On Levels of Development (Part 2 of 2)

For those adults who make it to the level of development beyond the fully-formed-adult, everything they find meaningful is up for renegotiation. The people who go beyond the fully-formed-adult are never ultimately satisfied with any single “form” of anything, having long ago become suspicious when people claim that a single-way or best-system will last or will produce maximum impact. They think, “maximum to what end?” They think in huge scales and long timelines (thousands of years). They see the traces of the past thousand years in the everyday, and the tendrils of the next thousand by spotting outliers. Where the fully-formed-adult marshals their focus in order to achieve a goal, the transforming-adult uses the process of goal achievement in order to constantly learn. They accidentally do better because of this, maybe because their focus never becomes obsessive.

Let’s start with the bad news – you are probably not a transforming-adult (less than 1% of college educated adults are). The good news is that, like all of us, you are compelled to continue growing towards this level of development. We are, as a species, drawn to more complex versions of ourselves. But simultaneously, we are terrified about giving up or “dying” to our current way of making sense of the world and ourselves. Of course, the only way to get to those more complex versions of ourselves is by “dying” to our current ways of making sense. This happens with each level. New parents understand that babies need transitional objects as part of the weening process; and parents of adolescents understand that their teenager needs to “hate” them sometimes (and they might, but they also hate the self they are “leaving,” the one that imbibed everything their parents said or did as gospel).

For those rare adults who move beyond being “fully formed,” the very notion of what it means to be a fully-formed-adult in the first place is brought into question. Unlike other levels of development, which have had hundreds of years (or millions, in the case of the earliest level) to become part of our path to maturity, this rare transforming-adult level has had, apart from the earliest pioneers, only decades to create its milestones in our collective mind. (It should be no surprise that those pioneers are the philosophers and artists from the 1800’s that we study and revere.)

It is easier for me to show you what a transforming-adult is NOT, even as I try to show you how one behaves. One of the best pieces on this perspective is Jennifer Garvey Berger’s article “Living Postmodernism” (Integral Review, vol. 27, no.4).


In this excellent article, Garvey-Berger uses postmodernism as a way of identifying true transforming-adults from those who are fully-formed-adults and are merely acting like they are postmodern. She shows us all how a fully-formed-adult can appear to be a transforming-adult, even when they are not. The main differences are, respectively:

Fully Formed vs. Transforming

  • Certainty vs. Curiosity
  • Decision vs. Process
  • Focus-Goal vs. Procedural-Goal

Consider a river. In the river there are whirlpools that form. Some of these whirlpools are sustained for long periods of time; these are called “eddys.” An eddy is a type of system. It’s a type of system because things can move in and out of the eddy, in a way that differs from the things flowing down the river proper, or into other eddys. Also, some parts change going through the eddy while others don’t; but the system itself remains the same. The eddy is stable. Institutions and fully-formed adults are like eddys – things and people move in and out of institutions, and thoughts and feelings move in and out of the fully-formed-adult’s life. But the “system” stays largely the same. Like all identifications, there is a tautology here – system’s maintenance for the sake of maintaining the system.

In his book “In Over Our Heads,” Robert Kegan discusses the feminist influence on Freudian psychoanalysis. In particular, he highlights how many criticisms of Freud’s “penis-envy” for girls ended up responding to Freud by creating a kind of “womb-envy” or “relationship-envy” for boys. These theorists are like the postmodern fully-formed-adults that Garvey-Berger discusses – they have taken a system or institution and looked at it from all sides; they have also found it flawed and inferior; so they “change” the system by changing its parts. But the underlying dynamics are all the same, nothing has changed except for the people and feelings moving through the system.

In other words, there is still, in these “relationship-envy” responses to Freud, a theme of separation and connection; of envy (only now it’s the boys who are envious); and of the lifelong struggle to recover something that is missing (forever trying to recover an intimate relationship). This is NOT a transforming-adult way of looking at Freud. The pieces have all been replaced or rearranged or both; but the game board is the same: you lost something, you remain envious, you will forever spend energy trying to recover it. You lose.

So what would a transforming-adult do? They would take a look at all the eddys in the river, and the river itself, and the riverbed and vegetation and wildlife. They take each as its own system, cycling through time and generations. They would create a plan with these interdependent systems in mind. Then they would act – holding their goals lightly – and swim to the bottom of the river, and alter the riverbed so that the dynamics that are creating the eddy above will increase or decrease the energy. They want to optimize the flow of water.

One reformulation of Freud, for example, might be that both boys and girls each need a deficiency in order to continue to grow and develop on their different paths (neither boys nor girls are “better off” than the other); another might be that there is no envy for either boys or girls – that desire itself generates the polarity of genitalia as well as the polarity of emotional intimacy. In other words, before any envy could even be expressed, desire was manipulating us biologically, creating a useful tension, which results in what appears to be “envy,” but is actually a yearning for the release of tension through separation-then-connection. (This is, for example, exactly how a neuron creates the potential for action – they even call the firing of a neuron the “action potential.”)

This type of “self-transforming” system is unusual (because it’s new). It also provides a strategic advantage for any adult who achieves this level. History shows us that every new level provides a period of advantage for early adopters. Think about how you make your money – how willing are you to suspend & upend the way that you’ve made money in the past? How willing are you to suspend & upend what got you here? Many talk a good game, but when push comes to shove, they fold back into their old self. Like the five-year-old learning about courage and fear, we run back behind our parents for protection, peeking out at the scary world from a place of safety.

Which brings me to the key point of this piece: The transforming-adult no longer assumes that it is painful to test, reconfigure, or end the current system. When you become the river, you are identified with the process that generates eddys, that invites the flow of nature. The transforming-adult is willing to suspend & upend their current way of making sense. By accepting that they have probably never been fully safe or fully correct, they are free to make mistakes on behalf of learning. For this reason, they are insatiably curious about other systems. They are curious about the limits of their own system, not to maximize it’s benefits like the fully-formed-adult, but because they are curious about bringing other ways of making sense into their preferred way, to test their preferred way, to change their preferred way. This is a path to developmental freedom from the drive for the one, best way of doing anything. It is the dawn of true dialectical thinking, of consciously living in the polarities that obviously make up this universe.

So what’s the “short answer” to the question “what makes an adult a transforming-adult?” The conservative finds their inner liberal and is not repulsed (and vice-versa). Rather, they invite them in, and concede that they have been overly identified with one way (one system). They invite them to the table, but also into their heart and mind – they transform their own liberalness or conservativeness even though such liberalness or conservativeness might maintain its primacy in their heart and mind.

(It should be noted that there is a brief period between fully-formed and transforming-adults where the individual has difficulty making decisions because they are pushing back against their own preferred ways, but haven’t identified with the dynamics that generate all systems, those polarities that create everything. This can be confusing or even maddening for those with whom they are close. On the way to seeing and even becoming the dynamic force that generates systemic polarities, one merely rejects their current system. The people stuck here are maddeningly sanctimonious, because they are highly developed and a little naïve at the same time.)

Where the fully-formed-adult seeks certainty, the transforming-adult seeks the space between certainties – the curious-confusion that reminds them that they are learning and growing and not married to one way of doing things. There is actual comfort here for the transforming-adult, because they find the seeking of certainty to be exhausting. Which is not to say that they don’t decide; they make decisions all the time (many top leaders, unsurprisingly, show up as transforming-adults when measured). One can make a decision without the need to be certain that all variables have been considered. Decisions are made in process – it’s by considering both sides of all polarities “on the table” that a process decision is made.

But for the transforming-adult, the decision is more of an opportunity to learn than an opportunity to achieve. Ironically, these adults usually achieve far better than the fully-formed-adult, who is driven by achievement. Rather, by taking a learning stance, they can simultaneously consider, for example, short and long-term gains in a way that fully-formed-adults cannot, because they see a broader range of variables (it’s like a hologram compared to a photograph).

Where the fully-formed-adult marshals their focus in order to achieve a goal, the transforming-adult uses the process of goal achievement in order to learn. By generating a constant learning environment (for self and others), transforming-adults naturally achieve results because they are both stable and nimble enough to generate new systems. These are sometimes called “emergent systems,” because they didn’t exist before the transforming leader sat (comfortably!) between two existing systems and allowed themselves to be torn by the polarity. This is why they are usually seen by others as highly creative.

For example, an investor may have a model for generating unseen value in the market. If s/he were a fully-formed­-adult, s/he would perfect the model, perhaps making changes to certain aspects of it. But a competing model (e.g., shorting vs. long term investing) would not be a part of their new perspective on capturing unseen value. They might coexist, but they wouldn’t be integrated. A transforming-adult might sit in-between these two investment perspectives, and see how the riverbed of the market generates both of these eddys. How does the market itself create these two seemingly disparate opportunities? Is there a way of taking my preferred method, and integrating aspects of the one I use less? Not separately, but as part of a larger system that helps me learn about these two systems? (Some transforming-adult has probably created this; and many fully-formed-adults are probably using it. You needn’t invent the crossbow in order to do battle with it.)

The transforming adult asks the above questions in order to generate learning, not income. The income will be generated; but this type of “at-the-limit-learning” is much more valuable to them and usually, to their investors as well.

In closing, I want to point out that it is the mindset of the fully-formed-adult that has built nations (and national debt); created free markets (with a breeding ground for predators and parasites); and mastered the atom (while messing up the planet). This is what Ken Wilber calls the “dignity and disaster” of each level of development. The only way to overcome the disasters of the previous level is to achieve, en masse, the dignities of the next level. According to Robert Kegan, this is the main reason why we are compelled to keep growing: even if not for yourself, you may be compelled to grow for the sake of us all.