Don’t die as a caterpillar

We all know how children develop: first words, first steps, bikes with stabilisers. Then, in no time at all, they’re driving cars and off to college. But what happens after that? How do we continue to learn and grow as adults? 

Dr Robert Kegan is a developmental psychologist, author and Harvard University Professor. For years he was intrigued by how we develop as adults and identified different steps we go through (see here for more by Natali Morad). These are his five stages:

Stage 1: Impulsive mind (early childhood), stage 2: Imperial mind (adolescence), stage 3: Socialized mind (adulthood), stage 4: Self-Authoring mind (adulthood), stage 5: Self-Transforming mind (adulthood).

I’ll jump straight into stage two. This is about our personal needs and interests and how most of our relationships are transactional. We think about others, but only how they can impact our success because we really don’t care about those people. We follow rules because of the consequences, not because of our morals or values – we just don’t want to get caught. There are people on the global stage who are stuck at this level. I won’t name names. 

Stage three is about ideas and beliefs, how we’re influenced by people and context, families, society, religions and culture. We step outside of ourselves and wonder what others might think of us – validation is very important for us. Stage four is where we take a stand – forging ahead, believing in ourselves, even if those around us disagree. Our internal compass takes over. We are less concerned about fitting in with norms and we question the ideas and beliefs our family or society have placed on us in the past.

Stage five is all about letting go of our identities and roles. We question all the time, move and shift in our views about ourselves and the world. We can hold opposites and polarities at the same time so we can deal with life when it isn’t neat or clear. Most of us don’t make it all the way through to this stage. We’re just as likely to stop at stage three, because we’re still too focused on what others believe. As Kegan and colleagues put it, “other people are experienced … as sources of internal validation, orientation, or authority.” We want to be told what to think or do. 

Here is an estimate of how many of us are at each stage: Stage two (6%), stage three (58%), stage four (35%) and stage five (a tiny 1%). There is a caveat as we can be at different stages in different contexts. Stay too long over the holidays in a parental home and we may regress to an earlier stage. When we’re in flow, caring less about what others think, we may move into a higher one. We zig zag much of the time. 

As we continue to develop, what changes is not how much we learn, but how we perceive the world. We shift our understanding of our surroundings, the perspectives we take or the lenses we see through. Some of this is about stepping back and reflecting more, not being drawn in to saying, “I am this” rather than “I’m someone who sometimes does this.” It’s also about accepting things as they are so we can move on, rather than fighting the injustice and getting mired in the past. Read more about that in my post here

In addition, as Natalie writes, it’s also about what we take for granted, or not. “The more we question our beliefs, ideas, theories, etc., the better we become at navigating complexity, ambiguity and paradox — all defining characteristics of modern life. As a result, we become better partners, parents, leaders, friends.” F. Scott Fizgerald agrees: The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function” – 1936, Esquire Magazine


I’ve spoken to 100 people in my Spoon by Spoon conversations. Over time many are becoming less worried about what others think. They’re questioning norms and the beliefs and narratives that society has fed them. 

Liam worked in a management consultancy where they “hire anxious overachievers, people who really want to do a good job.” He feels this drives a culture where employees are “living in a constant state of fighting for approval in an unhealthy way. There is always someone above you telling you what to do. There’s always some perceived level of credibility or power over you.” He stepped away from this world, spending the last few years walking a radically different path. Liam has now become qualified as a psychedelic guide and therapist, questioning beliefs and ideas and navigating complexity.

Iwone is from Poland and when she was growing up she was interested in dancing, nature and gardening, but she wasn’t encouraged to pursue those interests. “I didn’t like most of the things which we studied at school, but I was able to learn how to learn and I was just doing that because it was required. I was just doing what was expected of me. I was that kind of good child.”

Iwone went on to study industrial biotechnology, partly because everyone else was taking similar courses. She stuck it out for a few years but wasn’t happy. Iwone spoke to her mother about changing her course, but as a single mum of four with no support she just couldn’t help her daughter. “It would be too much for her if I changed faculty or even university. So I just had to carry on.”

Over the years Iwone took roles that fitted her qualifications, “taking the career path which was available.” She worked for a long time in medicine regulation but now really sees “it’s not for me. I started to see that very clearly about a year ago, that I should actually go into a different direction.” Iwone is working on what’s next and having the right voices around is useful. Her boyfriend “is very, very, very supportive. I can ask him for help and whenever I take a next step, he supports meIt’s the biggest, the most important thing.”

Jinhai worked in financial services in Hong Kong but wasn’t enjoying it at all. He was influenced by colleagues and the work culture: “I felt like I had to put on an act for them. I had to be this professional guy who’s doing a good job, but at the end of the day, it’s not something that I cared too much about. I had to convince people to do certain things that I didn’t really believe in myself.”

His manager added to his challenges because “she was a micro-manager. It didn’t help she was literally right next to me. Pretty much every day from nine to seven facing your boss who’s very micromanaging. She was very hands-on and she was also a very anxious person. She definitely needed to have a lot of updates.”

Jinhai’s health was impacted by his work. “Physically I got sick quite often. Obviously, that was a trickle-down effect from how I was feeling mentally. I was stressed out. There was a lot of pressure. I wasn’t sleeping well. That definitely took a toll on me, both physically and mentally and at that point I felt I had to make a change.” Jinhai quit his job and is thinking about what’s next. The pandemic has got in the way of his career plans, but at least he’s been able to get fit and play basketball. “Exercise does play a big role on my health, both physically and mentally.”

Robert Kegan compares adult development to a caterpillar that naturally transforms into a butterfly. What he means is that we all have innate possibility to grow and learn; particularly if we worry less about what others think – forging our own paths, less constricted by expectations. The first step is to increase our awareness – be clear about how much friends, family and society set our boundaries. Once we understand this, we can stop crawling, shrug off the caterpillar skin and be free to fly away instead.


This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Why not also take a look at my latest venture: guest writer on The Room Psy. 

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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