On Levels of Development (Part 1 of 2)

For years people have told me that I should “write about levels the way you talk about them.” And for years I would send them a brief paper written by others. When I would circle back and ask about the paper, most of them persisted in their request that I write about levels the way that I talk about levels. This, then, is my attempt to write about these important developmental mindsets (or levels) as I might discuss them.

Before I begin, I’ll give you the “academic” version of adult levels. Before adulthood, we are at the “Instrumental Mindset.” If you think of parents raising teenagers, that will give you a good idea about how adults make efforts to get teenagers into the first stage of adulthood, the “Socialized Mindset.” Somewhere in our mid 20’s, given good mentors (in the form of a boss or a teacher), we can begin the process of leaving the first stage of adulthood and entering the second stage of adulthood, the “Self Authoring Mindset.” Keep in mind that people can press pause on their development (or get no help) at any given point along this trajectory. So not everyone will keep growing. That’s important to know, because it’s one of the reasons why few adults will ever make it into the third level of adulthood, the “Self Transforming Mindset.” Here in part 1, I will discuss the move from the “Socialized” to the “Self Authoring” Mindset.

I’ll begin by using a common benchmark to flesh out how these levels are discussed by people who might not even realize that they are talking about different adult mindsets, not just different adult behavior: the notion of the fully-formed-adult. Not only is this term fairly common, it has recently exploded in popularity in the corporate world, after Netflix transformed their Human Resources department to revolve around the concept. Their presentations on fully-formed-adults made it all the way into the prestigious Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2014/01/how-netflix-reinvented-hr

I should mention that this term “fully formed” flies against the very notion of “ongoing development,” because there does not appear to be any end in sight as to how many different levels or Mindsets exist. As individuals and as a species, we seem to believe that “we know so much more than they ever did…this must be the pinnacle of wisdom.” And we are partially correct; but when a new Mindset emerges both for individuals and for humanity, we then become wrong. There is a new pinnacle. And at this time in our evolution, the “Self Authoring Mindset” is the pinnacle that is in the process of being replaced by a new pinnacle. However, we must speak the lingua franca when it comes to adult development. And right now, across the globe, to be a fully-formed-adult means that we have achieved a Self Authoring Mindset.

A fully-formed-adult is one who

needs little supervision because they have the capacity to self-generate a plan, including its purpose or vision.

has the ability to move themselves and others towards the horizon that the plan suggests.

can select and motivate the right people to extract the expected results.

By all accounts, these self-starters are self-supervising and self-motivated. (Translation: you will not have to work harder in order to get good work from them; isn’t that why you want to hire those people in the first place? To give yourself time to do your own work?)

Although most of us are “worried” to some degree about how we are being regarded by our colleagues, there is a qualitative difference in the way that fully-formed-adults worry, and the worry of those who are not yet fully-formed-adults. In other words, after socialization, on our way to becoming fully-formed-adults, the positive regard of others is up for renegotiation. We change our view; we have a different sense about why and how the regard of others is important (or not).

There are many ways that humans define “maturity.” Thousands of years ago, puberty, that concrete and undeniable rebirth, was a clear definition of maturity. But we eventually evolved a new way of understanding maturity, one that was less about procreation and more about socialization. Because once procreation is stable and not immediately at-risk, the social surround becomes the new order of things. But of course, evolution did not stop there. For several centuries now, our species has once again begun the process of changing the definition of “maturity.”

Where socialization was once the high-water mark of maturity (and in many places it still is), individuation is emerging as the new “fully formed” in fully-formed-adult. This is a good thing. All things considered, it is clear that we are better – not just different – when we grow beyond socialization and towards individuation. As difficult as it may be to accept that “maturity” can refer to different degrees of developmental achievement, the evidence seems clear. (Much more on this in part 2.)

My point is this: how we know others and ourselves is a big factor in defining these levels of adult development, and becoming a fully-formed-adult is the middle of these three main levels of adult development. You might be wondering, “David, what about sociopaths? They are adults, right?” Just because someone looks like an adult does not make him or her mature. Estimates differ, but roughly 5% of adults have not begun the process of socialization. Like a ten year old, these adults focus on their own needs above all others (all the time); have trouble coordinating needs because other people are a means-to-an-end; and don’t display true empathy (which is not to say that they don’t display emotions). That’s fine for a ten year old; but for an adult, that is immature and often results in widespread suffering.

Adults who are either at or maturing beyond socialization, and those who have already done so and are considered by most to be fully-formed-adults, represent 90% of the adults on this planet (Immunity to Change, p. 28). The implications are enormous. Having a better understanding of just this transformation would give all of us more wisdom, more compassion, and a life that makes more sense.

Let’s look again at the notion of “positive regard,” but this time from within the perspective of these different mindsets. It is both natural and expected that when parents have successfully socialized their teenagers, they are identified with their group (their family, friends, religion, or nation; sometimes in that exact order). Much of who they are is “made up” by other people. If this sounds like a bad thing to you, then you do not appreciate the crucial lessons that this level of development grants us. We must go through this period for many years; not only does it help us unlearn the selfishness of the prior level, it is also where we learn to empathize – our raw “emotional intelligence” is matured during this level of development.

Some people, especially those who are showing signs that they should be growing beyond their socialized-adult self, forget to put themselves on their own list of “people to serve.” They’ve become so good at being unselfish, that they have gone too far in the opposite direction – they serve others extremely well, and themselves last if ever. The opinions and needs of the people to whom they feel close (the people to whom they are loyal and look to for leadership) are sometimes more important than their own needs. In fact, becoming a fully-formed-adult can feel like a selfish act to these folks.

But most will eventually begin to move away from this strict behavior and, especially with the help of a mentor or coach, learn that becoming self-starting or self-supervising means being accountable for everything in their work, soup-to-nuts. When you turn around, there’s nobody there to whom you can look for guidance. This can be frightening for someone who does not have at least some support during this developmental process. When all goes well, the positive regard of others becomes a relative truth rather than an absolute truth. It can be both freeing and frightening for the newly fully-formed-adult to grant themselves the choice to take the opinions of others or not. That choice was likely not present to that adult before their more mature self emerged.

Also, as they continue maturing to fully-formed-adults, the positive regard of others does not simply go away. Rather, a new version of achieving positive regard emerges. It includes how others regard them, but it is less about their own feelings (or the feelings of the other person) and more about their integrity (and the integrity of the other person). The principle of “doing good/right” transcends any given individual or group, but for that very reason anybody can participate in it. And that’s the point – fully-formed-adults transcend groupthink, group-identity, and group “shoulds.” These people do not accept positive regard unless it is divorced from the “shoulds” of a given group (or, a given important relationship). In fact, when others relate to them in that old fashion, where the relationship is the vehicle for the positive regard, the fully-formed-adult will often recoil in the recognition that a personal claim is being laid upon them.

This is precisely the opposite of the behavior of someone who is not yet a fully-formed-adult! For example, I might feel great if my boss gives me an “Atta boy!” when I am beginning or have already achieved socialization; but that very same “Atta boy!” might annoy me as a fully-formed-adult, unless I know that the boss is appreciating the same principles of good work from which my own work is coming. When the vehicle of the regard is organized around principles, not only can I accept the positive regard, I can accept negative regard in a way that my prior, more socialized self could never do. I can stand in the face of such criticism because I can agree with the principles and their impact on my behaviors. I am identified with those principles, not with any person or group, so my agreements with others (and disagreements) “stand on principle,” not on mutual regard.

When developmentalists discuss the greater “capacities” that each level of development brings, the above is one example of what they mean. As our identity grows, we take the good, the bad, and the ugly with greater depth and a better response.

In part 2, I’ll explore everyone’s favorite topic, the rare and newly emerging level of development, one that is identified with transformation itself, where the regard of others takes on even more dimensions, and wherein the problems created by fully-formed-adults must ultimately be resolved.