The stages of adulthood that nobody tells you about

According to Dr Robert Kegan, 65% of the general population never become highly functioning adults.

“How is that possible?” I hear you say. What does Dr Kegan mean by this?

We all know that childhood is a series of very specific developmental stages. 

Adulthood on the other hand can often seem like one long stretch from the day that we start working and paying our way, until the day we retire. 

That’s the way we see adulthood but there is much more to it than that. Kegan identified 3 stages within adulthood itself, 2 of which are unknown to most people.

He concludes that most of us do not experience the further reaches of adulthood.

Could this be the reason why so many are missing out on a fulfilling career?

For most of us adulthood is something that just happens, and once we reach it there is nothing more to do than keep working with the hope of making some progress on the career ladder.

And yet we live in a world with endless possibilities and opportunities. So why do our lives and careers not always turn out the way we dreamed it would?

Personal development is the key

When we think about our careers, we tend to pay most attention to things like education, skills, and knowledge – and rightfully so. It is however always a good idea to also take a step back and reflect on our own personal development.

How should we perceive and engage with the world and people around us? We receive no education on this. More importantly, there is no framework with which we can measure our personal development in order to understand where we are and plan for where we would like to be.

Human beings tend to be very curious about other people and things. However, we very rarely have the same level of curiosity about ourselves.  It is uncomfortable to analyse and reflect on our behaviour, how we think and how we deal with life. Who wants to be confronted with their own shortcomings? 

We tend to assume that we’ve got ourselves figured out and need to move on to something more interesting and important. 

Where most of us get stuck in adulthood

Kegan’s theory of adult development challenges this assumption. Dr. Robert Kegan is a Harvard-trained developmental psychologist. He is best known for championing the idea that adult development can, and indeed must, continue beyond your 20s.

Our lives go through an impulsive First Stage (childhood) and a self-centred Second Stage (adolescence). A few adults can get stuck in Stage 2 but most (58%) will arrive and remain at Stage 3 for the rest of their lives, missing out on realising their full potential.

Stage 3 is named the ‘Socialized mind’ and is where we ask  “What does society expect of me?”. It becomes important in Stage 3 to align ourselves with the norms, beliefs and expectations of the social group. 

The way that we see ourselves is determined by how others see us. We will suppress our own ideas and opinions to avoid contradicting the expectations of the group or structure that we find ourselves in.

The majority of the adult population find themselves in this stage. 

Our adult life can in many ways be measured on our ability to transition to higher stages of development. In doing so we will develop an independent sense of self, become wiser and have greater social maturity. 

The stages of adulthood nobody tells you about

The next stage, Stage 4, is where we discover more autonomy, self determination and meaning. Moving into this stage is essential if you want to create a career and life that truly fulfills you.

This stage of adulthood is named by Kegan as ‘The Self-Authoring Mind’.

This is where we are able to understand and take control of our own emotional state. We develop an internal sense of direction and shape our lives in a way that is based on our own views and beliefs, not those of others. 

Essentially, in this stage, WE define who we are and build our lives around that. 

Only 35% of the adult population get to live their lives this way. My aim is to help as many people as possible reach this stage where they can become self-directing and get to experience a fulfilling career instead of being pulled along by life.

1% will reach Stage 5, ‘The Self-Transforming mind’.  This is where we are able to take in a number of different thoughts, opinions, and beliefs while still being able to form our own. Very few people operate at this level. 

Which stage do you think you currently find yourself in?

The good news is that the stages of adult development have nothing to do with age. You can start your self-development journey in your 20s, 30s or 40s  and go beyond Stage 3 to create a career you love. The first step is a willingness to go beyond and start exploring the further reaches of adulthood.

Photo: @austindistel

Stefan Vosser

Stefan is a career development coach helping people create fulfilling careers, because everyone deserves a happy work life.

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