris further elaborates on this by providing an example of how both he and his business transformed, evolved, and grew over time.
19:42 / Yeah, so what I think people think about is there’s this giant forest and that the forest is always one type of tree and it’s always going to be one type of density. But we know this is not the case. When you reach the edge of the forest, you’re going to enter into a different topography…
20:17 / The example is this. When I started out we talked mostly about design and typography. And then as we evolved, I found that there were a lot of creative people who were saying to me “I know what to do with design. There are many resources out there for me to learn that better, faster, cheaper, and I accept that. Teach me about business. How to run a design business because I’m not finding that anywhere.”
So then we’re at the edge of one forest, at the edge of the circle, and now we realize there’s a whole different world and we start to make more content teaching people about how to run a design business. And to my surprise, there are a whole lot of people who started showing up saying, “We really need this. No one else is doing this for us.”
20:57 / But then we run into a new problem and the problem is this. And you’re pointing to it right now. And if people haven’t figured it out, it’s like I can teach you all the tools in life and you will not be successful, if you first do not believe that you could do this. So there’s a belief system that I have to dismantle, in limiting beliefs, scarcity mindset, those are the things I need to solve. And once I work through that then people are asking me, “Well how do I teach this to others, Chris?” So now I have to like, “Okay, what’s the next edge of the forest?” And you’re going to continue to grow and evolve, or you’re not and that’s okay too.
This directly aligns with vertical development in how there are stages of development, much like inner terrain that we have to traverse through, and when we are able to map the next unknown edge by exploring, navigating, and understanding the whole story of its typography, we can then “level up” (our consciousness) and operate with a much larger worldview and a much larger sense of Self.
This is why taking Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, which describes how to psychologically level up in life, and embedding it within a larger MMORPG context, helping us to understand that there are many levels to life, seems so perfect a pairing to understand vertical development as a whole (well at least from a gamer’s perspective, who can relate to it).
Anyways, more on this later when I continue talking about the second half of the interview, when Matt and Chris both talk about the love of “playing the game” as its own reward itself (which poignantly fits in with seeing life as a MMORPG as well).
I was having a conversation with my wife, giving examples of the early stages of vertical development and how our worldview changes as we psychologically mature, when she replied “Well that’s just growing up.”
I kind of laughed at her response and said she was right but the problem is that a lot of people’s physical growth and psychological growth may not always align. In effect, someone may grow up physically and look like an “adult” but they may have experienced trauma and thus may not have psychologically matured.
Beyond this though there is an even greater problem. Society only knows how to support your growth up to a specific stage, conventionally known as an “adult” but there are more stages of psychological growth and maturity that one can evolve beyond that. It’s just that society, in a conventional sense, isn’t aware of these additional stages of psychological growth, so you have to find someone often outside the mainstream who is aware of this and can help you with your growth.
To me, the present work today is about making people aware of these higher stages of psychological growth, so much so that vertical development becomes embodied in the newer institutions emerging in our world today and thus becomes the foundational backbone of institutions in the future.
Within The Future of Work domain, these organizations are often referred to as learning organizations. But I think they will go beyond work and beyond learning to integrate playing as well. Not “playing” in the conventional sense but playing with regards to loosening the conventional social structures and identities that rigidly define and limit ourselves, our organizations, and our world today, and stepping beyond them, imagining and roleplaying something completely new and novel.