Evolve Interview with Dr. Robert Kegan

This interview with Bob Kegan was originally published in German in Evolve magazine, here.

EVOLVE: You have spent the last five decades studying the development and transformation of how adults make sense of themselves, the world around them, and each other. What would you say makes a mature human being? What is maturity in light of the challenges of our times?

DR. KEGAN: It’s an interesting question! To a developmentalist, “maturity” is a relative term. When your teen-ager gradually begins to put maintaining a relationship—with you, or a friend, say—ahead of his or her short-term self-interest, we can see that this teenager is becoming more “mature.” This is just one expression of the more fundamental underlying mental shift we typically see occurring in adolescence from what we call the Instrumental Mind to the Socialized Mind. We become more a part of society when we let “society” become more a part of us, i.e., when we internalize the values and expectations of our “surround” (family, religious community, culture at large) and seek to align ourselves with them. This is the gradual transformation from a principal loyalty to your own interests and needs, to subordinating your immediate interests to the benefits of the relationship or of the group. This creates the ability for the first time to truly be a member of a community or a team, to hold up your end of a promise or relationship.

And for any parent hearing or reading this and thinking, “When will this ever occur with my child?,” I say, “Take heart; it really will happen.” And when it does, we rightly feel that our child has “matured.” But here is the really interesting thing: Note that this very same shift, if it is the limit of the parent’s capability, will show up to us as immaturity. If a parent grants a child her every wish, and is essentially shaped by the child’s expectations, we say that this parent is unable to set limits, is being too led around by his or her own kid, to the detriment of both the parent and the child.

EVOLVE: So we essentially have a different standard as to what constitutes “maturity” in adulthood?

DR. KEGAN: Exactly! Or at least we do in our modern age. In traditional societies, where there is a more singular definition of how adults should operate (or how an adult man and a woman should operate), there will be consistent models or exemplars of adult conduct (or male and female conduct) walking around, behaving similarly as good members of the tribe. The Socialized Mind would be sufficient to take up the role of adulthood in this kind of society because the model with which you should align yourself is clear.

But we don’t live in traditional society. Our world is saturated with competing views of who we should be and how we should behave. “Maturity” in our world–for an adult as opposed to an adolescent– requires, at the least, the ability to look at the various expectations and values that surround us and to independently make judgments about them! Which of them will we adopt? When they are in conflict to which will we give priority? Answering these questions requires a bigger mentality than the Socialized Mind.

It requires us to create an internal framework, code or meaning-making system. In other words, it enables you to bring these external expectations and demands to your own internal court of judgment. This gradual evolution occurs in adulthood–but not for all adults–and is enormously liberating. One is freed up from being completely shaped or made up by one’s culture. One picks up the “psychological pen” and is able to author one’s own identity, rather than being authored by society. We call this stage the Self-Authoring mind. You become the author. The whole notion of authority becomes more internal.

EVOLVE: So this constitutes a whole other level of maturity?

DR. KEGAN: Yes, and it is “mature” precisely because it is more responsive to the more complex “curriculum” of modern adulthood. It is “mature” for an adolescent to develop the Socialized Mind because, without our realizing it, the mentality we require to successfully meet the “curriculum” of adolescence is the mentality that permits you to become a member of a tribe, and to be shaped by its values. But navigating modern adulthood requires us to transcend a tribal mentality, to see more deeply into ourselves and into our world.

EVOLVE: So what are the greater capabilities of the Self-Authoring Mind, and what is it able to create that the Socialized Mind cannot?

DR. KEGAN: In essence, the fundamental gift of the Self-Authoring mind is the ability to construct a system, to step back from the “givenness” of social and psychological arrangements—that this is “just how things are”—and begin to take a new kind of responsibility for how things go internally and externally. For example, when you grant personhood to the other, not solely on the basis of whether you are related to them by blood or affection or similarity, you transcend tribalism as the ruling principle for social reality, and create a social “institution” regulated by new supervening categories like “human rights” and “law.” A similar thing happens internally, psychologically. When you begin to recognize that your thoughts and feelings, for example, do not just “show up” on their own, or are created by others (“You make me so mad.”), you see that you yourself are the creator of your feelings, and you begin to make yourself more responsible for your internal system. This is a huge leap forward in human maturity.

EVOLVE: Yes, and yet it seems that even people who have a more developed perspective, which you call the self-authoring mind, are at a loss to make meaning out of the current global situation that confronts us. Is there a developmental step beyond the self-authoring mind that would be adequate to our time that is both possible and within reach?

DR. KEGAN: The self-authoring mind has enormous capabilities and is a considerable advance over the socialized mind. But it is true that there are limits to the self-authoring mind as well.

We confront those limits when we look at the biggest challenges that we face today, like threats to liberal democracy, issues of globalization, and environmental sustainability. All of these issues expose the limits of “system” as the fundamental principle of meaning-making.

EVOLVE: Can you give an example of how this works?

DR. KEGAN: Sure. Liberal democracies, for example, are basically founded on constitutions. Constitutions are mentally complex instruments that do not just set up the rules for how a system will operate; they recognize that there will inevitably be flaws in that system and that the system itself cannot ultimately resolve its own flaws. Einstein talked about how we will never be able to solve our problems at the same order of consciousness that created those problems.

So part of the brilliance of, for example, the American Constitution is that you had people in the 18th century anticipating that there would be limitations to whatever self-authored system got set up. Therefore, you would need some supervening ability to step outside the system and actually look at its limitations. In this way you could recognize, for example, that the system is only giving the right to vote to one gender, and you can “interrogate” or challenge the existing system.

With apologies for sticking with this parochial example for a moment, we can see that there are a variety of ways any current instance of the American system can be interrogated and enhanced. Its impediments can be cured through congressional processes that lead to amendments to the Constitution or through adjudications within a Supreme Court, which itself is actually a meta-system that looks at the decisions of the lower courts and can make decisions about them. All of this represents an ability to not be captive to the existing system.

Now this turns out to be quite brilliant, but inasmuch as it is an expression of a qualitatively more complex level of mental complexity—the meta-systemic capability of what we call the Self-Transforming mind—it is hard to grasp for many twenty-first century Americans who lack the “maturity,” one could say, of the eighteenth century Thomas Jefferson. Gallup pollsters, e.g., regularly run surveys here asking people questions like: Do you think it is a good idea for American citizens to be able to oppose any policy of their government so long as they don’t advocate its violent overthrow? This right to free speech is guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, which is part of the US Constitution. The results of these surveys are always the same: a majority of citizens would deny to their fellow citizens (and to themselves) rights that are already guaranteed to them!

This shows you the fragility of liberal democracy which we are witnessing all over the planet today. When democratic processes lead to the election of people who have a more authoritarian or autocratic orientation, then we see that a constitution is only as good as the people’s ability to actually understand it. It doesn’t require everyone to understand it, but enough people need to understand it, so that they can actually exercise its more complex capabilities.

As we speak, we are in the midst of an ongoing constitutional crisis in the United States that has not been resolved by recent impeachment proceedings. We still have a president who is essentially at odds with all those institutions that protect us from authoritarianism or autocracy—co-equal branches of government, a free press, free speech, unfettered access to the ballot box. In every direction that we turn at this moment, there are threats to liberal democracy, the defense of which is embedded within the Constitution. But if the Constitution is not understood by a sufficient critical mass of its citizens, then we are at risk – as every democracy has been throughout history – of devolving into an authoritarian state.

EVOLVE: So you see these levels of psychological maturity operating in the American Presidency?

DR. KEGAN: It’s always a little risky to play armchair psychologist, no matter what psychological framework you are using, but my model does seem to add another layer to understanding the nature of the current turmoil we face in the US. Pundits will comment on “polarization” in the US, and our big swings in leadership between the political Left and Right. But this may miss the fact that, irrespective of political orientation, the transition from Obama to Trump may also represent the biggest swing in a President’s level of mental maturity in American history.

The reality is that most US Presidents, unsurprisingly, reflect the same levels of mental maturity most prevalent in the general adult population—namely, the Socialized Mind, the Self-Authoring Mind, or the gradual transition between the two. This is where most of us are at, and most Presidents, be they from the political Left or Right, occupy these positions, as well. So while we may elect leaders who differ in political party or personal temperament, they do not differ greatly in their level of mental maturity. Obama and Trump, however, both look to be exceptions. At least in the initial years of his Presidency, Obama’s appeals to a Havel-like post-partisan “common ground,” and his penchant for “disinterestedly” addressing limitations both in race-relations at home and foreign policy abroad, suggested a capacity to transcend the Self-Authoring mind. On the other hand, Trump’s stark view of the world as a jungle of self-interests, and his dismissal of all appeals to higher values as naïve (“Don’t be a baby,” is a common retort), suggest that, despite his appeals to an America First tribalism, his own mental maturity is more reflective of the Instrumental Mind.

EVOLVE: If true, that would be a huge difference in levels of mental complexity or maturity! How can this self-transforming mind provide us with some of the answers that we need in this time right now?

DR. KEGAN: The benefits of the self-authoring mind stem from its ability, as I said, to construct systems – whether these be social/governmental systems about the nature of the social contract we’re going to make with each other or whether it’s understanding one’s own internal psychology as a system that we create – that enable greater degrees of responsibility. But the self-transforming mind transcends any given instance of a system, looks at it, interrogates it, considers what its limits might be. You don’t give up your affections for your particular ideology or partisan preference, but these things are no longer ultimate. Your greatest affection is to the bigger and more complex interconnection of systems, the process of our own evolution. And as passionately as you may stand within your own ideological preference, you also have enough humility to recognize that it too has distortions and limitations. Your bigger loyalty is to the ongoing pursuit to more accurately gauge reality, rather than to hold tenaciously to your current take on that reality. So, it involves the ability to surrender to the inevitability of your own limitations and the limitations of any particular solution.

This expresses itself at every level. On the macro level, it means constitutional democracies recognize that they are never going to get it completely right and therefore need a supervening meta system that can actually reflect on the limitations of our current arrangements. It also has implications at the most intimate and personal level, something as sensitive and intimate as your ability to surrender control in a romantic relationship. To recognize that this relationship has to be co-constructive and that you need to let yourself and your partner into your limitations as well as into your current order and structure of mind.

The self-transforming mind just has many more options based on a fundamental principle in psychology: what you don’t recognize, you cannot change. Each order of consciousness enables you to recognize more, literally to re-cognize, to know more, to see more. And in seeing more, you can then attend to more, correct blind sides or distortions in your current way of making sense.

EVOLVE: One thing you also explore in your research is our immunity to change. Do you see that the crises in our societies right now are due to this immunity to change? Because there are higher complexities, higher forms of meaning-making asked from us. Yet, it seems that we may be even going in a regressive direction in response.

DR. KEGAN: The problem is that you can talk about the evolution of consciousness or the evolution of successively more complex ways of making-meaning only “from the outside.” Sketching the contours of these different stages of development is useful, but it’s a very partial picture about development. It leaves out the internal experience of development. We don’t walk around feeling like our current way of making sense is just an arbitrary lens through which we can look at the world that we can easily trade in for another. Our current way of making meaning is not just one among a number of ways of making meaning to us. It is, in the moment, the fundamental way that we know ourselves and our relationship to the world.

When we look at development “from the outside” it is easy to see “maturation” as a kind of “gain.” Each new stage allows us to see more, choose among more options, do more. But experienced “from the inside,” we see that the move to each new level of maturation involves, at first, an exquisite loss. To move beyond the Instrumental Mind, I need to lose my orienting attachment to my own immediate preferences or self-interest. To move beyond the Socialized Mind, I need to lose my ultimate relationship to my tribe and my belongingness within that tribe. To move beyond the Self-Authoring Mind, I need to lose my attachment to the wholeness or completeness of the psychological or social system with which I am currently identified.

So, the process of transformation is like labor, like a birthing, which involves birthing pains. The evolution of a whole new way of making meaning can feel like you are tearing yourself open. It can feel like the loss of something very precious. In wholesome situations, these processes may be painful and involve loss and grief and maybe even defense against these initially, but there is a happier side to it as you come to see the bigger world. Although the process may have been difficult, in the end, you experience the exhilaration and rejuvenation of a bigger and better version of yourself.

But in less wholesome situations, if our sense of big impending loss is not recognized and well-held, we may resist, and the birthing process can become dangerously stalled. While the advent of the Socialized Mind is a triumph in adolescence, it is a limitation in adulthood. And yet our research suggests that a third of the adult population is at this level of mental maturity. How do you think people in the Socialized Mind are likely to experience powerful currents toward globalism, toward “diversity” and the inclusion of The Other? These can be dire, dangerous threats to tribalism. These can make you want to build a Wall—not just to keep particular others out, but to keep out the siren song that will lure me onto the rocks, to protect me from what feels like unrecoverable loss.

It is easy to criticize those who may appear to us to be standing obstinately on the wrong side of history, on the wrong side of the future. But they may be digging in their heels out of fear for their lives. We may have to do a better job, not just calling people into a more complex way of making meaning, but understanding the loss, even the anger, terror, and devastation that these very calls cause. The calls are needed, but they need to be accompanied by an understanding of what others perceive their cost to be. Otherwise, these calls are going to lead to the increasing division that we see playing itself out in social democracies and in populist movements all over the world.

All the practices that my colleagues and I have developed for surfacing these kinds of dynamics both at individual and collective levels—what is now known as the “immunity to change” work–are very powerful ways of working both sides of this process: respecting the resistances to having to grow and change, while inviting us into practices and processes that may enable us to make those changes.