Harvard professor Bob Kegan’s adult development theory explains how adults develop on a cognitive level, as opposed to the traditional life stages framework.  In his theory, Kegan describes how adults move through stages defined by ones’ ability to understand and manage complexity. 

In his book, In Over Our Heads, Kegan describes how we’re, well, in over our heads developmentally for the challenges of the modern world.  Kegan asserts that individuals would need to have progressed to a certain stage to feel competent in managing our worldly affairs.  Below that stage, people will feel stressed, challenged, frustrated, and confused as to why the world makes no sense to them.   

I like to go out on a limb and extrapolate dangerously into related areas, in this case, considering the idea of developmental stages of our beloved species, humanity.  After all, our so-called collective conscious seems to be growing and expanding; why not consider what developmental stage we are in as a collective? 


Let’s start by exploring the four major adult developmental stages, ala Kegan: 

  • Sovereign – The self-sovereign stage is the earliest stage of adult development, most often seen in teenagers and young adults.  In this stage, people understand that ideas and beliefs are persist when no one is looking (object permanence), and they become aware of their own and others’ opinions and beliefs.  However, others’ perspectives are somewhat of an abstraction and are viewed only in relationship to how they are affected by them.   
  • Self-Socialized – If an individual moves out of the sovereign mindset (which is not a given) they evolve to self-socialized.  The socialized mind sees itself as part of the collective and has internalized the beliefs and values of the collective as their own.  They think about and may be of service to the needs of the collective, as opposed to just considering how others affect them.  Their self-esteem is dependent on the opinion of the collective, and they may feel torn if the values of two of their communities are at odds (e.g., their church versus their social group or family). 
  • Self-Authored – If the socialized mind continues to develop, it evolves to the self-authored mindset, which marches to her own drummer.  She is committed to her ideals and goals, often overlooking the ideas and beliefs of her peer group which can cause frustration in others.  The self-authored individual can see and understand other perspectives, but it is more interesting if it informs their own world view.  The modern worker is generally expected to perform with this order of mind, but 60% of the populations has not arrived at this stage. 
  • Self-Transforming – The smallest minority of adults, the self-transforming mind has moved past self-authored to discover the limitations of beliefs and even perspective.  The self-transforming mind can also detect patterns and connections that others miss, find nuances of grey where others see black and white.  Because the self-transforming mind can identify so many perspectives and uncertainties, they tend to avoid adhering to specific beliefs and views, noting the inherent shortcomings and virtues of each. 

You may read the stages with some judgement as to the value or shortcomings of each, but note that all of the stages are good.  Each has its strengths and talents that are important in our society given the wide variety of roles and responsibilities needed.    It is also important to recognize that we all have to go through these stages; the question here is whether our species might be evolving collectively along these (or similar) lines. 

Given that humanity is not a homogeneous mix of consciousness, where would you put us as a collective? 

I’m sure each of our 8 billion vantage points would give us a different answer.  But from my perch, I guess that we’re in the transition between sovereign-socialized.  Our collective goals and aspirations are vague and in the background, and our attentions seems to flit in a cyclical fashion from crisis, to loudest voice, to self-interest, then back to crisis.  At best, we consider and maybe even implement the interests of the collective in our decision-making.  At worst, we’re cut-throat and out for ourselves.    

This is not an indictment of humanity.  It’s a reflection of our potential as a species.  Imagine what we could do if we were to really move into the socialized space, identify our shared values, and care for each other.  That could set the stage for us identifying larger shared goals and visions, and working together to create a more beautiful reality for us all.   

How do we do this?   

Kegan says that challenge helps us learn and grow.  And boy are we experiencing challenge right now!  This is a chance for us to grow developmentally, become more self-actualized, and feel more mastery over our lives individually and collectively. 

I believe Earth is also on a developmental track as a biological, sentient organism.  She and her flora, fauna, and minerals have been evolving since her birth.  With the advent of intelligent organisms (humanity), she is fairly evolved.  She’s at risk now though, because those intelligent organisms (us) are threatening her health and her ability to continue to evolve.  As a biological organism, she evolves just as other species on Earth, including humanity, evolve.  We don’t have a way of knowing what she will evolve to become, but likely it will be of a higher order than she is now. 


What may be hard for us, is that as she evolves, her “body” will change, and so will our environment and ecosystem.   Some species may be lost while others will appear.  We will have to adapt or become extinct too.   

Our intelligence gives us an evolutionary edge.  Earth is evolving at every level, and we can either become an indispensable part of her ecosystem (caretakers, healers, maintainers, nourishers), or we can continue in our parasitic, destructive ways (mining, polluting, drilling, destroying).  Parasitism either kills the host, or the host kills the parasite, whereas being indispensable means that we can facilitate Earth’s transition to an even more beautiful self and become a loving and integrated part of her whole. 

But that would require that we put Earth first, and move past our tendency to be self-sovereign, especially during times of stress. 

I’m having a hard time imagining how Kegan’s developmental stages applies to Earth.  To me, she is already beyond self-transforming.  She is defining the upper edge of Kegan’s classifications and reaching new levels with her current changes. 

Kegan describes those in the self-transforming space as people that others gravitate to for their wisdom, their calm, and their insight.  Earth does this, and so much more, for us.  We have the opportunity to embrace being in the presence of her greatness, one that is transcending even further.  Let’s celebrate the wisdom and genius of Earth and support her and her change.  She might even agree to take us along for the ride and enable our own transformation in the process.  Our respective evolutions are intertwined, for as we rise to provide the love and care that she needs and deserves, we will rise up along with her. 

That’s the beauty of challenge.  Learning.  Growth.  Transcendence.  We’re all in this together, with Earth.  Let’s commit to dive into it with courage and compassion and openness, for change is never easy but this one is so worthwhile. 

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