Personal growth demystified (Kegan's three levels of adult development)


Personal growth or becoming happier? Enlightenment or finding yourself?

Here’s an attempt at clearing a path in the self-help jungle.

There’s a lot of jargon when it comes to growing as an adult. So much that one can get lost in all the psychology, spirituality and pseudo-science out there. Here I present some important ideas on what growing as an adult means, why it’s so important and what drives it.

Isn’t the point of growing just to feel better?

Most people think the goal of personal growth is about becoming happier and less stressed. Although these are very important pursuits and a good place to start, there is a large amount of research literature uncovering a very different answer. An answer that challenges the focus on one’s own feelings of happiness as the highest thing to strive for in life.

If it’s not about happiness, then what’s the point of growing?

A different perspective on what growth is, and what it’s for, is that growth is the increasing capacity for responsibility. The ability to respond and to solve problems in better ways. Sound boring? Just hang in there. This definition may seem simple but according to Robert Kegan, a Harvard professor who’s spent his life researching adult growth, there are certain phases we go through as individuals that correspond to specific ways of acting in the world. According to him, there is a natural process of maturing throughout life where we understand ourselves and the world around us at deeper and deeper levels. This process is facilitated or hampered by the context of the individual and if supported ultimately leads to both wisdom and responsibility. Pretty cool stuff. In other words, growing as an adult is about understanding and acting more and more in line with how you and the world really work. Not just feeling good. This is often what people mean when they talk about living with purpose and meaning.

So what does growth mean more specifically?

Growth can be understood better by defining its three distinct phases for adults.

Socialising - finding my role (around 65-75% of the adult population)

The first and most common phase is about trying to navigate societies norms, values and goals. During this phase of adult development, one is focused on fitting in and succeeding at fulfilling the expectations of other people. How to finally become “enough” and be approved by others takes centre stage of our emotional universe. To do this we try to understand what is “right” and “wrong” and live by the rules and values of our surroundings. To become appreciated, or at least avoid becoming a dissapointment, a loser. Living from this perspective in modern society can be quite a challenge since there are so many different and colliding norms to fill at once. Be a great co-worker. A loving partner. A perfect parent and a fun, stress free friend.

The emotional upside is that when the complexity of our lives makes us feel uncertain we can find a solid sense of community and certainty in finding a simple story or “truth” within a group, even if that story is simplistic, dogmatic or goes unquestioned.

  • We are rule-based in our thinking
  • We want to know how we can be better
  • We act in accordance with what is normal and expected
  • We can see our emotions but are blind to societal norms
  • We believe our societies way is the right way

If you do something wrong from this phase you’re worried what other people will think of you and what the consequences could be. Contrast that view with being worried about what type of person the wrongdoing makes you and if you think it’s moral or not. This shift and added perspective brings us to the next phase.

Self-Authoring - finding myself (around 15-20 % of the population)

When maturing from socialising we begin seeing and questioning the norms we were brought up in and live by. Why should I have a successful career? What is success to me? What makes me happy? Who am I deep down? Through reflecting on our experiences and testing our previous truths, we eventually find our own voice and inner compass. A voice that’s independent from the expectations of others or of the situation. Self-authoring is often connected to becoming more present and in contact with our inward processes and emotions. In the beginning of this phase we observe our norm-driven behaviours after they happen. With time we integrate our personal values deep enough that we eventually feel them before we act, enabling us to live with less dissonance, more authenticity and personal integrity (integrity actually means being the same on the inside as on the outside, to be integrated). Living from this perspective is often associated with increased happiness and less stress, although questioning norms also can mean choosing to end friendships or leave groups to find other more like-minded people.

  • We are values-based in our thinking
  • We want to know why we do what we do
  • We act in accordance with our personal values, taking a stand for what we believe
  • We can see our emotions and societal norms but are blind to see beyond our own values
  • We believe our personal truth is Truth

Self-Transcending - finding something larger than me (less than 1%)

The process of integrating your values has a tendency to eventually expand your sense of self. You start seeing that you, although you’re living your truth, are an integral part of a much larger and more complex system and world out there. Your fixed sense of self may become more fluid over time, shifting from a noun into a process of interwoven connections with your surroundings. Acting from this perspective calls for more than just living authentically, instead it is to live both authentically and contextually. To integrate the needs of the whole, the other and the self. With this level of perspective, “truth” and “good” become complex terms because once you see reality as a complex emerging system, simple stories don’t suffice. Instead of finding answers or reaching goals, the quality of listening and depth of questions become more important. Seeking new perspectives and paradoxes becomes interesting. Thinking in terms of “either/or” often turns into “both/and” enabling one to simultaneously hold two opposing views at once. Living from self-transcendence can be both deeply connecting and existentially meaningful. But also profoundly lonely since so few people live here and because language both limits and brakes down when used to convey the deeper experiences of transcendence, leaving only empty caricatures of what is felt.

  • We are flexible in our thinking, seeing multiple truths and perspectives simultaneously
  • We want to understand what the entire system needs; both the who and the why
  • We act in relation to the needs and perspectives of the context
  • We can see our emotions, societal norms and values as well as the values of others
  • We care about the entire system we are part of

So what is transformation?

Moving between these phases can be seen as a deep transformation of how we see ourselves and the world we live in. Basically it’s a shift in how we create meaning in our lives; moving from ego-centric to world-centric values. Fully integrating a shift takes time, between 2-5 years, but can be catalysed by different factors. The most important catalysts being supporting and listening relationships as well as transformational experiences and a process of reflecting over time. Another more involuntary and painful way is hitting a wall and having reality confront you, where the severity of the situation forces you to reconstruct your world view.

Why is this so important?

For the first time in history we have reached a threshold where our decision making as a species will determine our collective future. This was not the case with the technologies of gunpowder or the internal combustion engine. How we address global warming, nuclear warfare, artificial intelligence and biotechnology like CRISPR can and will effectively determine the future of humanity.

This is where growing into adulthood becomes important. Maybe even the most important thing we can do in the 21st century.

No one knows the solutions to the global problems we are facing. Because they aren’t solved yet. But what we know for sure are two things - firstly, the problems are caused by human behaviour and secondly the people who will contribute to solving them will be acting from a caring, interconnected and courageous frame of mind. These are the people who have found themselves but also found something larger. These are the people who change the world, and who always have.

We believe that growing as a person has the power to change the world and that the best processes and support need to be available for everyone.