Your Instabilities Are a Good Thing, and So Are Other People’s

For many of us, the experience of adulthood involves what I call  “completion projects” in The Elegant Self.  Completion projects are our unexamined drives to become (or appear) more whole and complete. Because they are unexamined, they are the unseen agendas that appear to have most of us.

Adult Development expert Dr. Robert Kegan refers to what has us as that which we are subject to. This is in contrast to what we hold as objects in our experience. Objects are  what we have, or can manage as parts of our experience. On the other hand, what is subject is a pervading quality throughout all our experience.

For most of us, our completion projects are not objects in our attention but are actually part of the subjective fabric of our identities. Completion projects, in their various flavors and forms, are part of who we are that is doing the looking, thinking, deciding and acting. These projects often mediate us.  Our completion project isn’t the kind of explicit undertaking you have at work, which you can work on, then put down to go home or engage another project. For most of us, completion projects are the operative norms behind most of what we do in our waking lives.

Wholeness and completeness are intoxicating ideas.  As experiences, they become even more seductive. When we complete large initiatives in our lives, we tend to relax. Whether it’s  completing a new certificate program, getting a degree, landing a new job, or being chosen  for a key promotion, there’s a sense of finishing what has been challenging us in meaningful ways. With the validation of the completed accomplishment, our nervous systems relax as we release the gas pedal of effort and action. Once achieving a completion, there’s a sense of greater wholeness. These experiences are fleeting, but enjoyable. We expand, we feel bigger, and we hold more in our interiors as we peer upon what’s now both inside of us and behind us.

What completion projects reveal is how we weave narratives that illuminate our biases toward stability. Socially it makes sense to be predictable. We are often rewarded for being consistent. The more stable we appear, the more trust people grant us. When we present a steady and stable self, we  gain social capital. In all of these instances, the  quiet and pervading agenda to present ourselves as more whole and complete is at work.

Although our conceptions of ourselves tend to privilege wholeness, developmental research reveals we operate far from this stable, predictable self. Decades of research conducted by Kurt Fisher at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education reveals that who you are, and what you are capable of is always embedded in social, cultural and environmental contexts. These shifting surroundings change the ways you know yourself. And, changes in conditions around you shift what you can and can’t do.

This means that in reality, we are always in constant flux—despite the allure of our bias for stability. This sense of being in constant flux is heightened when we peer into our developing aptitudes. Looking at how we step into new capabilities, we’ll find that our personal and/or professional lives are often demanding that we find a different landscape. When growing new skills, our abilities need to fluctuate. Sometimes these fluctuations are dramatic. With these changes in ability, our sense of self fluctuates, While our ability to perform a given skill set can become more consistent  in varying contexts, the path of development is littered with instabilities as we vacillate between old ways of functioning and new emerging skills we likely need. While stability may be a consequence of practice, and may even be something we value highly, we ought not over-value it against instability. Because our instability is actually a sign that we are growing.

If  we are to more readily develop ourselves, we are all wise to welcome our instabilities. It may even be to our advantage to encourage and actively seek out our instabilities, because these areas may yield important developmental adaptations over time.  So it’s important to put down our completion projects and suspend the drive to consolidate identity around our competence and more fixed skill sets. We can be kinder to our own and to other people’s growing edges, where we risk  feeling inadequate, insecure and uncertain.

If you’re committed to being a more capable, compassionate and influential human being, and if you also want to support  other people to  generate more goodness, truth and beauty, then allow yourself to fall into the unknown contours of what’s next—and what’s just out of reach. Allow yourself to let go into the free fall of not being entirely certain about who you are. The rewards might just be a more elegant life for all of us.

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

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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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The 80/80 Principle




The 80/80 principle is simple. 80 percent of upper level management have higher levels of mental development. And, 80 percent of junior managers have junior levels of mental development. 

While the intersection of development and leadership is a complex topic, if we look at these findings from orbit, we can see a clear pattern. Over time higher levels of mental development outperform, outmaneuver and generate greater influence than less complex minds. More developed minds are promoted again and again. And, this pattern holds up across industries

Why? 

The simplicity beyond this highly complex issue might say something along the lines of, "Developmental complexity always increases choices." As Robert Kegan, my colleague and professor of Adult Learning and Professional Development at Harvard maintains, what one stage cannot see, presumes to be an given, and is unquestioned becomes a choice at the next stage of development.

The simplest way I teach this is to talk about babies before they are potty trained. Before, their minds cannot see their impulses to pee. Why? Because they are their impulses. When a baby has to pee, he or she pees. It's as simple as that. At the next stage of development, impulses become an object to a now more developed mind. With development comes choices. Greater choice often yields greater efficiencies whether we are talking about potty training or steering a multinational corporation. As my book The Elegant Self maintains, more developed minds are capable of more effective action. 

In light of this evidence, how are you facilitating your own mental development? How are you growing your leadership capacities in an ongoing way? And, for those of you at the top, don't get comfortable. Developmental researchers are finding youth who are accessing quite extraordinary levels of mental complexity. In some cases our up and coming star performers are achieving levels of development that took today's leadership elite 5 decades to achieve in half the time. 

Stay nimble, commit yourself to ongoing practices that yield greater mental development. Adapt or you will find yourself being passed up.  

Rob McNamara, Harvard University Teaching Fellow, author of The Elegant Self, is an expert on adult development and leadership performance. He coaches individuals world-wide to help them broaden their influence where it matters most. 

Learn more about Rob McNamara, his courses, books and coaching at www.RobMcNamara.com.

Sign up for your Free 7 Strategies to Refine your Elegance.

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Being Selfless can Betray Development

A common misconception about development beyond autonomy is that you must lose yourself or have no self.

Each transformation of mind involves a loss of a sense of self. You must after all dis-identify yourself from your autonomy if you are to go beyond autonomy. However, you never entirely lose yourself. At least not in healthy development. What I want you to know is that development always involves a discovery of a more true and sincere you. And, this truer more sincere you is a bigger self, not a smaller or non-existant self.

Peering intimately into the nature of development like I have reveals something quite different from loosing yourself. What I found is that we do not lose our autonomous selves. The opposite occurs. For the first time we can actually have our autonomous selves. No longer does autonomy's inner-sculpted identity, ideology and differentiated sense of self have you!

This is the classic developmental transformation Robert Kegan has explored in depth over the past three decades at Harvard. What was once subject (autonomoy in this case), becomes an object that can be held, managed and operated upon.

The loss of the identification with autonomous perspectives involves the gain of the autonomous self. And, in addition to possessing your autonomous self—much like how autonomy can possess and regulate the more socialized presentations of yourself—you gain a seat of identity that is more complex, more capable and, it feels more like home.

Not a bad deal, eh?

That said, many people have purchased the lie of selflessness. And it is likely betraying your ongoing development and maturation as an adult.

Many adults can be found efforting to shed their old selves. This is often energy well spent. However, without clarity of the path beyond autonomy many often mistakenly presume becoming a no-self is the way to further develop themselves. This is especially the case for individuals reading books on meditation, spiritual practices and the like emphasizing various forms of selflessness or egolessness.

Now, the idea of being selfless is a deep inquiry. We are wise to be nuanced in our distinctions here. At its superficial levels being selfless is an invitation to drop your imperial narcissism. It is an invitation to join into and take care of the people around you and the cultures you are immersed in. Sacrificing your personal needs, preferences and interests for the larger well-being of your relationships and community is a beautiful expression of selflessness. In my opinion there is no lie here. For many people these froms of selflessness qualitatively improve lives.

In deeper contours of human experience selflessness involves realizing states of consciousness where no-self is present for periods of time. Discovering a connectedness to an all pervading unity, the stabilization of a mindful state or the absorption into a variety of transcendent states are powerful and catalytic experiences. Realizing there is a part of you that has no preferences, possesses no agendas, inhabits no form, invests in no personality, and participates in no movement (what I call the self-without-form in my most recent book, The Elegant Self) is profound and liberating beyond words. And, locating this texture of selflessness in your direct experience is a game changer for most people.

However, these meditative or contemplative achievements are nonetheless states of consciousness. Developing your mind and inducing states of consciousness are two different activities exercising two different domains of you. Perhaps the most cogent and lucid voice on this matter is my friend Ken Wilber. To confuse these two is a common mistake even some of the brightest minds in human history have made. States are transient experiences, developmental stages are enduring integrative features of you.

So, while you may cultivate states where the self drops away, these are always temporary. In time the state passes and "you" along with your personality, needs, preferences and ideology return. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. That said we must look closely here. There is a lie of selflessness at play here. It says, if you just keep entering into selfless transcendent states, everything else will take care of itself. Nothing further could be true. State training is an immense gift, it's needed. But, when it gets sold as a way of living, a way of being or an aim worthy of your withdrawal from the rest of your life be cautious. States cannot ultimately sell to us what our hearts truely desire and what our world really needs from us.

While these selfless states often captivate the spiritually inclined, most adults are not spending hours a day sitting on a meditation cushion. As such, many adults find themselves trapped in different versions of this lie. For these individuals having no-self and being selfless means asserting no preferences. It may mean efforting to appear especially mindful and aware. It often takes the form of being overly accommodating. A superficial and unexamined acceptance of relationships and our surroundings parade on display to others as if we have attained some footing in humanity's great liberation. Sadly, exiling preferences, being overly easy going, failing to assert boundaries and enabling the dismemberment of human integrity as a means of avoiding conflicts are not the fruitions of our larger capabilities as a species. Instead, they obscure what I call elegance. They entrench less capable expressions of humanity. These are all lies that betray your own ongoing development.

These substitutions of selflessness are often attempts to imitate the freedom from self-attachment that elegance demonstrates. Development beyond autonomy (not states beyond autonomy!) does bring with it a freedom from autonomy. You can pick up your self-authored, inner guided autonomy and use it. Then you can put these parts of yourself down. You no longer need to defend your autonomy in the same ways as when you were identified with your autonomy. The needs of the self participating with elegance are no longer confined inside what Abraham Maslow called “deficiency needs.” “Being needs” begin to become central to the self. This means you getting your post-autonomous needs met looks very different from just about everyone else. All this is to say, elegance appears to be selfless to less developed vantage points.

And, in some ways, human elegance—our most mature stages of development—is selfless. But make no mistake my friend, the selfhood that moves with and as elegance is big. In fact, these identities are massive. They bring a whole new understanding of what it means to have a “big ego.” Elegance is not afraid of arrogance, nor does it resist deep expressions of humility. Both are free agents to the intelligences of elegance. Your elegance can and will use the full display of you to serve our world with every facet of your being. As such your larger maturity does set and maintain boundaries in powerful ways. Your larger self can accommodate, yet it can also cut through others to modify life in dramatic ways. You can assert preferences and you can let your preferences go. You do not get stuck in either strategy. A pervading acceptance of life as it is enables you to be focused entirely on you and your self-interests.

As such, do not yield to social expectations or intrapersonal manipulations to create greater cultural uniformity. Do not merely encase yourself in training states of consciousness and the excessive withdrawal from the complex demands of modern and postmodern life. And, be suspicious of agendas that attempt to negate your uniqueness, drive and aspirations. All of you, every facet of your being and what you are becoming, can participate with intelligences that transcend your autonomous self; you can and in some ways you likely must participate with elegance. In addition, we are likely to discover that we must devote absolutely all of ourselves to these larger possibilities of humanity.

Rob McNamara, Harvard University Teaching Fellow, author of The Elegant Self, is an expert on adult development and human performance. He coaches individuals world-wide to help resolve the painful and persistent limitations in their lives to become more elegant human beings.

Sign up for your Free 7 Strategies to Refine your Elegance.

Learn more about Rob McNamara, his courses, books and coaching at www.RobMcNamara.com.
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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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Mental Development Likely Impacts Gene Expression

Research conducted at the University of North Carolina and the University of California, Los Angeles, gave 80 healthy volunteers and an assessment to study the impacts of two different types of happiness.  Researchers then took blood samples to analyze the subject's white blood cells. The findings suggest your genes can tell the difference between a purpose driven life connected to serving others and a shallower more self-centered one. And, your genetic responses occur even if your self-awareness cannot distinguish between the two.

The two forms of happiness studied were hedonic and eudaemonic well-being. Hedonic happiness centers around self-indulgence, pleasure seeking and self-gratification behaviors. It is you consuming (consumption in the broadest sense of the term) what you want for your own enjoyment. In contrast, eudaemonic happiness points to how Aristotle used the term. Eudaemonia was the highest human good.  Some translate this term to mean "human flourishing." The researchers used this term to point toward happiness and well-being connected to a sense of higher purpose and service to others.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, show both forms of happiness had similar affective correlates. The experience, feelings and emotions of happiness were similar in both groups. However, when we turn our attention away from the subjective psychological findings things get very interesting. The two different forms of happiness had divergent RNA profiles.

Your RNA codes, decodes, regulates and performs other vital roles in gene-expression. In the case of hedonic happiness and well-being, surprisingly the gene-expression profiles were unhealthy. High levels of biological markers known to promote inflammation throughout the body we found. In the words of New York Time's writer Gretchen Reynolds, "Such inflammation has been linked to the development of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease." While stress-related genetic responses were up-regulated and proinflammatory genes had increased expressions, unfortunately genes-expression associated with antibody synthesis decreased.

As hedonic happiness increased stress responses throughout the body and impaired critical facets of the immune system, individuals enjoying eudaemonic happiness biologically moved in the opposite direction as stress-related genetic responses were down-regulated. Positive changes were also found in antibody gene-expressions.

From a developmental perspective, we might say the happiness and enjoyment associated with your less complex self-centered needs and desires causes some negative biological outcomes. A more complex perspective, one that intimately connects your behavior, attention and energy toward serving others and moving toward a larger collective mission rewards you at the very center of your biological source code.

While I wouldn't have suggested this while writing The Elegant Self, participating with elegance graciously rewards you on a cellular level all the way down to which facets of your DNA is up-regulated and down-regulated. And it doesn't take weeks to create this change, gene-expressions are always in an intimate conversation with your mental complexity and the environment you are interacting with. Don't wait, genetic and cellular adaptations for the better can be just moments away. Start refining your elegance now.

Rob McNamara
Author, The Elegant Self & Strength To Awaken

Want the hard science? Dive into the full article here.

Want the New York Times synopsis? Get Gretchen's article here.


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The Suspicion of Autonomy


Eye

Autonomy can be defined as the part of you who gives, authors or creates your own law. This is what the Ancient Greek translation of the term suggests. It represents an important feature of the adult mind where the authority moves from out there, outside of you in the culture, leadership and experts whom presumably have more information and experience than you do to a fallible yet more trustable inner authority.  Power shifts from outside of you to inside of you. When you begin to establish, author and create your own laws, ideologies and methodologies for directing yourself in the world, you are participating with autonomy.

This is a highly coveted ability for many adults as most can easily recall the pains of adolescence and early adulthood where an often unquestioned authority governed their actions in the world. Perhaps it was a teacher, coach, romantic partner or boss who, knowingly or unknowingly, governed your action and conduct in the world. When these are the only two basic reference points available, the only informed reasonable decision is to preserve inner directing autonomy at all costs.




Why regress back into less functional and less complex ways of being in the world? It just doesn't make sense. 

When I invite clients to be suspicious of their own autonomy, I am not encouraging them to return back to an unexamined alignment with an external authority. I am inviting them to step forward into a postautonomous way of functioning. This postautonomous move comes after autonomous functioning, it involves a more complex and thus more powerful way of functioning beyond autonomy. Suspicion of autonomy is a way for you to develop and cultivate greater developmental distance from the autonomy that likely captivates your larger power and authority as a human being. It is not a way to revert back to your less engaged ways of relating with power and authority. Nope, suspicion of autonomy is a vehicle that develops more power, more free functioning and greater authority.

For those of you who are getting all excited to have more power, more freedom and greater authority where this all resides inside of you, stop right there. This is the delusion of "more" that commonly shows up as a substitute for the legitimate development of you. Getting autonomy to be bigger is another "distortion of more" as I define it and explore in The Elegant Self. More power, greater influence and dramatic leaps forward in freedom do not belong to your autonomous self. They only show up in your postautonomous self.

Here are a couple core features of autonomy to brighten your suspicion.

1. The Preservation of Distinctness
Autonomy is in many ways a consolidation of a sense of self that is in juxtaposition to everything else. What makes you different? How are you distinct from those around you? What separates you from your surrounding culture? Autonomy naturally is invested in clarifying and articulating these boundaries. I like to think of this activity as the preservation of distinctness.

This preservation is worthy of your suspicion because distinctness breeds limitedness. If you are sincerely interested in more power, greater influence and a broader freedom commanding a larger authority you need to go beyond your distinctness to become permeable. Your subjectivity needs to be more interpenetrating with the surrounding environment, culture and relationships present. Greater permeability means more information flow. More information flow means more capacity for power and influence.

For those of you worried about becoming overly influenced by your surroundings as you loosen your defense of distinctness, you're headed in the wrong direction. Over conformity is a function of the preautonomous self, not the postautonomous self. I'm not pointing you toward the loss of your distinctness, I am just suggesting a loss of the exclusive identification with your distinctness. It's just too limited. Postautonomous functioning includes your distinctness, but is not longer limited to this way of functioning.

2. Inner Directing Governance 
You likely know this part of your autonomy really well. It is your agenda. Your schedule. Your value systems and ideology discerning what to do next and how best to do it. It is your best efforts to solve the problems you are presently facing personally and professionally. It is the inner directing authority within you that presses your will outward into your life and inward within yourself as you advocate for inner and outer change.

Being inner directed is an essential feature of adulthood. You cannot lose this functioning and remain an adult by most measures of psychological maturity. You can however lose your identification with this inner directing faculty. This enables you to retain an authority residing inside of you; however, it also frees you up to participate with larger, broader currents of aliveness that ultimately do not belong to you.

Elegance is one central facet of this postautonomous will. It is not something that can be possessed but only participated with. Sometimes it's originating source stems from deep within you. A within so profound its roots reach beyond you. Other times the originating source flowers up in your environment, culture or relationships. Sometimes it's a mixture of inner and outer life that coalesces into a force that is unwaveringly powerful. Participate with this and you'll know the kind of power and influence I point you toward.

That said, you simply will not be able to participate with this beauty or power if you are consumed by your own private autonomous agenda. Identify with your ideological drives and autonomous effort and the deeper currents of life sweep past you. This perhaps is one of the great tragedies of development, the most significant is always reserved for the most refined. As such, most adults misdirect themselves and the generations that follow. If our developmental tests are at all accurate, it is safe to assume most adults remain blind to the larger significance that surrounds them and is desperately needed.

Next time you see yourself resting exclusively upon your inner directing faculties or you see your autonomy working diligently to preserve distinctness, watch them like a hawk does its prey. Study your autonomy's movements. Assess whether it is an intentional act of your postautonomous will or if it is merely the function of habits in motion. Sometimes these are highly skillful responses in the world, other times your autonomous functioning is but a foolish gestures in the face of ultimate strategies for the advancement of humanity.

Happy hunting,
~Rob McNamara

Author, The Elegant Self & Strength To Awaken

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