Part 3: How To Be An Adult -Kegan’s Theory of Adult Development

Natali Mallel (Morad)
7 min readApr 23, 2020


“No need is more fundamentally human than our need to understand the meaning of our experience.” — Jack Mezirow

Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

Psychologists used to think that our development — the way we think and make meaning in our lives — peaked at adolescence. That we have an ‘upper limit’ to who we can become and the way we can understand the world.

Then came Harvard psychologist, Robert Kegan. Kegan spent three decades tracking a group of adults and discovered that we can keep developing and reaching higher levels of consciousness well into adulthood.

This discovery became the foundation of his Theory of Adult Development. The theory outlines 5 distinct developmental stages that adults can go through. Each new stage represents a significant transformation in the way we think and make meaning in our lives.

Why is development important? Because as we grow older, life (relationships, work, family, etc.) becomes more complicated. And to successfully thrive in this complexity — to live a more joyful, connected and meaningful life — we need new ways of thinking about ourselves and the world.

Kegan likens our development to that of a caterpillar. Like caterpillars, we have the potential to transform into butterflies (read: reach higher levels of development and consciousness). A caterpillar isn’t supposed to die a caterpillar. A caterpillar is supposed to transform into a butterfly.

However, development isn’t inevitable. Kegan found that the majority of adults do not experience meaningful growth. In short, many of us die before we become butterflies.

So how can we keep developing as we grow older?

In Part 1 and Part 2 I shared Kegan’s four stages of development and how to transition among them. In this article I outline Kegan’s fifth and final stage, Stage 5 — Self-Transforming and share some insights into how (I think) we can transition to this stage.

According to Kegan, we grow by changing both HOW we think about the world and WHAT we think about. It’s not just about becoming smarter (accumulating more knowledge) — it’s about changing our perspective. We do this by continually questioning our hidden assumptions and beliefs.

Kegan calls this the self-object dance:

  • Self: Our unquestioned beliefs, assumptions, perspectives, ways of being, etc. (our ‘default’ mode). These unquestioned beliefs shape our experience of the world and the possibilities we perceive.
  • Object: All the things we can critically examine, understand, question and, therefore, change.

We grow by moving more and more of what is unseen and unexamined in the way we understand the world (those things that are SUBJECT) to a place where they can be examined, questioned and changed (where they become OBJECT).

The more we question our beliefs, ideas, theories, etc., the better we become at navigating complexity, ambiguity and paradox — all defining characteristics of modern life. As a result, we become better partners, parents, leaders, friends, you name it.

Stage 5: The Self-Transforming Mind & How to Get There

Kegans fifth and final developmental stage is the Self Transforming Mind. Kegan found that very few people move beyond the fourth order, and they rarely do so before mid-life.

In Stage 5 one’s sense of self is not tied to particular identities or roles, but is constantly created through the exploration of one’s identities and roles and further honed through interactions with others.

Here are some Stage 5 characteristics:

  • Nothing is black or white: Life, people, emotions, relationships are complicated and always changing. They are constantly moving along a spectrum, never just one way or another way (i.e. “I am not ‘impatient’, I’m patient in certain situations and impatient in others”).
  • We can question authority AND ourselves. We can critically examine our thoughts and beliefs as well as the systems we are a part of.
  • We contain multitudes: We are comfortable holding multiple thoughts, emotions, identities and ideologies at once. We can understand things from many different perspectives and feel many different things at once.
  • We embrace paradox: We realize that truth often resides in paradox.

Stage 5 — Creating a “fertile space” for development

This article isn’t about landing square in the middle of Stage 5 Development (I don’t know how to do this), but rather about cultivating aspects of Stage 5 thinking to practice in our everyday lives.

Stage 5 thinking is important (and something to aspire to) because it helps us engage with people and situations in a more creative and nuanced way. It creates space for more empathy and curiosity in our lives and better equips us to make thoughtful decisions about how we want to show up in the world.

According to Kegan, we need certain conditions in order to develop. These include:

Understanding our self: Constant awareness and humility

This is always true. A key ingredient to all growth and development is to be aware of what we’re thinking and feeling and how we’re behaving, and to practice humility. To put ourselves in ‘learning mode’ and acknowledge that the problems we keep coming up against are not about the world, but about us.

This means realizing that at some level we’re inadequate, we’re not fully done. We want more out of our lives and our relationships and are willing to do the work.

I write more about this in Part 2.

Note: If you’re in a relationship, it can be an important exercise to see how much your partner is committed to his/her growth and development.

Sharing our self: Honest, real conversations with people we trust

This requires:

Psychological and emotional safety

At least one source of psychological and emotional safety. This can be a person (a partner, friend, therapist) or group of people (in a retreat setting, etc.) where you feel seen and safe enough to fully express what we’re thinking and feeling without judgement. I’m not talking about sharing opinions about a movie or a daily life update. I’m talking about being able to share hard, painful and uncomfortable thoughts and feelings without being afraid of the response.

This type of safety is critical to our development because growth requires being vulnerable and owning our stories, which can often be very uncomfortable. And we need sufficient forms of support in order to continuously push our comfort zone and question our long-held thoughts and beliefs. It’s very difficult to sustain prolonged periods of discomfort without this kind of support.

Rational Discourse

According to Jack Mezirow, the founder of transformational learning theory, rational discourse is one of the keys to transformation. Mezirow defines rational discourse as having an active dialogue with others to better understand the meaning of our experience.

I love this because it demonstrates how critical deep, authentic and clear conversation with other people is to our development. We need to be able to clearly articulate our thoughts, ideas and feelings to ourselves and other people if we’re ever going to be able to question and change them. The key here is ‘active’, it’s not about stating your thoughts, but about engaging in an exploration of why you think what you do.

Transcending our self: Experiment with self-transcendent experiences

Kegan found that a disproportionate number of Stage 5 adults had dabbled in self-transcendent experiences: often beginning with psychedelics and, after that, making meditation, martial arts, and other state-shifting practices a central part of their lives.

Self-transcendent experiences (STEs) are experiences (also referred to as non-ordinary states of consciousness) where, for a brief moment, people feel lifted above their day-to-day concerns, their sense of self fades away and they feel connected to something bigger. I’ve written about self-transcendent experiences here.

Many of them described their frequent access to self-transcendent states as the “turbo-button” for their development, leading Kegan to state that transitioning to Stage 5 requires self-transcendence: where the self transcends its boundaries (the individual ego) and becomes part of something larger.

Many of us have experienced STEs. They exist along a spectrum of intensity that ranges from the routine (e.g., losing yourself in music or a book), to the intense and potentially transformative (e.g., feeling connected to everything and everyone, mystical experiences), to states in between, like those experienced by many people while meditating or taking psychedelics.

These experiences are important because they take us out of our day to day ego-driven ‘normal’ consciousness. As David Yaden, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the lead author of a recent paper in the Review of General Psychology, “The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience, writes, “When the self temporarily disappears, so too may some of these fears and anxieties.”

And this creates space for more meaningful experiences.

Where do we go from here?

Kegan’s Theory of Adult Development lays out a path for how we want to show up in the world.

Do we want to follow other people’s expectations of us, or forge our own way? Do we want to be trapped by old patterns of thinking, or create a new way of being for ourselves? Do we want to just ‘get by’ in our relationships, or cultivate deeper, more authentic connections with people in our lives?

I hope I’ve helped shed light into these stages and provided some insight into how we can transition among them.

Want more?

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Thanks so much for reading!



Natali Mallel (Morad)

I share meaningful ideas, as clearly as possible.