Stages of Adult Development

A couple of questions that continue to challenge me in retirement transition:

  • How can I be more like those who have learned to not care what others think and to focus on what matters just to them?
  • How can I move away from doing things because I think I should or because that’s what’s done by someone like me?

I have a (recently retired) friend who continuously challenges me to give up my “Comparative Inferiority Complex” and to just enjoy what I’m doing.  He constantly tells me he’s stopped caring what other people think or thinking he needs to do what other people do, and has focused on what he enjoys doing.  I admire his attitude.  It is so hard to give up the societal expectations I believe I hear in everyday conversation.


In considering how to be more like my friend, some recent reading on adult development lead me to Robert Kegan’s work which presents an increasing complexity of consciousness development in 5 Stages of Adult Development. He identifies that some adults never go beyond Stage 2, most are in Stage 3, and few reach Stage 5.   I’m most intrigued with Stage 4:

Quick synopsis of Kegan’s Stages of Adult Development:

Stage 1 – the Impulsive Mind It’s all about the now; what is present; I want it & I want it now. Child like behavior…and some teenagers still.
Stage 2 – the Imperial Mind It’s all about me & my needs, interests, agenda; competitive; self interest groups; care what others think b/c impacts getting my needs met; follow rules b/c fear punishment or want reward (not b/c believe in values that the rules represent); need respect.  Solidly the “teen years”, but I know of a number of adults still in this stage.
Stage 3 – the Socialized Mind It’s how it’s done; rules, regulations & norms; external societal beliefs & social expectations shape sense of self; you care about others opinions b/c others are source of validation – authority, acceptance, orientation/identity, guidance; with others it’s about mutual rewards/mutual satisfaction; feel personally responsible for others experience; relationships are reason I exist (I am me because you are you); team player; promises made/promises kept; believe in right & wrong (values)
Stage 4 – the Self-Authoring Mind I define who I am (not others definition, not societal norms); internal independent ownership of thinking/own set of values defines actions; critical questioning to understand complexity of different ideologies; self-reflective/self-discovery (this is what I stand for, this is my path); non-judgmental; self confident in own abilities; relationships are part of my world
Self-Transforming Mind Constantly changing self; interconnectedness and interdependency of everything; open to possibilities; Nirvana. (I honestly didn’t grasp the full context of this stage.)

Stage 4 is what I am searching for: do what matters to me and not care what I think others think/expect. Stop feeling guilty for not doing the “should” or what’s expected. Give up comparisons against others that lead to feeling of inferiority.

What I found even more compelling in Kegan’s work is the ideas on how-to achieve Stage 4.  (I love when there’s direction on how to do it!)

  • Spend time in self-discovery and self-reflection, defining and reshaping what you believe (your values, your beliefs), your sense of self and relationship to others.
    • Be able to articulate – this is Who I am; this is what I believe; this is what I value
    • You are what you believe you are, so create the affirmations to change your (self-limiting) beliefs if necessary.
    • Clearly determining what I think/believe so I can shift away from worry about what others think.
  • Make sure your personal actions (what plan to do/what actually do) align with values. Shift from doing things think others expect to doing things that align with the person I want to be, the values important to me.
    • Clarify what you believe are the actions associated with values. For example: If I value friendship, how do I know someone is a good friend? What defines friendship to me? And then, am I doing things that align with that?
    • You do not need to do things to prove you love someone, or anything you feel obligated to do, or to meet others expectations.   You need to do things that match what’s important to you, your values.
    • How much dissonance is there between what I say I want (vision aligned with values) and how I actually behave (activities, time & energy spent). This is looking for alignment or difference between intention (plans) and action (real behavior).

Essentially, clarify what is really important to you, then commit yourself to pursuing the activities that bring that to life and stop doing things that are not linked to what’s important.   I am hoping that my new focus this year on alignment of activities to my values will help me be less prone to worry about external expectations and validation.

This insight into adult development also supports other things I’ve been doing to break my comparative inferiority habit:

  • Recognizing we are all unique and what is right for you might not be right for me. Continuing to clarify on what is right for me through self-reflection.
  • Turning feelings of envy into admiration and inspiration. But inspiration only if what I’m admiring fits within my values, strengths, and motivations. (Like admiring my friend who doesn’t care what others think!)
  • Recognizing it’s almost always a highlight reel that I’m reacting to when making that comparison.
  • Practicing gratitude for what I do have. Create my own highlights reel!

Practice makes perfect. So I will continue to practice advancing in my adult development. And maybe someday I will be the one who is fully living my personal-values based lifestyle, self-confident in my own unique abilities, and not worrying about what others think/expect.

Do you look for external validation at this stage of your life?  Are you doing things that link to your personal values?  What stage are you in on Kegan’s Adult Development framework?


Picture Credit: Pixels and me – creating inspiring visuals for my word of the year SOAR.

24 thoughts on “Stages of Adult Development

  1. I wonder if we’re all getting later at reaching each stage? Teens act like children, 20/30yr olds act like teens, 40/50 yr olds are still in the parenting phase etc – I feel like I’m still stuck back in Stage 3 and I would really like to achieve Stage 4 too. I’m going to reassure myself that I’ll get there – but maybe a little bit later than the author assumes! Great post x Thanks for sharing this at our #MLSTL party, I’ve shared it on my social media and I hope you’ll enjoy commenting on and sharing some of the other linked posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Pat I just discovered this author and was researching his theories of the Stages of Adult Development. It is much easier said than done to change from someone who is concerned what other people think to one who doesn’t really care. That is one thing I constantly struggle with. I really enjoyed the depth of information you have provided and will be re-reading again. Thanks so much for linking up with us at #midlifesharethelove party and hope to see you next week. #MSTL.


  3. Great post! I have been working on myself and figuring out who I am and what I want out of life for the past couple of years. I think I have made it to stage four! The hard part for me is often comparison as well. It is difficult for me to trust that I am enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Michele, I too have been working on myself and this year, my goal is to stop the comparison and the “not enough”. Or at least be aware of when I’m doing it and say stop! LOL. My development is a work in progress. Not sure I’ll ever completely reach stage 4… I am so dependent on external validation. I so admire folks who have gotten there!


  4. I strive to live a purposeful, value-based life. It’s been a journey to get to this point. It’s not always easy to live this way; it sometimes means standing alone. That’s when I revisit my values to remind myself that this is exactly where I intend to be. I was educated with Erickson’s life stages (& Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). They always made sense to me. I don’t need external validation. My mom once asked me – don’t you worry about what people think? No. To which she questioned – don’t you think you should? Again, no. Is this partly a foray into Stage 2 where it’s about me? I aim to “Willie Nelson” it. Someone once said that Willie Nelson doesn’t give a sh*& in the best sense of don’t give a sh*&. That’s Stage 4 – being accountable for my own thinking and actions. Yet there are forays into Stage 3 where I’m aware of my position in a larger community. It’s an evolution of thinking, progress vs perfection. I’m reminded of an Oprah program in which she said – when someone asks (in a derogatory tone) – Who do you think YOU are? the challenge is to stand on your own 2 feet and say who you are.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mona – I admire that you do not need external validation. I’m trying very hard to eliminate that need from my life. And to be clear in who I am… not what society expects me to be… especially at this stage of life. As you say, it’s a journey. And many of these things (external validation, social expectations) take reprogramming the brain. I worked on being more positive the last 2 years, this year is about trying to know & activate against my values and be who I am. As you say – stand on my own 2 feet. Thanks for joining in the conversation!


  5. Hi Pat,
    I too am at Stage 3 with a very strong desire to get to Stage 4. Huge surprise, I know, that we are living parallel lives 🙂 Keegan’s research is in a book I own and have talked about on my blog from a different angle. The book is Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (2009) and the post, if you’re interested, is . There’s also a follow-up post where I apply immunity to change work to the topic of weight loss. It’s here –

    But I digress.

    There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll get to stage 4 and then on to stage 5 where we’ll be two of those rarefied 8%. So, to get us ready, I looked in my book for the essentials of stage 5 and how it is different from stage 4. When we burn through all the references to dialectics and ideologies, the essential difference is that in stage 4 we are relying on an internal authority that we have developed rather than worrying about other people’s expectations (Stage 3). In stage 5, the self-transforming mind, we’re able to see through even our own personal authority to recognize that it’s undoubtedly just part of the picture. So at stage 5 we get good at embracing contradictions, at as F.Scott Fitzgerald said, “hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

    One of the helpful ways Kegan describes this is to say that the stage 4 self-authoring mind has a filter so that we can sift out information that aligns with our values and can therefore be less dependent on external pressures. The stage 5 self-transforming mind also has that filter, but is not fused with it. The self-transforming mind can look AT its own filter, not just through it. The self-transforming mind both values is wary about any one stance, analysis, or agenda.

    If you want me to look up more about the how-to’s for stage 4, in case there’s more in his book, let me know. I can send you notes in an email.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Karen, sorry I missed this… it was stuck in approval mode. If you do find more how-to on getting to stage 4, please do share. I’m not going to worry about Stage 5 at all until I can figure out how to stop needing external validation and worrying about societal expectations! Small steps? No… big change required.

      Parallel lives again? Do I need to start creating art? LOL. I sill think writing is my outlet, but I will be trying on some other things this year for fun. Part of my activating mindset.


  6. After looking over the summarized stages, I would say I am mostly in Stage 4, but I see a few vestiges of Stage 3 as well. I am not sure I even understand Stage 5. Ha ha. I don’t know who your friend is, but he and I share an opinion on the subject of not caring about what other people think! I recall something that my three year old nephew used to say: “do whatever you want!” Now, there are certain provisos regarding immorality and anti-social behavior, but I guess I would assume that we all share values that would corral that sort of thing. So, within the context of positivity and helpfulness and contribution, do whatever you want and don’t worry about what other people think. You are correct. We are ALL unique individuals. This starts with our biochemistry, continues to our portfolio of life experiences and manifests itself in our choices and behaviors. The world would be a dull place if we all had the same outlook, the same interests and the same thought process. I revel in diversity because of the sheer variety that it offers to make life unpredictable, interesting and endlessly fascinating. I care what my spouse thinks. I care what our offspring think. Beyond that, everybody else can kiss my grits (so to speak). If you can find your path to this aspect of Stage 4, you will not believe the immense freedom you will feel. I wish you rapid success in achieving this goal!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bob, LOL… you are the friend I reference! You are, as you say, mostly in Stage 4. And you are aways telling me to do what I want and not worry about what other people think! I love how you added the science in above – starts with our biochemistry. 🙂

      I’m working on it – trying to not compare myself to others (happened again last night – sigh – but at least I’m recognizing it and trying to shut it down), trying to activate my values-based activities (working on trying to nderstanding why I’m not activating things). I think I’m having moments of Stage 4, like you have vestiges of Stage 3. And yeah, I don’t get Stage 5 at all!


    1. Fran – there are great tools to help with choosing activities to focus on. The S/S/C tool David mentions was one we used at work (we’re from the same MegaCorp). I love how he’s added linking in values and talents (not sure exactly how he’s putting it on paper – but I plan to play with it in the future.) Most of these tools require you to just step back and do self-refelction. Retirement hopefully allows you the time to do that! Pat


  7. This is quite an analytical and introspective model, nothing wrong with that, but not everyone will be patient enough to understand it, learn from it, use it. A few months back I wrote about a different model I thought was simpler (even though I’m a psychologist) because I identified with an element called The Forever Young Brigade, not that I am a member! You might like my description of it

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for this link. I had not looked at Epicurus or the Forever Young Brigade (will read more!) but had explored Erikson’s model. I pondered a lot about generatively from his model… an area I am personally struggling with. I also think I’m stuck at being a 12 year old inside…a psychologist might have a field day with that! What I liked about Kegan’s model info that I reviewed was some how to advance in development stages. I have not found that in anything I’ve read on Erikson’s framework. if you know of some, please let me know. I am an analytical researcher and find this stuff fascinating if you can apply it!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi, Pat – I always love your posts, and this one in no exception. I remember reading about Keagan’s Self-Transforming Minds and read that only 8% of the population ever achieve this stage. (How that is measured, I have no idea!) I agree with you that Self-Authoring is a noble goal….The Socialized Mind is so much easier/comfortable!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Donna, Is the Socialized Mind really more comfortable if you are not happy with or able to do the things that society expects? Perhaps if you are happy with and able to do, it is more comfortable. Keep in mind, societal expectations at this point include being a doting grandma, happy to be doing volunteer work, traveling as your heart desires, maybe working part-time or actively engaged in your passion area. I’m not a grandma (or a ma), am struggling with volunteering being meaningful, have had to acknowledge hubby is a homebody, and have yet to define a passion area. Net, I am failing at society expectation. I guess that’s why I felt this was so compelling for me to push towards. And yes, his data suggests that the majority of adults live their whole lives quite happily in Stage 3! Pat

      Liked by 1 person

      1. HI, Pat – Excellent (and very thought-provoking) answer! Thank you for sharing this so clearly and articulately. I definitely have more thinking to do in this area.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Pat-very interesting. I have done a stop/start/continue assessment after each year of retirement. (2015-2017) This year I did it against my values and natural talents. It was a little different twist from other assessments but seems to follow in the footsteps of what you discovered. I am not trying to make this a project in rocket science but try to identify the 1-3 things I would change each year to fully enjoy life while keeping retirement fresh.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. David, I tried the start/stop/continue assessment once and found it didn’t work that great for me. It never did at work either! I love that there are so many tools to try and see what works. This year, looking at activities vs values seems to be powerful for me. It sounds like you added that element to the S/S/C tool! Maybe I should think about that tool again… building in the values and talents components. No it’s not rocket science (I know a rocket scientist actually!), but I do think some self-reflection is helpful to (as you say) keep retirement fresh! Thanks also of sending that info on happiness. Great to hear from you. Pat


  10. Pat, this is such a thoughtful and heartfelt post. I loved it, because I, too, have gone through (continue to progress through?) what I believe to be a very similar process…without nearly as much study as you have done. Hubs and I created our own values board, with the motto, “Live Less Out of Habit, and More Out of Intent.” That said, I don’t believe we should ever completely get to the “I don’t care what others think” place. That same place is where our integrity, thoughtfulness, honesty, and a whole boatload of other character traits truly come from. And these days, I’m a firm believer in making my actions align with my values. But we must both remember that sometimes we do things we don’t really want to do because we value, for example, kindness, or compassion, or health….Sometimes “obligations” really serve another purpose. Just a thought. ~ Lynn

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lynn, I have a new activity I’m getting involved in this year that I’m struggling to align to my personal values articulation. I do think sometimes activities linking to our values isn’t that clear. Right now, “obligations” eels to me like “societal should”. Getting to the point of my values being me/mine and not what society tells me they should be has required a lot of self-reflection. Which will continue I am sure… especially if I find I enjoy this new activity that feels like a societal should. Yes, I succumbed. I have a hard time moving beyond that… still is stage 3 in adult development!


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