Seduced By Kegan's Brilliance

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Is it possible Robert Kegan has misled us? Better phrased, is it possible that those of us who are really serious about understanding and using Dr. Kegan's adult development discoveries have let ourselves be seduced by the persuasive brilliance of his research?

I think so. 

In recent weeks, I've been wondering whether, in my earnest desire to understand and apply the insights that Robert Kegan's offered us in his books about adult development (The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human DevelopmentIn Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, and Immunity To Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization), I, without thinking too much about it, simply assumed that Kegan's key ideas were true. Is it possible things are not so clear cut?

Again, I think so.

Here are five ways I may have inappropriately assumed Dr. Kegan's insights and discoveries are ipso facto true, without ever subjecting his key propositions to at least a little testing:

     1. I may have been too quick to believe the "evolutionary balances" Kegan describes are, in fact, real psychological states that actually exist in people's minds, rather than tentatively presuming that his stage, growth, and balance ideas are probably more like intriguing hypotheses pointing us towards the hard- and soft-wired neural networks that are active in our brains and bodies. Today, I'm wondering whether, from the beginning, I should have imagined Kegan's truce ideas as dynamics more aptly defined as evocative metaphors than concrete Orders of Consciousness. 

     2. I may have been too quick to believe I could successfully master the complexities and nuances of Kegan's subject/object interviewing and his immunity to change mapping methodologies simply by faithfully following the sequences, steps and signposts he laid out in Immunity to Change; How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, and in A Guide To the Subject-Object Interview: Its Administration and Interpretation. Had I given my presumption some critical thought, I would have known that the subtle complexities Kegan describes in his books were never going to be mastered simply by blithely following pre-packaged recipes. No matter how insightful.

     3. I may have been too quick to believe that most adults only move forward in their developmental efforts, naturally advancing from simple to more complex modes of thinking and feeling. Whether or not Dr. Kegan actually suggested this, I now know that I in fact unwittingly seduced myself into believing that he had said the natural evolution of consciousness begins for most adults with their entry into the 2nd Order of Consciousness (The Self-Sovereign Mind); naturally moves from there into the 3rd Order of Consciousness (The Socialized Mind); from there into the 4th Order of Consciousness (The Self-Authoring Mind); and finally, from there, into the 5th Order of Consciousness (The Self-Transforming Mind). Always in the same regularized sequence. Put simply, I launched my work with Kegan's ideas by unwittingly assuming adult development naturally evolves in an "upward" direction, progressing more or less inevitably through each successive level of Kegan's 5-Stage model.

     4. I may have been too quick to believe that every adult who joins me here at TLO as an Order of Consciousness Thought Partner is going to be an early Stage 3 Order of Consciousness thinker; and that, as a consequence, I can help them simply by asking them mindset questions, initiating modes-of-thinking conversations with them, and offering them experiential and transformational learning exercises that focus their attention on issues like environmental complexity, 4th Order language routines, and their tendencies toward automatic stereotyping. The statistics Dr. Kegan has offered us seem to imply this is a sound approach. But, across the last four years of fairly consistent Thought Partner work, I've learned that it isn't necessarily true. All too often, good questions, deep conversations, and challenging transformational learning exercises aren't enough to activate sustainable, generalizable expansion of my Thought Partners' mindsets and worldviews.

     5. Finally, given the above, I probably have been too quick to believe that, by following Kegan's subject/object and immunity to change methodologies, and by using interventions that are cognitive and conscious, I will help my Thought Partner clients intentionally lift themselves out of a 3rd Order of Consciousness whose neural architecture is deeply unconscious into a 4th Order of Consciousness whose neural architecture will be even more deeply unconscious. So far, this is a set of hypotheses still looking for confirmation

In Sum

Basically, today I'm wondering whether, in my eagerness to excel at supporting my clients' adult development, I too quickly abandoned something I learned a long time ago: Adult development is neither natural, automatic, nor exclusively progressive. 

In my experience, most adults do not slowly and steadily move forward, one evolutionary balance at a time toward more sophisticated, complex habits of mind. Their development isn't smooth. And it's rarely a one-way process towards more complex and sophisticated modes of thinking and feeling. Rather, most adults seem to consistently move forwards and backwards along their own highly idiosyncratic developmental path. Apparently, what's real is that each of us moves backward along our own developmental trajectory at least as often as we evolve forward and upward. As a consequence, I'm beginning to think the best, most useful hypothesis to test is this: Regression is always a possibility.

Freud knew this; regression was one of his earliest discoveries. Ernst Kris also knew this; his reformulation of Freud -- i.e., "regression in the service of the ego" -- is perhaps our best expression of Freud's original insight. Carl Jung extended both of them by demonstrating how "a patient's regressive not just a relapse into infantilism, but an attempt to get at something necessary...a universal feeling of childhood innocence, a sense of security, protection, or perhaps of reciprocated love, of trust."

So, these days, I'm still working hard to make Kegan's brilliant insights and discoveries the heart of what I'm doing as a Thought Partner. But, I'm also beginning to wonder whether I might make this effort easier and more effective by keeping three things top of mind:

     - First, that the existential threats so obviously alive and well in today's postmodern world -- e.g., climate change, Islamic terrorism, and nuclear war -- are in fact indisputably powerful, widespread, and pervasive phenomena that are consistently influencing each of us. These threats are deeply anchored existential triggers for our habitual modes of thinking. And right now, at this point in time, it seems like they're more likely to trigger regression than they are to activate development.

     - Second, that it's likely these existential threats are exactly the kinds of affective triggers that are powerful enough to catalyze large numbers of today's adults into deeply regressing backwards into their habitual modes of thinking and feeling, backwards into what Kegan has so clearly defined as our "Self-Sovereign" mindset. This possibility seems so real to me that I'm thinking this 2nd Order of Consciousness might best be characterized and understood as most adults' "natural mind."

     - Third, that if the 2nd Order of Consciousness/Self-Sovereign Mindset, as Kegan has defined and described it, is our "natural mind's" underlying architecture, then, when it comes to helping an adult work with their own personal Orders of Consciousness issues, maybe it would be better for me to be as biased towards working with my Thought Partners' Self-Sovereign Mindset challenges (and the regressive tendencies it's prone to) as I'm biased in favor of working with them, their more progressive tendencies, and their Self-Authoring possibilities.

Together these propositions seem like a more balanced, realistic way of helping my adult clients address their developmental issues.  What do you think?

Disorienting Dilemmas


Jack Mezirow, in his 1991 book Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning, introduced the idea of transformational learning to the world. Back then, Jack told us that transformational learning was a process that renews our frames of reference. "Frames of reference" was the term Jack used to describe "the assumptions through which we, as individuals, understand our personal experiences." Essentially, they're what define and shape our individual perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. They're what determine what we think, feel, and do.

In Transformative Dimensions, Mezirow suggested that, if we were conscious enough, we could use our every day experiences as platforms to leverage our life experiences into expansive learning processes. If we were attentive to the disappointments and missteps in our lives, tough enough to see these “failures” as the “distant, early-warning signals, they were, and tough enough to turn into them in order to examine their reasons, then we could use the knowledge, tools, and skillsets we had to launch the kinds of conscious learning processes that could decisively transform us. Following this path, he said, would help us foster the new frames of reference we needed to learn if we were going to lead healthier, more effective, fulfilling lives.

There was just one catch. No matter what, Mezirow said, the transformational learning processes he was describing could begin only after we first experienced what he called "disorienting dilemmas." In Transformative Dimensions, Mezirow told us a disorienting dilemma was an "unexpected incident" that unavoidably showed the person involved that they weren't perceiving and understanding reality in accurate or useful enough ways.

In the years since Mezirow published his original book, our understanding of transformational learning has expanded substantially. Currently, advertises more than 200 books on Transformative Learning. Google lists more than three dozen pages referencing this subject. Yet today, we at TLO can find only one book (i.e., The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs, by Marcia Reynolds) that actually defines a disorienting dilemma, describes what it feels like for the person caught in the midst of the experience, and provides concrete exercises, interventions, and/or case studies that show how to support and encourage people who are just beginning to realize they're trapped in the middle of a disorienting dilemma.

This past year, we've searched the Internet for every bit of information we can find on disorienting dilemmas -- anything more exhaustive and instructive than the preliminary ideas Marcia Reynolds is offering. For example, we've researched related concepts like "disconfirming experiences," "cognitive dissonance," and "socio-emotional traumas" for what the research in these areas might reveal. But, in terms of useful descriptions, prescriptions, directions, recipes, and/or advice on how to initiate, support, and encourage a person to move into and through any of these destabilizing personal experiences, we've come up with a big, fat zero.

My own transformational learning experiences convince me that disorienting dilemmas, in fact, are the vital catalyst that Mezirow said they were. But, we're still short on the how part of this equation. If you’re interested in learning more about how to initiate, encourage, and support your own exploration of a disorienting dilemma, disconfirming experience, or socio-emotional trauma that’s been plaguing you, schedule an exploratory conversation with us.


The deeper we get into the 21st Century, the clearer it is that this century’s most disruptive trends – globalization, rapidly accelerating technological innovations, confounding socioeconomic disparities, and polarizing ideologies – are revealing some unsettling schisms between what previously were our taken-for-granted beliefs and what today are the kinds of perceptions, values, and mindsets we now need if we’re going to cope with the new worlds growing up around us.

Every day it seems our personal world views -- the very architecture of our traditional Orders of Consciousness -- are being undermined. For many of us, these challenges are encouraging a search for more useful ways of coping with the challenges

that we’re finding most painful and anxiety laden. We are, for this search, in clear need of fresh strategies that will help us respond to these new simultaneously terrifying and exciting opportunities that we’re just now beginning to experience.

In this regard it seems like here, with our first blog that's specifically focused on transformational learning, the best thing we can do is offer you four propositions that will help you better understand transformational learning's relevance and significance.

--- Four Transformational Learning Propositions ---

Proposition #1: Transformational Learning Is A Consciousness Issue.

Proposition #2: Human Consciousness Evolves Slowly But Persistently.

Proposition #3: Human Consciousness Evolves Through Definable Stages.

Proposition #4: Each Successive Stage Is More Complex And Expansive.

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Of course, much more needs saying about each of these propositions. They all warrant further elaboration, as well as practical examples and concrete evidence. However, to get us started, we simply want to offer these propositions as if each were one of Picasso’s abstract paintings; that is, a singular sketch of the world that’s intriguing enough to be worthy of serious conjecture, a purely personal interpretive effort. To this end, we invite you to take some time to reflect on what these propositions, unadorned as they are with any explanatory text, might mean to you.

What do these propositions suggest to you?

What do they highlight that you might already sense?

After you’ve pondered a while, ask yourself if there's more you want to know. If there is, take a look below at the YouTube videos by Christine Jarvis and Nick Petrie.  Each, in its own way, offers a little bit more on what transformation learning might mean.


Once you've done all the pondering and all the listening you're going to do, if you still want to dig deeper, take a look at the three thought papers on transformational learning that you’ll find in TLO’s Thought Papers’ section.

In the weeks to come we’ll be back to this foundational issue with much more of our own.