Searching for a way out of hell: mental complexity, wellbeing, and Bob’s Big Idea - RSA

Searching for a way out of hell: mental complexity, wellbeing, and Bob’s Big Idea

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  • Mental health
  • Social brain
  • Health & wellbeing

Looking around at the environmental degradation, financial turmoil, and increased social inequality around us, perhaps you’ve had the sinking feeling that we are creating our own demise.  Presumably you are hoping there is a way that we can work ourselves out of this mess.  You wouldn’t be alone.

Robert Kegan, Professor at Harvard University, gave a fantastic, if somewhat haunting, lecture here at the RSA last week.  The event, “The Further Reaches of Adult Development: Thoughts on the ‘Self-Transforming’ Mind” chaired by Jonathan Rowson, briefly reviewed Prof Kegan’s work on adult development and introduced the audience to his intriguing theory - lovingly called “Bob’s Big Idea”-  about the implications of more people reaching the ultimate stage of development.

level 5

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To get the full effect of Bob’s Big Idea, at least a basic knowledge of his adult development work is needed.  I encourage you to watch the event in its entirety, but will very crudely paraphrase the first half of Kegan’s talk here, where he asserts that humans undergo various stages of development of mental complexity.  We are “makers of meaning” and to organise this meaning we have basic frameworks through which we look at life. We work through these various frameworks, or stages, over our lifetime.  Kegan’s talk focused on the fourth and fifth stage of development (a summary of the adult development stages, produced by Dr Jennifer Garvey Berger, can be found here).

The fourth stage, called the self-authoring stage, is where people start to loosen the reins of others’ expectations.  As the name suggests, this is the phase when you are able to begin to write your own identity, rather than viewing life through the lens of what others think of you.  The self-authoring stage is one in which “we are able to step back enough from the social environment to generate an internal “seat of judgment” or personal authority, which evaluates and makes choices about external expectations”.

According to Kegan’s research, some people reach the fifth and final stage, the self-transforming stage.  If it is reached, it is generally at some point in life after middle-age.  In this stage, people can start to hold more than one position.  They are able to grasp that even their own way of seeing things might be flawed. With a self-transforming mind,

we can step back from and reflect on the limits of our own ideology or personal authority; see that any one system or self-organisation is in some way partial or incomplete; be friendlier toward contradiction and oppositeness; seek to hold on to multiple systems rather than projecting all but one onto the other.”


Bob’s Big Idea

Why is the population living so much longer?  Not how, but why?  Why do we live 20-40 or more years beyond our fertile years?  

What if we are living longer so that our older people can figure out how to save our species?

Kegan’s idea is that, as a species, we are trying to figure something out:  how to survive.  He suggests that whenever a species moves collectively in a direction, it is always for one reason, to ensure survival, and it is exactly the same for us. The self-transforming stage, as mentioned above, is usually reached after middle age, if at all. So the longer we live, the greater the chance that more people will develop into self-transforming level of mental complexity.  Kegan notes that we are creating our own demise and effectively asks: What if we are living longer so that our older people can figure out how to save our species?  “Are we looking for a way out of hell?”

As RSA colleague Matthew Mezey summarises: old people will save the world.


Is higher better?

So does this mean that we should all be striving to reach ‘level 5’?

The phrases “adult development” and “mental complexity” get banded about the office from time to time, and in the past I was somewhat reluctant to join in the conversation.  This partly down to lack of knowledge about the topic, but mostly down to the feeling that this type of language felt terribly elitist to me.  It’s not that I don’t believe that people can be at different stages of development (because I do), but more that I am not yet convinced that higher is necessarily better.  Is there any correlation between level of mental complexity and happiness or wellbeing?

Speaking to Kegan after the event, I learned that the answer is twofold, and depends on the sense in which we talk about wellbeing.  Hedonic wellbeing is about affect and an element of life satisfaction; that is, it is what we mean when we think of wellbeing as being in a good mood, enjoying the moment, and having general life satisfaction.  Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, there does not seem to be a correlation between stage of development and hedonic wellbeing; people at all stages are subject to a similar rollercoaster of joys and sorrows.

Eudemonic wellbeing, on the other hand, is less about feeling pleasure and more about having feelings of meaning, purpose, belongingness; having competence; being self-accepting.  It is imaginable that indeed reaching higher orders of consciousness could be helpful in achieving these components of wellbeing. 

reaching higher orders of consciousness could be helpful in achieving these components of wellbeing

When the conversation turned to mental illness, Kegan explained soberingly that paranoia might look very different to someone in a self-authoring stage of development than someone in self-transforming stage of development.


As with so many important questions, the answer is nuanced.  This blog post has not done justice to Kegan’s talk last Thursday.  I encourage you to listen to the talk, regardless of your views on Bob’s Big Idea, as a great way to learn more about the higher levels of adult development and to open up similar thought-provoking questions.


Nathalie Spencer is part of the RSA's Social Brain Centre

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  • HI Noah, Yes, looks like everyone is important! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Hi Matthew,

    I really like your point about needing a good fit between
    person and situation, and not just expecting that someone in higher stages of development
    are necessarily better than others for the job at hand. Also really interesting re the sense of loss
    when moving into a new stage. I’d love
    to hear more if/when any light is shed on your questions about organisational make-up
    and the loss of self-transforming minds from large orgs. Thanks for the refs to Bauer, McAdams, and
    Cook-Greuter; I’ll look into them!

  • It really was a great pleasure listening to Prof Kegan’s lecture, and getting a chance to talk with him too. I think he makes such a crucial point – for the RSA's interest in human capability - that the ‘Self-authoring’ modern mind, which has its own inner compass and values, is still not enough to tackle our truly ‘wicked’ problems.

    I feel a whole lot better knowing that the ‘Self-transforming’ mind that can respond adequately to wicked problems is becoming more common, as our society gets greyer. (Also because I seem to be getting older too!).

    I jotted down some questions I have relating to enabling the Self-transforming mind to become more commonplace in organisations etc here:

    At the moment professionals with Self-transforming minds apparently tend to leave large organisations. It would be good to work out ways to stem that gradual exodus for a start, if we want organisations to be able to better respond effectively to ‘wicked’ problems.

    Do we have leaders who seem self-reflective, interested in their weaknesses as well as their strengths? Those were some of the signs Kegan told me were indicators of the ‘Self-transforming’ mind...

    In relation to happiness etc, Jack Bauer and Dan McAdams have done great work that highlights that there are two facets of human flourishing – and both only give us half of the complete picture.

    There is socio-cognitive maturity (such as Prof Kegan’s stages of adult psychological growth), and there is also social-emotional well-being (which does correlate with happiness).

    One note of optimism is that research emerging from people like Susanne Cook-Greuter suggests that with the arrival of the latest, rarer stages of human development these two paths can somehow fuse – so that high stages of socio-cognitive maturity can also lead to happiness.

    This doesn’t seem like the quickest or easiest route to
    happiness though! ;-)

    Not least as every stage transition can be an up-ending
    change - even a kind of loss? - in one’s life…!

    There’s a great chapter on this, by Jack Bauer, in the book ‘The Post-conventional Personality’ (and one by Cook-Greuter too).

    Re higher is better – obviously it rather depends on how good the fit is. Putting a leader with a traditional/socialised mind in charge of dealing with a multi-faceted multi-stakeholder ‘wicked’ problem is not likely to lead to a good outcome.

    However, putting a Self-transforming leader in charge of a crisis situation where very authoritative leadership is required, might also not be that good.

    I’ve heard examples of later stage (Self-transforming?) local authority chief execs – a couple of instances where it seems they were the right person and had a powerful transformative effect (Swindon and Kent). Another where, arguably, the leader just went too far, too fast, the fit wasn’t right, they didn't connect…


    PS More of my thoughts about Kegan, the RSA etc here:

  • The children might be our future, but it may well be up to the elderly to get us there! Totally fascinating stuff.

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