How adult development theory can help us grow and learn throughout our lives

Kindling - Adult development theory

Adult development theory, the short version

Research over the past several decades has shown definitively that our minds can and often do continue to develop and evolve into forms of greater and greater complexity throughout our lives. This “psychosocial” development is laid out in Adult Development Theory.

Encouraging this process is critical to our change movements. Building more “self-authoring minds” – and even “self-transforming minds” – prepares us to question the status quo and envision a new way of doing and being for our selves, our organizations, and our society.

Adult development theory, the longer version

In our society, we freely talk about the maturation and mental development of young people, from infants to toddlers to young children to pre-teens to young adults. We all see and accept that their brains grow and evolve. We can observe that a child may be more capable of considering something from another person’s perspective, for example, than she was just a year earlier. While one year they may have quite rigid black and white thinking, we may start to think shades of grey show up in their thinking the next. We may start to see that they begin more closely scrutinizing what earlier they readily accepted as fact.

It isn’t simply that they are gaining more knowledge or facts about the world. It’s that their minds see the world in a more complex manner, from a wider range of perspectives. Their brains make connections, see patterns, and draw conclusions that they never did before.

This development is an obvious and unmistakable part of the process of getting older and maturing for nearly everyone – even adults. And yet, in our society, we generally avoid this reality like the plague. Rightly so, many of us cringe at anything that would further stratify us into smarter/better and dumber/worse categories or justify why some should have more political power than others.

Yet despite these sensitivities, the data are conclusive. Some people really do see the world with more complexity than others. And while this knowledge can certainly be used in a way that is damaging if used improperly, it can also be used to drive much-needed change. After all, if more and more of us are working from a dynamic and complex frame of mind, we will be better able to scrutinize the status quo and develop innovative, transformative solutions that transcend our dominant paradigms.

Adult Development Theory

This may all feel somewhat abstract and undefined. Fortunately, there are now decades of research on how our minds and mental processes develop over our lives, such as Robert Kegan’s Adult Development Theory, Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, and Susanne Cook-Greuter’s nine levels of increasing embrace, to name a few.

I’ll be honest. This research gets pretty heady. For now, I want to keep it relatively simple.

In Kegan’s Adult Development Theory, the four most common stages of mental development in adults are as follows:

The Sovereign Mind

This is an early stage common in children and adolescents in which people are aware of themselves as individuals, with consistent beliefs and identities. They are occupied first and foremost by tending to their own needs and interests. They will follow rules, but primarily out of fear of being caught. They do not typically focus on the well-being of others or society, apart from how it relates to their own direct self-interest. They may do kind things for others, but generally only to achieve their own interests.

The Socialized Mind

This is a stage of more complexity and nuance than the sovereign mind and the most common stage of development for adults, representing around 75% of all adults. Where in the earlier stage, people put their own self-interest in the foreground, they now see themselves as part of a greater society with its own rules and expectations. They very much wish to obey these rules, because doing so, they believe, makes them a good person. They judge their self-worth according to how society judges them.

The Self-Authoring Mind

Next, we come to another, but considerably more rare, stage of increasing complexity, one which relatively few adults ever attain. Self-authoring minds create a self that exists outside of others’ perspectives and judgments. They develop their own internal criteria for right and wrong. They may come to the conclusion that some societal norms are in fact harmful or immoral, and choose to act otherwise. The self-authoring mind develops its own principles and beliefs, often separate from what society believes and expects.

The Self-Transforming Mind

Next, the self-transforming mind is not only aware of its unique identity within society, but can view its identify somewhat objectively, critique it, and shift it toward new beliefs and behaviors it views as more suitable. It accepts that its identity is constantly evolving and can even guide this evolution consciously. The self-transforming is much less likely to see the world in black and white and instead much more inclined to see infinite shades of grey. They see their identities as fluid, constantly evolving and changing, and forego the need to be internally consistent, instead embracing paradox and uncertainty.

Source: Natali Morad

Subject and object

One way to understand these stages is through the ideas of subject and object. We all hold certain things as “subject” and others as “object”. That which is subject to us is that which controls who we are. It “has us”. That which is an object to us is that which we can observe from afar, perceive as separate from our core selves. We “have it”.

For the sovereign mind, we are subject to what we want and how we go about getting what we want. For the socialized mind, we can view what we want from a distance, but are subject to what society expects of us. For the self-authoring mind, we can view societal expectations from a distance, yet are subject to our own identity, which is fixed. For the self-transforming mind, even our own identities are object to us. We can view them from afar, critique them, and change them.

In many ways, growing our minds is about expanding the field of what is object to us, separating from what was once subject.

The Self-Authored Path to Change

Let’s be clear. There are “good” people across all of these stages, just as there are “bad” people across all stages. Our levels of mental development do not give us conclusive answers on who is better or worse, who should have political power, who we should respect, etc.

But I would like to make the argument that developing more of us from “socialized minds” to “self-authoring minds”, and from “self-authoring minds” to “self-transforming minds”, is a critical step toward real change, toward building the society we want and need.

“Socialized minds” are inherently geared toward perpetuating norms and traditions. Generally speaking, they are inclined to follow beliefs and behaviors that are widely accepted and encouraged, so as to gain acceptance from society. “Self-authoring minds” and “self-transforming minds”, by contrast, are much more inclined toward pushing society toward new behaviors and standing tall in the face of widespread backlash. The more self-authoring and self-transforming minds we develop, the more we as a society will question the status quo and drive society toward much-needed change, the more we develop the ability to understand and address complex problems, the more we prepare ourselves to face the realities of the 21st Century’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world.

Adult development theory, in practice

Pacific Integral is an organization based near Seattle, WA that supports the emergence of a sustainable, equitable, and beautiful future for humanity and all of creation, especially by encouraging and facilitating more complex stages of cognitive development. Pacific Integral develops educational and social change technologies, such as the STAGES Assessment, and provides coaching and counseling to unlock latent potentials in individuals and organizations.

Next steps

When people first hear of Adult Development Theory, the first question is often: So how do I expand my brain to the next level of cognitive development and complexity? This is a perfectly natural and reasonable question. But it may not be the most helpful one.

First and foremost, this change – while it happens in all of us – is fundamentally mysterious. No one truly no what allows someone to make that leap and it’s often involuntary and surprising.

Perhaps the most helpful question we can ask is: How do we create institutions, organizations, and systems that address the needs and interests of people along the spectrum of development? What frameworks can we use to understand where people are at now, what they are capable of, and what assumptions they work from? Ultimately, when we each feel we are in a context that sees us and meets our core needs, that’s what truly enables us to explore and expand.

Recommended reading

The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development

by Robert Kegan

The Evolving Self focuses upon the most basic and universal of psychological problems―the individual’s effort to make sense of experience, to make meaning of life. According to Robert Kegan, meaning-making is a lifelong activity that begins in earliest infancy and continues to evolve through a series of stages encompassing childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

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