Adult Development: Part Two

Adult Education ConceptThere’s nothing as practical as a good theory. Kurt Lewin

Until very recently I kept what I was learning about adult development theory “behind the scenes.” While it guided my coaching and the programs I design–it was not something I shared directly with clients. Increasingly, I have been introducing it to clients, friends and family. If I was finding it to be such a valuable lens through which to understand my world–perhaps they would too. And, almost to a person, I’m finding that to be true.

These posts are my attempt to provide an introduction to this work–in hopes that you, too, will find it of value.

I’ll start off by recapping my last post:

  • Adults develop too–development doesn’t end in adolescence. Our brains and capacity change and grow throughout our lives.
  • We develop as adults by being able to see more as Object rather than as Subject. Seeing something as Object means seeing it outside of ourselves being able to notice, reflect upon and have choices about what we perceive. When something remains Subject, it “has” us…when something, be it an emotion, a thought, a point of view, a pattern or a system, is Object, we have agency.
  • As we develop, we are able to make meaning of the world in increasingly complex ways–because we are able to see more and more as Object and expand our perspectives.
  • Because the world is becoming increasingly complex and demanding–increasingly complex ways of making meaning are required if we are to address the challenges ahead of us in our lives, our work and our world.

The Stages of Development

Development is not a race to the finish line. There’s no prize for being the most self-transformational on your death bed or the first in your high school class to become self-authored. Development isn’t just about this theory or these forms of mind; it is the journey of our lives, the way we come to see and re-see the world around us.    Changing on the Job, p. 17

The stages of development described here are based on Robert Kegan’s model and his language for describing the patterns that adults follow as their systems of making meaning increase in complexity. Each stage represents a qualitative shift, or expansion. Because the range in each stage is fairly broad, we can be in a stage for long time and can be “in-between” stages as well. In addition, even as we progress stages of meaning making, we may think and act in ways that are more typical of previous stages.

The risk in any stage theory is that we will see the “higher” stages as inherently better. As you read this, remember that there is no inherently bad or good stage. The reason to work on one’s development and to make the effort to extend one’s meaning making system is to match one’s capacity to the requirements of one’s life. For leaders, increasingly, the world demands greater capacity–so the work of growing into new stages may be not only useful, but essential.

And, also keep in mind that while these stages are useful ways to think about development, each individual evolves in unique ways. So, even as we look at the different stages, remember that growth happens in our moment-to-moment capacity to see that which we were Subject to as Object. Those moment-to-moment shifts in seeing are as important–if not more important–than the big shifts in stages.

A note: I describe these stages here with the help of Jennifer Garvey Berger–any quotes are from her very wonderful book, Changing on the Job, especially from the appendix. I also am a big fan of her second book, Simple Habits for Complex Times. 

Sovereign Mind

Typical of older children and adolescents, some adults still operate from Sovereign Mind. At this stage, children know that objects stay the same even as our relationship to them may change (the distant building is not actually smaller) and the world, as a result, is less magical and more complex. Feelings and beliefs stay constant too–we develop likes and dislikes–and so do other people. True empathy is not yet possible at this stage because we don’t see or understand the minds of others. Rules are followed because of the fear of being caught rather than an actual sense of right and wrong. Children—and adults—at this stage are self-centered–seeing others only in terms of how they can help them get what they want.

Socialized Mind

If you operate from socialized mind, you recognize that you can control your impulses, needs and desires. They have become Object. This is a key distinction between being an adult and being a child–and most adults do reach this stage. People who operate from socialized mind “internalize the feelings and emotions of others and are guided by those people or institutions  (like an organization or synagogue or a political party) that are most important to them.”  And, while they can be self-reflective and can think abstractly, “There is no sense of what I want outside of others’ expectations or societal roles.” So, when you operate from socialized mind, you try to do what others want or expect of you and your identity is shaped by what you perceive as the approval or disapproval of others.

While many adults can remain in this stage over the course of their lives, for many (and especially for people who are in leadership roles) it is not sustainable. When one operates from socialized mind one’s sense of self is reliant on others “because they are, in many ways,made up of those people, ideas, or ideals around them.”  In simpler times, one could live one’s life from socialized mind–following the rules and following the leader. In the world we are now in, the socialized mind can be very limiting.

It’s estimated that almost half the adult population operates from socialized mind.

Self-Authored Mind

About 35% of adults will transition, at some point in their lives, to self-authored mind. Just as it sounds, at this stage one creates a self that stands alone–outside of its relationship to other people. “The opinions and desires of others that they internalized and that had great control over them when they were making meaning with more of a socialized form of mind are now object to them.”

Operating from a self-authored mind, one has an internal compass from which to make decisions or manage conflicts. True empathy is now possible as the self-authored mind is able to genuinely consider what others think and want. When faced with different and conflicting opinions and views, the person with a self-authored mind can navigate these views and use their own system to make decisions.”These are the people we read about in the literature who ‘own’ their work, who are self-guided, self-motivated, self-evaluative.”

The limitations of the self-authoring mind emerge when a person’s values are in internal conflict, and one’s internal compass is not sufficient to handle a situation that is more nuanced and even less black and white. While the self-authored mind sees shades of gray, there are still limitations. A person with self-authored mind may not be an excellent diplomat, because: “when other people don’t understand or see the need to follow her rules, she may be so invested in her own way of doing things that she cannot easily see connections between her ideas of what is right and other people’s ideas of what is right.”

Self-Transforming Mind

This form of mind is relatively rare–though, as complexity grows in our world, more people are evolving to this level of complexity in their thinking. Adults with this form of mind “have learned the limits of their own inner system—and the limits of having an inner system in general. Instead of viewing others as people with separate and different inner systems, those with a self-transforming mind see across inner systems to look at the similarities that are hidden inside what used to look like differences.” What this means is that people at this form of mind are likely to see a spectrum of grays. This form of mind creates the capacity to see the systems at play and mediate between seemingly opposed views to find common ground.

Why Does Understanding The Stages of Development Matter?

Understanding the stages of development has helped me to both understand myself, work more effectively with my clients (help ensure that I ask the right questions,) and make sense of the world around me. It enriches my life by helping me see and grow in new ways.Significant development doesn’t happen because we have more knowledge, but because we have better meaning making systems. In a world where we can never “know” enough–I find this comforting.

I hope that what I’ve shared in these two posts has given you some things to consider as you think about your own meaning making systems.