I remember doing my first graduate lecture on the further reaches of adult development close to fifteen years ago. I stood up in front of a classroom of people, all whom were older than me, and began my lecture. It was an intense ride. I couldn’t feel much of anything that was going on in the students I was presenting to.
Me, I was too busy attending to the conceptual distinctions in my own mind. I was busy sharpening my intellect. Soon after finishing I could dimly see the aftermath. It was as if an intellectual gatling gun had gone off for the better part of three hours. Metaphorically, you could say I pulled the trigger and didn’t let go until the very end of class. Sure, I opened it up for questions, but my ability to be present and make heartfelt contact with the students in front of me was many years off in my own maturity.
Instead of feeling my own anxiety and uncertainty, I chose to attend rigorously to the sharp and nuanced distinctions in my conceptual world. Instead of acknowledging the nervousness in my hands and the fluttering in my gut, I turned my attention to the multilayered relationships between various theories of adult development. I wanted to deliver unparalleled resolution on the subject matter. And attending to my intellectual prowess was a lot easier than accepting and attending to my embodied sensations of inadequacy and uncertainty.
I share this brief flashback for one reason: I was profoundly wrong in one of my orientations. Then, I taught adult development from a purely conceptual vantage point. Now, I approach development entirely differently.
Today, every lecture I give on adult development comes with a caveat. From the beginning, I encourage my audiences to pay careful attention to their intellectual appetite for ever-refining conceptual distinctions. I caution my audiences—being consumed by these conceptual growth narratives can erode both your well-being and your sense of happiness.
That usually gets people’s attention.
After all, it’s not common for an expert on adult development to tell you that their theories may have negative impacts on happiness and overall well being. But in fact, that’s what some of the research tells us.
While development itself does generally lead to richer, more rewarding lives, when it primarily unfolds as cognitive or intellectual development, things tend to take a turn for the worse.
Sadly, I’ve met far too many people who have loaded up their intellect with a tremendous arsenal of conceptual distinctions. Meanwhile, these ideas and the mental identities that tend to constellate around them remain divorced from their embodiment.
And, related to that, the quality of their relationships remains untouched by these lofty ideas.
They search for people who can commune with them in their disembodied abstractions. “If only I could find more people who are like me.”
It’s not uncommon for individuals caged in their conceptual developmental narratives to wholeheartedly believe they have outgrown the relationships around them. One of the more hilarious narratives I’ve come across is the belief that a person has more or less developmentally outgrown where humanity presently is.
This of course skips an all important point. Rarely if ever does this narrative inquire into another person’s experience to see how they might be able to serve someone else in the moment.
At least in my own mind if I had sincerely outgrown much of humanity, I might at least extend a helping hand, right?
One of the more ironic forms of this I’ve seen is in highly cognitively developed individuals who have crafted personally-tailored embodiment philosophies. Intellectually, some of us realize we can’t be just a mental symbolic self. So, the next best thing is to intellectually narrate a conceptual integration of embodiment philosophies. The next thing we know, there’s some serious high powered intellectual discourse happening about the body. Unfortunately these conceptual narratives about the body often have little impact on embodiment.
The complexity of developmental movement does not change year-in and year-out, even though the stories we rehearse mentally become more complex.
George Vaillant, one of the magnificent researchers in Harvard’s longitudinal Grant Study on life-long adult development, states in his most recent book, “Maturity makes liars us of all.”
Keep that in mind. Our developmental narratives are often imbued with distortions and flat-out lies to give us the sense that we are developing. How many of us put ourselves “above average?” How many of us are intoxicated by narratives proposing that we are either more or less developed that we actually are? Let’s stop fooling ourselves. Our stories are incredibly important—their integrative scope matters—but our lives are bigger than any story that can be told.
When we look critically at how all-consuming our narratives are to us, it’s easy to see how well-being can quickly start to erode because of an over-reliance on conceptual narratives about development:
Our developmental ideas grab hold of identity. Embodiment often suffers, and we tend to craft narratives that we’re outgrowing the very relationships our culture depends on.
That’s not good. Furthermore, we see systemic developmental limitations all around us. While we can dream up extraordinary ideas of what’s possible, we all too often remain impotent at igniting the cultural shifts our overly complex minds can see.
It’s a nasty place to get stuck. It’s a painful place to get stuck.
As I explore development in my leadership coaching, professional trainings and various teaching and speaking engagements, the dimension I focus on is embodied growth narratives.
These developmental distinctions are not rooted in more complex ideas. While I still find conceptual growth themes important, they are secondary to having a rich embodied understanding of the various stages of development. Instead of placing concepts first, this teaching methodology is grounded in the deepening felt sense of your own life.
The researcher who opened my eyes to this all-important distinction is Jack Bauer. (Not to be confused with the action hero Jack Bauer from the TV show 24.)
Bauer the devoted student, author, professor and researcher of adult development maintains, “only experiential growth narratives, not intellectual growth narratives, correlate with well-being.”
If you want greater well-being, then you should be seeking qualitative changes in the felt texture of your own sense of aliveness. Want greater happiness? Bauer explains, “Participants at the highest stage of ego development appeared to be happier and more focused on experiential growth than participants at lower stages.”
A simple way to understand the distinction I’m advocating for is this:
Experiential growth narratives reveal an increasing capacity to feel good about yourself and a broader ability to love the people around you.
In other words, reaching beyond complexity we find elegance.
No complex theories. No super-abstract distinctions. Some of the highest stages of development we know of, which are correlated with your greater well-being and happiness, come with a larger ability to love yourself and the many people around you.
Find a part of you that isn’t liked? That’s your growing edge. Find someone who you don’t love? There’s your developmental limitation.
Pursuing development is a deeply wise investment. There are very few things more valuable to invest in. However, in my experience the intellectual dimensions are the easiest. Don’t forget about the living felt textures of your experience right now in this sentence. Don’t look past the next person you relate to. Your further development and the securing of greater well-being and a broader—perhaps even “unconditioned”— happiness depends on it.
Creator of Commanding Influence: Your Development for Greater Mastery at Work
Harvard University Teaching Fellow
Leadership Coach & Author of The Elegant Self
Faculty & Coach, Integral Facilitator Certificate Program
Rob McNamara’s premiere developmental audio learning program, Commanding Influence: Your Development for Greater Mastery at Work, is now available. Learn More.