Why do so many people “back burner” their best possibilities for changing their lives? Surely not because they are without ideas or even because they lack the wherewithal to succeed. Yet the world’s greatest novel remains unwritten, the vow to change the course of a career is honored only in the breach, and unwanted pounds continue creeping up. So what’s going on?

This conundrum of why adult development sometimes stops in its tracks has concerned Robert Kegan, professor of adult learning and professional development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, for three decades. “We don’t grow because we are protecting ourselves,” he says. “We need to understand the internal forces that make it feel too risky to grow.”

Kegan, who has been called “Harvard’s funniest lecturer” by the London Times, will share his research about adults’ “immunity to change” and why they must move beyond it to understand themselves and cope with the world they live in in a talk titled “In Over Our Heads: The Hidden Curriculum of Everyday Life,” on Thursday, March 26, at Princeton Public Library.

After graduating in 1968 from Dartmouth College with a degree in English literature (and not a single psych course), Kegan started teaching high school English and became fascinated with the making of meaning, both in literature and in life. Even more than the clash of values brought to life by the characters in the stories he was teaching, Kegan found himself fascinated by how his students made sense of their own lives. “I started to become an amateur counselor without a license,” he says.

Realizing that he was already on the path to a future in psychology, he went to Harvard University to study the psychology of mental development. In his doctoral dissertation he studied how the ways in which a group of clinically depressed people made meaning in their lives contributed to their depression.

Kegan has written four books that are, he says, “completely linked.” He started his 30-year journey by figuring out the meaning systems that people use to construct reality and make sense of the world. Next he explored how these meaning systems evolve and how different types of people — men, women, people not in the United States — make meaning. Eventually he began to discern the shape of the way every mind develops. “We all have the same organ. We all go through this journey,” says Kegan. “And the underlying structures have certain astonishing similarities.” And maybe that, he suggests, is what makes human beings a single species.

Over his career Kegan’s most significant contribution has been to move developmental psychology into adulthood. For years, psychologists linked psychological and physical development, assuming that the onset of physical maturity pretty much stopped psychological growth. Developmental psychology traditionally had encompassed the fanciful notions of infancy, the concrete thinking of children, and the more abstract thought processes of adolescents as they begin to construct values. And that’s where the tale ended. “After 15 or 20 years, you feel like your mind is fully developed and you have the basic equipment,” says Kegan. Both psychologists and brain scientists believed that the brain did not undergo any qualitative transformations after the first 20 years or so of life.

Kegan’s work, however, has contributed to a very different picture of adulthood. “You’re no taller than you were in your 20s, but through good supports and good luck, you can get psychologically taller,” he says.

Kegan suggests that the first meaning-making system that people develop, typically by late adolescence, is what he calls the socializing mind. “People develop a mindset that enables them to enter into relationships not just from a purely selfish or egotistical standpoint of what they can get out of it,” he says. Rather, they view the relationship itself as having intrinsic value.

People achieve this socializing mind by living in accord with a set of values and beliefs shared with other people — be they family, faith communities, friendship groups, or even street gangs. If the adolescent’s beliefs are in some accordance with the family’s, parents begin to breathe a sigh of relief at this stage, feeling their teenagers are trustworthy and will hold up their end of the bargain — and not just because punishment is expected.

Yet this socializing mind is no longer adequate as teens transition into adulthood and confront many, sometimes contradictory, values. If they align with one set, says Kegan, they will go crazy.

The result is that adults often find themselves in over their heads. Complicating the issue is the fact that adults usually take on a variety of social roles — intimate, long-lasting relationships with a partner; parenting roles; different forms of paid employment; and citizenship in an increasingly divided, global, and technologically linked world.

“All these roles make demands on our minds in ways that we are unaware of,” says Kegan. While reams have been written about how to successfully fill each of these roles, no one has read across these roles. “But nobody is one of these things,” says Kegan. “We are all of these things.”

Given the issues of conflicting values and multiple roles, he has focused his research on the processes whereby adults gradually evolve beyond the socialized mind to develop the mindset necessary to juggle multiple roles and succeed in modern life. The goal is to develop what he calls the self-authoring mind. “It allows you to think for yourself and makes you an internal authority, not constantly looking to others to answer complicated questions,” says Kegan.

After exploring meaning making for 20 years from the outside, as a researcher, Kegan has focused in the last decade on how to support the evolution of a self-authoring mind and how to make it happen sooner. His latest book, “Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization,” released in February and written with Lisa Laskow Lahey, focuses on how to make changes in our personal and work lives.

Change requires much more than setting goals, Kegan maintains, although that can certainly be a first step. The problem, he says, is that we fail to accomplish visible goals because we are actually succeeding at invisible ones.

For example, suppose a person sets the goal of being more proactive and entrepreneurial, but then hangs back and gets busy with other things. That’s when the self-justifications usually begin — I’m set in my ways, I don’t have the right discipline, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks — but, says Kegan, research suggests that something else is going on. “You are not failing to change because of your weaknesses. You are failing to change because you don’t realize that the behavior you’re doing — the things that run counter to your goals — are actually succeeding with other goals you’re not aware of.”

These other goals protect people from what they fear might happen if they were to actively pursue the goals they have set for themselves. Take the would-be entrepreneur. What does he or she imagine might be the result of reaching out more aggressively and, say, making cold calls? Perhaps “I won’t do a good job” or “people will see my limitations” or “ it will show I’m not up to this.” Kegan observes, “These demonstrate that in addition to a visible commitment to get more work, there is a commitment not to be exposed as a fraud.”

The person’s actual behaviors — the hanging back and busyness with other things — are not, then, a sign of an uncourageous, weak individual who is unable to be an entrepreneur, but rather protection from potential embarrassment, humility, and shame. “These behaviors brilliantly serve the goal of a commitment not to be exposed as a fraud,” says Kegan.

As people, therefore, try to pursue the goals they set for themselves, explains Kegan, they are often caught in a contradiction, with one foot on the gas and one on the brake. “The car is not going anywhere, but you also want to save your life,” he says. “You have a psychological immune system holding everything in place.”

Yet this immune system usually causes people to fail to make any lasting changes, because they are focusing on changing behaviors that are brilliantly serving another commitment. Instead, suggests Kegan, they need to look beyond the behaviors to the assumptions that govern them — which may or may not be true. Feeding the would-be entrepreneur’s tendency to hang back and stay busy with other things, for example, may be beliefs like “if you do a lousy job once, it will wipe out your social capital” or “if you fail at this, you will never get another job” or “nothing good comes from failing” or even “you’re not smart enough.”

The only way to actually make changes, then, is to go to work on these assumptions rather than the behaviors they support. “You have to design a safe-feeling experiment where you do something a little contrary to what your immune system tells you to do and see that you don’t die,” says Kegan. Visit his company’s website, mindsatwork.com, for more guidance.

Kegan grew up with two siblings in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. His father, who went to law school during the Depression, realized he could not support his family as an attorney and agreed, “temporarily,” to go into his father-in-law’s mattress business. At that time, the business’s income was about half from making new mattresses and half from refurbishing them (read: “door-to-door restuffing”). He never left the company. Good thing, adds Kegan. “He grew it into the Sealy Mattress Company.”

The newly formed Sentience Foundation, which is sponsoring the March 26 event at the library, has invited Kegan to inaugurate its speakers series, part of its long-range goal of creating the Anne Residor Learning Center for Adult Learning. The foundation is funded by money from the will of lifelong Princeton resident Arthur Warner, who died in August, 2007. Trustee Debra Lambo had read Kegan’s book “In Over Our Heads” a decade ago and sees his work as meshing with the foundation’s own goals. “Education for adults in the world we are living in needs to be a lifelong and ongoing process, particularly in times of change and tumult in our society,” says Lambo. “We are trying to create a space for adults to come together, and, with the inspiration of our speaker, to think critically and to examine ourselves and our society.”

As Kegan observes, “Adulthood is not a single phase. It is a vast expanse through which people can develop and people need to develop.”

A Lecture on How to Keep Learning as an Adult, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Thursday, March 26, 7 p.m. “In Over Our Heads: The Hidden Curriculum of Everyday Life” presented by Robert Kegan, a Harvard professor. A developmental psychologist, he will discuss his research on the need for adults to continue learning. Also an airplane pilot, Kegan is the inventor of Base Average, a comprehensive statistic for gauging a player’s offensive contributions in baseball. 609-924-9529 or www.princetonlibrary.org.

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