Apotheosis episode 40: Stages of development. Drawing of a sequence of people in silhouette, starting with a baby and getting progressively older with each new silhouette. At the stage of adulthood, the woman hits a peak, conveyed by her standing in a dance pose.

Episode 40: Stages of development

Ryan D Thompson Perspectives, Psychology, Skills, Transformation

Key ideas

Can you rise up to meet the challenge in front of you? If you feel “in over your head,” consider that a call to action. You have an opportunity to grow.

  • From the moment we’re born, we’re thrust into a path of non-stop growth. Every moment of our childhood is marked by major milestones: crawling, walking, speaking our first words… in a blink, we’re all grown up.
  • As adults, we reach a few big turning points, like getting our first real job, buying a home, or getting married. But generally speaking, we often feel like we’re done – we made it to adulthood. We’re grown up.
  • Thinking we’re done growing is a mistake. As Robert Kegan and other researchers point out, we can advance through several stages of adult development well into our lives.
  • Taking on experiences that stretch our capabilities and challenge our worldviews can help us unlock greater potential at higher stages of growth.


From the moment of your birth, you were thrust into a path of non-stop growth. You were a newborn, small enough to rest on your parents' forearms. You were tiny and helpless like all human babies, perhaps the most vulnerable creature in the world. But then, every day, you grew a little bit. Soon enough, you were crawling. You said your first words; soon after that, as your parents like to say, you wouldn't shut up. You toddled all over the place, exploring your world, soaking it all up. Then you went to preschool, at first a terrifying event, being wrenched from the comfort and familiarity of home. But soon enough, you made new friends, played with new toys, and learned new things.

With every passing year of your early life, you looked and acted like a different person. Your body grew along with your brain. You spoke more clearly, gained new skills, and expanded your interests. You grew more and more capable of tackling increasingly more difficult tasks. You became less reliant on your caregivers' complete and total support – and you began to recognize and bask in your independence.

In what seemed like a flash, you were soon driving a car, getting a job, enjoying (or not enjoying) romantic relationships, and quite possibly, getting into some trouble that drove your poor parents crazy. 

Next thing you knew, you were all grown up. You finished school, got a job with a grown-up salary, and moved into your own place. You paid your bills on time. You started spending somewhat less time going out and having fun and more time focused on growing your career.

Meanwhile, your friend – you know which one I'm talking about – just never seemed to be able to hold down a job. They spent far more time going out and having fun (and stirring up drama) than finding a purpose and committing to something bigger. They scoffed at you for "taking things too seriously, for getting old." But you begin to find it difficult to tolerate your friend's irresponsibility, unreliability, constant drama, and, frankly, stupid behavior. 

You have grown while they have seemed forever a child. 

Perhaps you've had relationships like this – I know that I have. While your friend's body grew older, their mind seemed trapped at 18. They got stuck at a developmental stage for whatever reasons and couldn't get unstuck.

It can be easy enough to notice the stark contrast between the behavior of others who seem to never grow up with those who accept the responsibilities of adulthood. But it can be harder to notice our own "stuckness" – the ways we miss out on opportunities for further growth as adults. At a certain point in adulthood, we can easily plateau. We believe we're "all grown up," – and thus, we stop growing. But it doesn't have to be this way.

This episode is part of a series that looks at personal transformation. While as kids, we grew up without much effort or intention. But as adults, how can we continue to march on a path of constant growth? We'll explore some ideas from psychology that offer insights into this question, looking at the stages of development we undergo throughout our lives. We'll look at how sometimes we can get stuck at different stages – and some methods for getting unstuck.

Once we get a job, buy a home, and start a family, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking, "We're done." We've reached the end of the line. But in adopting this thinking, we make a big mistake. While most of the growth of our youth "happens to us," so to speak, the growth of adulthood is often more active and intentional. We have to be receptive to opportunities to grow. And ready and willing to change when those opportunities arise.

Developmental psychologist Robert Kegan has spent over 40 years exploring these ideas. Building on the work of other psychologists like Jean Piaget, Kegan describes five developmental stages that begin in childhood. We ride on a conveyor belt of growth through childhood, naturally progressing from the first to the second stage. But from that point onward, there's no guarantee that we'll continue down the path of growth. Let's look at the stages – and then some approaches to catalyze progress.

The first stage is the impulsive mind, representing infancy and early childhood. At this stage, we are purely driven by impulse or reflexes. No adults are typically still at this stage, least of all anyone listening to podcasts on evolutionary leadership. So we can just jump right ahead.

Kegan describes the second stage as the imperial mind, which relates to adolescence. At this stage, the dominant forces are self-focused needs and desires. We only consider other people with regard to what they can do for us. According to Kegan's and others' research, only six percent of the adult population is at this stage. Most of us learn to see other folks' needs as equally valid as our own. But clearly, there are grown humans out there who can’t do this – and that somehow rise to very high places.

According to Kegan's research, the third stage is where a plurality of the adult population rests – somewhere around 45% of adults. This stage is called the socialized mind, where our sense of self arises in relation to the culture or community we're a part of. A primary distinction from the previous stages is the ability to consider the feelings and needs of others and to empathize with them. At this stage, we derive our identity and beliefs from the larger group – to the extent that it can be hard to separate ourselves from that group. Our identification with the group can be so strong that we find it difficult to accept criticism of the group or admit any flaws in its beliefs. 

This rigidity of beliefs poses a challenge for leaders at this stage. Considering the complexity of the problems we face in the modern world, we need to consider and understand a range of diverse perspectives to find solutions. With a more limited capacity to weigh opposing views, we might find ourselves stuck when facing complex problems. We will feel "in over our heads," as Kegan describes. 

The fourth stage is called the self-authoring mind. According to Kegan, fewer people reach this stage, or roughly between 18 to 34% of adults. A critical development from the previous stage is the ability to form an identity distinct from our primary social group. With the self-authoring mind, we can assess the validity and relevance of a variety of perspectives. Where the previous stage connects more closely with an external authority – the beliefs of the group – at this stage, we orient more closely to an internal compass. We take ownership of our emotions and actions, believing in the power to author our own worldview.

Regarding leadership, it would seem that attaining at least this stage of development is essential to tackle the kinds of complex problems we face. Before this stage, we would be hindered by our own mental barriers related to what we consider acceptable views or approaches. At the self-authoring stage, we can consider a range of perspectives and weigh their individual merits – a crucial skill for leading in uncertain and unpredictable situations.

Finally, the fifth stage is called the self-transforming mind. Studies by Kegan find that less than 6% of adults ever reach this stage and rarely before midlife. At this stage, we begin to question even our own internally held views and beliefs. We see ourselves as incomplete, missing out on crucial aspects of our inner capacities. For example, we might have focused most of our lives on hard skills like math, sciences, or technical skills. But at this stage, we recognize that we would benefit from being more well-rounded, cultivating more soft skills like creativity and empathy. 

Another distinction at this stage is the capacity to accept paradox – that there are multiple sides, and each might be valid under different conditions. For example, someone who holds conservative views might see how a liberal approach might work better in some circumstances, or vice versa. Obviously, not something we tend to hear very often – a conservative or a liberal person acknowledging any validity to the views of the other.

For leaders, it seems clear that attaining this level of development would offer us the best chances of making positive impacts on wicked problems. The self-transforming mind believes it can always grow, learn more, and improve. At this stage, we are capable of considering any and all approaches rather than limiting ourselves to one particular set of views. Even the most well-informed perspectives of the fourth stage can be inaccurate or incomplete.

So how do we progress along these stages?

The best I've come across thus far in my research is the idea of stretching our minds. We must find opportunities to expand our current ways of looking at the world and how we address problems that arise. Like physical exercise, no doubt this stretching will involve discomfort. We will have to face fears, insecurities, or uncertainty. We'll have to look at parts of ourselves and our worldview that we'd rather just leave alone. But not taking on this discomfort means we stay stagnant and less capable of tackling the more complex challenges of leadership. We don't want to end up like the friend we discussed at the start of this episode, who likely avoided countless opportunities to grow from fear of the discomfort. We must embrace the pain that stretching our minds brings.

The manner that we stretch ourselves depends on the stage. But how do we even know what stage we're in? That's a question I haven't found a good answer to – without being able to participate in one of Kegan's studies. However, one idea comes to mind: go where it's hard. It makes sense that if any of the following scenarios are difficult for you, that might be a sign of your stage.

If you're at the third stage, the socialized mind, you might have a hard time questioning the authority of your group. You might be afraid to express dissent or criticize the group's views. You might typically avoid tackling problems that don't have a clear-cut solution. You might find it excruciating to engage in self-evaluation. Taking on any of these uncomfortable situations might help stretch your mind and catalyze growth.

If you're at the fourth stage, the self-authoring mind, while your worldview and beliefs might be more well-rounded, they are nonetheless incomplete. You might benefit from exploring perspectives that you have avoided in the past, such as views that you disagree with. And you might look within to find aspects of yourself that you have suppressed or ignored. 

One final point about these stages is that we don't use them to judge and compare ourselves to others. Instead, we can use them to assess our own strengths and capacities. Our realization of stages helps determine how well we can tackle the distinct challenges of the day. As children, we grew more capable every year, learning to tackle increasingly complex tasks. Likewise, we can take on greater challenges as adults as we rise up the ladder of growth.

Ultimately, it comes down to the question: Can you rise up to meet the challenge in front of you? If you feel “in over your head,” that's a good signal that you have an opportunity to grow. Growth is uncomfortable, but the value of approaching life with confidence and capability outweighs that temporary discomfort.

That's all for this episode. I hope you found some insights that can help catalyze your personal growth. Join me again next week as I continue this series on transformation, looking at the concept of neuroplasticity.

References and further reading:

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License