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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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