Thinking Differently About Our Development Can Facilitate Better Outcomes

For those of us interested in adult development, too often we tend to focus on stages.  In particular, we zoom in on those higher, more complex and seductive forms of maturity that presumably are waiting for us to discover their beauty, added power and desired relief. They reside “up there” in the heights of our preferred hierarchies.

Once we begin to understand development, it is easy to idealize its higher reaches. These idealizations piggyback on long histories and torrid love affairs with our deep-seated assumptions.

Our unexamined assumptions can lead us to believe that less developed equals less capable. Being less developed means we are more challenged by life’s demands;  more developed must be ‘better’.

While many of us shy away from value judgements on personal worth, our developmental assumptions—grounded in science or otherwise—find their way back into our everyday decisions. These assumptions and judgements thrive in the decisions we make about who we love, who we hire or work with, and who we surround ourselves with socially.

Implicit inside these assumptions about development is that we can be located at a specific stage of development. Thinking this way can fix us into less flexible versions of ourselves. Our ideas of who we are and where we are going can quickly lose dynamism as we idealize our gifts and focus on who we should become.

From there, an obsession with “being better” can easily consume our attention and energy. Some of us focus on deficiencies instead of strengths and talents, further fixating our self-concepts as being inadequate.

These narrow perspectives on ourselves (and each other) create an unfortunate consequence of understanding adult development. Valorizing the stages “above” where we pin ourselves and others can produce a tendency to declare ourselves to be more developed than we actually are. . We quietly ignore an inadequacy beneath the facades of confidence, instead structuring our narratives around our brightness, intelligence and assumed complexity.

On the flip side, we may be overly harsh with ourselves. No matter where we are and what we are able to accomplish, we are never good enough. We ‘need’ more development. Regardless of the emotional tone and focus of our narratives, the source of both types of distortion is our assumptions, which narrow what we are willing to experience.

The antidote to this ‘vertical pursu-itis’ is to look instead at what we call developmental range. This is different from our “center of gravity”, an abstracted normative range in which you (or others) tend to show up developmentally, but which moves us away from the specificity of our aliveness in any given moment.

Developmental range instead steers us towards specific contexts, particular behaviors and distinct skills. Instead of generalized abstractions, developmental range focuses on the immediacy of our developmental complexity in response to environmental and contextual surrounds from moment to moment. The concept of developmental range focuses us on the dynamic, relational quality of our skills and behaviors.

For those of us seeking to support more advanced competencies within  ourselves, our clients, or others that have developmental nuance and rigor, I advocate for the intimate study of reality as it is discovered in the here and now. As Freud proposed, let us abandon the fantasies of who we are for ever more intimate confrontations with reality.

If you are thinking of yourself, your clients, partner, colleagues, or family as individuals who abide in a particular stage of development, I encourage you to instead consider the realities illuminating diverse developmental ranges. Developmental complexities—and the rest of the gestalt of our identities—are always being formed and co-constructed with the dynamism of our surroundings. Once we stop enacting a dimension of ourselves, this complexity dissolves in service of enacting what is now present and center in ever-changing experiences.

This view into our micro-developmental processes invites us into more attuned understandings of how to work developmentally with ourselves as well as our clients, teams, organizations and others. While developmental range can help us hug the more intimate contours of our moment-to- moment experiences, it also helps us include the more conceptual developmental insights, which of course also hold their own partial truths.

Amidst our explorations into developmental diversity in action as immediacy, we may find a freedom from the developmental aspiration to grow up. Then we can participate with the full range of development that is available to us in any given moment.  In this way, we may become more elegant in growing “down” into refining our developmental foundations as well as “up” into our higher possibilities.

Rob McNamara
Leadership Coach & Author of The Elegant Self
Faculty & Coach, Integral Facilitator Certificate Program

Join Rob McNamara for a 12-week advanced Developmental Coaching Mastermind, starting October 2017. This is a rare opportunity for 15 coaches to be part of advanced professional coach training with Rob, where you will grow and refine your mastery as a coach, as well as focus on how you can provide rigorous, grounded and accurate developmental coaching with your clients. Click here for information and to register for the program.

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Break The Limits of Your Aspirations

Take a moment to look at the aspirations, intentions and desires fueling your day to day life. What are the problems you are working to solve? What limitations are you striving to overcome? What aims do you intend to achieve?

If you've got a piece of paper near by, take a few moments to jot them down. If not, launch the notes app on your smartphone, tablet or computer. Give yourself only a few minutes to get your various drives down. Don't think too hard and don't sensor. Just write down what you've been consumed by the past few days - perhaps the past week or so.

Get going now... .


Next, circle or bold the aspirations, goals and/or drives that are genuinely worthy of your life. The question I often ask my clients is, "Is this worth dying for?"

Ask yourself this question with each of your aspirations. Answer from the most sincere intelligence you are capable of participating with right now.

If you're like most adults, you'll see a whole bunch of activities, intentions and expenditures of your precious life force that are simply unworthy of your time, attention and energy. You have two options.

Option one: Develop an exit strategy. 


Set a limit on parts of yourself. Put a boundary into place with the culture you're immersed in. Say no to the distractions that are wasting your most precious assets. While conventional assumptions maintain that the life force, perspectives, attention, energy and time that compose you belong to you, this is a lie. It's an innocent lie, but a lie the autonomous self fabricates to bolster its sense of control, ownership and self-imposed importance.

From a vantage point beyond autonomy, peering through the eyes of elegance, these assets are on loan. We might even say they are a free gift belonging to something exquisite. Your perspective, the shape, direction and quality of your attention as well as your energy and behavior that follows from this gift is an experiment. Perhaps we may think of it as a test.

The exam of life is investigating your worthiness as a human being. 

If you're expending your precious life in unworthy aims, you're failing. Failure in this context is not something to be avoided. Rather, it is the doorway into a larger elegance that commands a life that does pass life's examination.

Our autonomous (and pre-autonomous) lives are in many ways already and always a failure. Discovering the failure is the opening of a precious opportunity. And, it is a simple as this. Peer into your greatest intelligence and ask yourself, What is ultimately worthy of your life?

What are you willing to die for? 
When you find something you are willing to die for, live for it. 

The failures, distractions and empty activities of your life are to end. Regardless of the consequences, an exit strategy is required in some cases. You simply must suffer the losses and inhabit the limitations of your finiteness. Elegance requires sacrifices my dear friends. If you don't know deep loss, you don't know the greatest gift life has to offer you.

So, find facets betraying the life that has been given to you and create your exit strategies. You'll likely need more than one.

There is a second option. It is a more sophisticated response to those items on your list that are not circled or broadened in bold text. This second option is also a necessity for human elegance. As much as our more conventional intelligence would like to clarify life such that we only engage in the most significant of activities, this isn't possible.

Life will not let you divide the sacred and the mundane. You cannot separate the unsubstantial from the significant for they are married to a union fundamental to the very fabric of existence. As such, you have an invitation for transmutation or what Freud called sublimation.

Option Two: Transmutation


You do possess the power to participate with a transformation that can join the unworthy aspirations of your lesser life to the very center of your greatest of intentions. To do so you must devote every facet of yourself without hesitation, limitation or mediation. Apply yourself completely. Do not give in. Do not give up. Press forward until your body, mind and heart unconditionally demand the fullness of your life.

For the areas that an exit strategy does not work, this is your other more sane option. Sure you can collude with culture and pretend that something has more significance than it really does. Or, you can play the "good enough" game where you comfortably settle into a life of habit. Years clip by no different than leaves falling from trees. All the while, a betrayal larger than the conventional mind can fathom unfolds.

Exit or transmute, these are doorways toward elegance. Take action now. Do not delay. Do not project your larger alignment and greater aspiration into the future. This is to distort and diffuse the potency of you. You become the betrayal of your greatest purposes.

The Dialectics of Aspiration

The last step is for you to inquire if something else should be on your list, but it isn't. If this is you, I encourage you to go big. Have few aspirations, but be possessed by elegant ones. As such, go big! Let your perspective broaden, allow your imagination to dream of a world that is qualitatively more good, true and beautiful. Then live into these unknown dimensions. Yoke them from possibility into actuality. 

In order to truly go big, to dare to be dreamed by the creative advance of novelty, you must paradoxically acclimatize to a way of functioning that is free from all aspiration. The fullness and greatness of  your vision only is gifted from you if you are capable of inhabiting your greatest freedom. Liberate from your conventional aspirations. Drop them. Let them go for a short while. Get used to the space, the sheer unbounded room of your heart. Only from this place will you come to know true aspiration. 

Take action swiftly. Be infinitely still. Reflect. Clarify. Devote all of yourself to that which is worthy of your life. Stop nowhere. Give everything. 

Rob McNamara 

Performance Coach, Psychotherapist and Professor of Developmental Psychology 


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