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 Development, In 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
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 tendency...is 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?