Bridging the Gap Between Personal and Cultural Evolution


Different streams of evolution flow at their own pace. For example, the responsive movements of culture are more dynamic and exciting. By contrast, genetics develop at a rate that no human lifespan sees, with changes unfolding over the course of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. While we may see advances in editing and augmenting genes for more healthy and adaptive human beings, until now this remains only a possibility.

Meanwhile, the rate of individual development straddles the middle ground between culture and genetics. Here we see a series of personal transformations spanning throughout our childhoods, turbulent adolescences and the many diverse forms of adulthood we traverse through our lives.
The social and political currents in the United States are a perfect example of this cultural flux. For some, President Trump’s rise to power is precisely the advancement they have been hoping for. For others, the past 18 months represent a regressive backward turning of the clock.
Whatever your political orientation, it’s hard to deny the restless, even chaotic, nature of cultural change. What appears solid and stable suddenly feels fleeting. What seemed absent, or at least hidden from view, suddenly takes center stage. For some, these are the first strokes of relief that they have experienced in their lifetimes. For others, an entire life’s work, an individual’s freedom, or a family’s ability to be together can all be erased with the stroke of a presidential executive order. And while this new energy can provide hope, excitement and relief for some, these fluid movements also can invoke anxiety, panic, dread, dismay, and a vivid sense of betrayal for others.
In times of great change—for better and for worse, depending on our dispositions—it’s important to stay focused and attuned to your ongoing personal development. The integrative and adaptive structure of your adult brain and nervous system is more durable than your social contexts. Your meaning-making and what deeply matters to your heart endure more than the shifting cultural landscape around you.
Whether things are going “your way” or not in the cultural surround, you have the opportunity to craft yourself into a more effective instrument of service to what matters most to you. Making a greater impact in yourself and our world is possible for all of us right here and now. And while we tend to only root for those similar to us and our cherished orientations, it’s also important to advocate for and support the ongoing growth and development of everyone–especially for those markedly different from us.
If we believe our own culture(s) to be ‘better than’ others, our participation in these social norms can stand in as a substitute for your personal development. Identifying with some form of cultural elitism might lead us to believe we are more developed as individuals. However we define “better than” in ourselves and our like-minded tribe, and whatever failings we see in those different from us, it’s important to distinguish between individual and cultural development. These are two separate forms of evolution. When we rest on cultural development as a substitute for personal growth, we limit and fixate ourselves in ways that can keep us being capable of less.
Take, for example, the rise of postmodernity over the past 40 to 50 years. This ignited the pluralistic postmodern movement which enjoyed a ferocious march that has taken over much of mainstream media, education, business, government, and even religion.
Postmodernity advocates for “world-centric” orientations: Truth claims are always context-dependent. Respect and inclusion of diversity are important. Opportunities should be shared equally. Regardless of race, class, religion, gender and orientation, we deserve equal footing in society.
Now postmodernity and its movements are often seen as advances over modernism. This leads to a misguided assumption that identifying with postmodern worldviews automatically implies we are more personally developed than those identified with premodern or modern lifestyles and sensibilities.
While carefully crafted criteria help us track how culture evolves (and devolves), assessing personal development requires different measures. My area of expertise studies identity development which, according to developmental psychologist Dr. Robert Kegan, is defined not by the content, but the structure, of our meaning-making. In other words, the content of the culture we relate to does not signify our level of development. Person A could identify with premodern culture, Person B with postmodernity, and Person C with modernity. All three could be at the same stage of identity development. Or they could be at different stages. In fact, the person relating to postmodern culture could be the least developed. Keep this in mind because we often conflate cultural development and identity development.
I share this in light of the cultural divisions highlighted not only here in the US but around the world. Postmodern culture continues to be critical of its cultural predecessors. Some criticisms may be warranted, while others may be misguided.
Regardless of the cultures we identify with, we need to become more skilled at welcoming differences amongst–and within–ourselves. Now I’m not simply echoing some of the postmodern sensibilities around welcoming diversity. Paradoxically, many postmodern advocates are highly critical of, and condescending towards, those who don’t advance their cultural sensibilities. I’m proposing a welcoming embrace that goes beyond postmodern cultural norms.
One defining feature of identity development shows up around our relationship to cultural diversity. Adults operating in or around what Kegan calls the ‘Socialized Mind’ stage are often threatened by interpersonal differences, which the divisions thriving in the US so painfully show us. And, while many postmodern people presume they’re more developed than those at earlier stages, they still experience fear, anger, and distress when confronted by those earlier worldviews.
Our world needs leaders who have the ability to extend curiosity, compassion and unbiased interpersonal warmth into anxiety-producing differences. These qualities rest upon the more integrated brains and nervous systems found in our larger adult maturities. Regardless of our cultural orientations, greater personal development is needed.
For most of us, we require modeling from masterful exemplars who exude these more adaptive and effective skill sets. We need rigorous training to dislodge our current identities from our familiar limitations. Perhaps we all need to be immersed in ongoing challenging, yet supportive, contexts to exercise our larger aptitudes.
Only then can we become more valuable instruments for the people, systems, cultures and environments around us. If we are resolute in our noble vows and committed to our more mature and heartfelt intentions, we can become a relevant answer to the divisions threatening our world and jeopardizing our children’s futures

Regardless of our cultural orientations, liberal, conservative, postmodern, modern, or otherwise, let's come together to train rigorously. We need each other. Let's engage our differences with a more adaptive mutuality, and use our diversity to develop ourselves into more worthy instruments able to serve what we most value.

Regardless of our cultural orientations, liberal, conservative, postmodern, modern, or otherwise, let’s come together to train rigorously. We need each other. Let’s engage our differences with a more adaptive mutuality, and use our diversity to develop ourselves into more worthy instruments able to serve what we most value.

Rob McNamara
Leadership Coach & Author of The Elegant Self

Rob McNamara’s premiere developmental audio learning program, Commanding Influence: Your Development for Greater Mastery at Work, is now available. Learn More.


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