Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

Like so many people, I had become very good at certain aspects of my work, but at the cost of distorting my personality. My family, my own sense of wholeness had paid the price, but society at large was so appreciative of the imbalance that I managed not to notice what I was doing.

– Harold Kushner in When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough

According to adult development theory, our egos continue to evolve as our growth needs, our awareness and our way of making sense of experience change. We’re not talking about the accumulation of knowledge or skills but rather the maturation of perspective–what is often called vertical development.

What I’ve been thinking about and want to share is a high-level suggestion from this school about a) why many successful, high-achieving people can still feel both unfulfilled and, in important senses, lost, and b) what they can do about it.

We overlook the essential fact that the achievements which society rewards are won at the cost of a diminution of personality.

– Carl Jung in Modern Man in Search of a Soul

The grand sweep of adult development first involves increasing levels of socialization and conformity as we align ourselves with societal assumptions, aims and norms to achieve and succeed. In fact, the resulting developmental level (in the version of the theory I best know), labeled “Achiever”, is the pinnacle of development at which education and performance management systems are aimed. Society (at least static society) has little need of further vertical development; this is the optimum mass perspective. Unsurprisingly, upwards of 80% of adults do not develop beyond this stage.

But some of us do, or at least feel the drive to. Stages beyond this are considered ‘post-conventional’ and trend toward greater differentiation. From here onward, our “story” replaces boilerplate with original text. 

This doesn’t make us morally superior people. It means that our felt disparity between who we are and what we do pushes us onward. Our disillusionment with the cost-benefit analysis of our success spurs us to ask more questions, experiment beyond current comfort zones and seek a more expansive perspective. The bits of us that have been compressed or stifled demand attention.

Transitions between stages, especially this move from the ultimate conventional stage to one ‘beyond achievement’, are often turbulent and confusing, because they involve new metrics,  lenses, and even identities. 

You wouldn’t be too far off if you envisioned a caterpillar, cocoon, and butterfly sequence. While the butterfly isn’t superior, it is likely more able to manage complexity, cope with contradiction and weather uncertainty. But the analogy is imperfect, because while the caterpillar sequence only moves in one direction, we humans can back-up from the cocoon to our caterpillar existence. 

Why would we do that? Because the discomfort of the cocoon and the uncertainty of pending butterfly life–buffeted by winds without the soothing solidity of a branch to crawl along–seem too great. They overpower our impetus forward and send us back to our old stories. For some, accepting the incongruity at Achiever stage is less painful than the prospect of pushing through to post-conventional ones.

If you, despite a track-record of achievement and success, feel discontent, confused or weary, then consider that there may be elements in you that have not benefited from the rewards you’ve garnered. They may be components of a new story, a new orientation–whether in your current professional setting or a new one. Whether you know it or not, you may be cocooning!

At crucial junctures, whether you ultimately move forward or backward from the cocoon, you should:

  • Examine your existing story (assumptions and aims). You need the help of others here, because our stories are more apparent to those around us than they are to us.
  • Use your body as well as your mind. The uncomfortable sensations in our bodies are the surest pointers to what compressed or unserved self-aspects need attention. Working with these sensations, you can also build your resilience for the discomfort of transition.
  • Recognize your own creativity and accountability. To change outcomes, you change behaviors. Behaviors rest on beliefs but also inform them. Think of beliefs as mental habits that you act on. Take ownership of your beliefs.
  • Rely on experimentation and mentorship in the reorienting of your story rather than on internally-focused mental activity. New habits, including mental ones, require perspective, conscious cultivation and repetition. This also reinforces that the reorientation is a process, not an instantaneous event.
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