4/22 – Don’t make vertical growth your biggest completion project

Leadership Coaching Tips / April-June 2017

Rob McNamara & Lauren Tenney

Rob McNamara

Lauren Tenney

Adulthood is often marked by the drive toward “completion projects”—those big endeavors that compel us, often in unseen ways, and define the horizon of who we understand ourselves to be. It might be completing a new professional program, getting a degree, landing a new job, or being chosen for a key promotion. When we achieve a big aim like this, there’s a sense of greater wholeness. We’ve finished something that has been challenging us in a meaningful way. We’ve progressed. Our nervous systems tend to relax as we release the gas pedal of effort and action for a fleeing, but enjoyable period.

For those of us interested in adult development, this makes sense and takes on additional meaning as we notice how completion projects are also identity-forming developmental experiences.

But what happens when our ideas about development marry with our own innate drives, and development becomes a completion project itself?

Once we begin to understand development, it is easy to idealize its higher reaches.  

We can pinpoint the painful limitations of recognizable stages, and seeing them clearly, naturally long to be free of them. We study and discuss the rare and nearly un-measurable aspects of what post-post conventionality might look like. We imagine ourselves there.

In spite of believing that we ought not equate growth with goodness, we can nevertheless start to believe that less developed equals less capable. Even in subtle ways, it’s easy to follow from there into a subtle acceptance of the idea that more developed must be ‘better’.

We become possessed by the drive to develop—and our own development becomes a never-ending completion project of its own.

While there may be arguably worse completion projects in which to invest ourselves, there are decided problems and costs to living inside this narrative of unreached wholeness.

Least of which is that our ideas about development are often gross oversimplifications of a dynamic and complex process we understand far more vaguely than we’d like to think.

These oversimplifications might include the idea that people are located “at” stages. Or that we can accurately (albeit loosely) assess a person’s developmental capabilities based on their ideas, values, or cultural norms.

Maybe we relate to development as if it’s a big multi-lane highway with clear exits—a clear and discernible pathway “forward” through adulthood, with known stopping points that are waiting for us to arrive.

Maybe we smooth over key distinctions about developmental variability across different skills or domains, or we brush over the differences between individual development and cultural development. We might favor a loose but seemingly powerful narrative about development—one that is “close enough” to reality, and which serves, ultimately, to fuel the developmental completion project that has possessed us.

The costs of playing fast and loose with ideas about development in ways that subtly serve our own completion project of growth are worth paying attention to.

It can lead us to relate to ourselves as a means to the end of our own completion project. We focus on deficiencies instead of strengths and talents, fixating our self-concepts as being inadequate. Or, we might quietly ignore our own limitations, instead structuring our narratives around our brightness, intelligence and complexity. Either way, who we understand ourselves to be lacks immediacy. We lose intimacy with our own infinite variability and mystery. Instead, we become a performative data-point for our own affirmation towards our developmental completion project.

We subtlely avoid contact with the most creative and generative aspects of who we are—our struggles, vulnerabilities, limitations, and inadequacies. Imbued with an understanding of development that contains a subtle bias towards vertical growth, we can relate to our own limitations as evidence of a failure to grow, or a need to change. Possessed by ideas of what development is and isn’t, we lose curiosity for the startling and disconcerting experiences of ourselves. Our ability to be present to the immediacy of our own experience is muted by the ideas we have about what our experience means about our development.

We vastly under appreciate the essential co-creative role of context, culture, and relationship. Holding our own development as an individual completion project can lean our perception of growth towards an individualist pole. We are the one doing the growing and developing—vs. the experience that we are being dynamically grown and shaped by the interplay of all that we encounter and are in relationship with. We can invest in our own growth as if it is chiefly an individual project and process and overlook the everyday opportunities to apprentice ourselves to the relationships and environments around us.

The antidote to the seduction of a developmental completion project begins of course with curiosity about its presence and its value. To begin with, we can cultivate a curiosity about the territory beyond our ideas about development.

When is development “better”? When might it not be?

Who am I without my developmental ideas? How would I relate to others differently without my ideas about development? Who am I if much of what I know about development is inaccurate?

And going further, we can broaden the aperture of our seeing through the lens of development. Turning our attention towards both variability and range is a powerful countermeasure to the seduction of vertical growth. How do our capacities shift and adapt to changing contexts? What skills are we able to transfer from one domain to another? By paying close attention to the skills and abilities we deploy in varying contexts and different relationships we can become students of the dynamic aspect of our development, vs. the more fixed and stable aspects.

Lastly, we can edge out the temptation to look at ourselves through our developmental ideas, and instead sink into the embodied experience of reality as it co-creates with us.

What is the texture of embodied sensation when you find yourself confronted by your own instability, confusion, or anxiety? Can you explore this territory with as much curiosity and fascination as you bring to experiences of your most complex capabilities?

The point of this coaching tip is not to object to or reject developmental insights, but to engage in a creativity that expands the boundaries of our current commitments—and the ideas which possess us. Understanding development can certainly equip us with powerful tools that further our ability to contribute to our world for the better. And, if we’re truly serious about growth and well-being, we can bring an equal curiosity to how these ideas are possessing us, and what we discover when we are willing to peer beyond them.

The antidote to this ‘vertical pursuit’ 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.

Your instabilities are a good thing

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.

About the Authors

Rob McNamara is a leading expert on adult development and human performance, a developmental coach and consultant, and a faculty member with Ten Directions. Rob’s expertise includes the intersection of integral practice, adult development, human performance and integral strength training. Through his private practice in Boulder, CO, he works with a broad range of clients including executives, professionals, undergraduate and graduate students, and athletes ranging from high school to Olympic and professional world champions. Rob received his Masters in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology from Naropa University and his Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Susquehanna University. His books include The Elegant Self and Strength to Awaken.

Lauren Tenney is a Senior Consultant, Director of New Program Development and Editor in Chief at Ten Directions. She is a Certified Presence Based Coach and a Certified Integral Facilitator, and a member of the training team for Integral Facilitator programs. For the past ten years she has been immersed in the fields of human development, transformative learning, integrative systems, strategic communications and small business development. Lauren is experienced with many of today’s most innovative tools for transformation and collaboration, including: Immunity to Change, Sociocracy, Holacracy, The Natural Change Process, Evolving Worldviews, Way of Council, Cynefin Framework, Permaculture Design, Integral Theory, and Presence Based Coaching. As a facilitator and coach, Lauren supports individuals, teams and small organizations who are confronting challenges at the intersection of interpersonal dynamics, vision & mission, and process design.

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