Friday, February 21, 2014

In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, by Robert Kegan. Harvard University Press, 1994

I picked this book up after a psychologist said it was an incredible read, one that made her do a lot of thinking. She was right; Kegan presents some ideas that I’ve not encountered elsewhere. He proposed that there are stages of human development; this isn’t new, but his idea of what these stages are is new.

His five stages start with very young children in the first order; older children (about 7 to 10 years old) in the second; the third order is teenagers and the majority of adults (most never get past this stage); some adults make it to the fourth order, in which people are capable of analyzing situations and making their own decisions and are self-motivated; and the fifth order is one that almost no one makes it too and if they do, it’s as older adults. This post modern stage sees the big picture; they see the world in shades of gray and find the similarities in different systems.

Some parts of this seem obvious; we already know that babies don’t understand that things happen to things and people when the baby is not looking at them (First order); that children are pretty much in the ‘all for me’ stage (Second order); that by the time we’re in our later teens or early adulthood we (hopefully but not necessarily) understand and take into consideration other peoples (and other groups) feelings. That stage 3 people don’t create their own theories or philosophies isn’t so obvious. Most of their actions would seem to show them as fully mature adults, but he’s right: most of the people I know don’t create their own world view but adapt themselves to the philosophies of others. The 5th stage I haven’t really managed to understand; obviously, I’m not nearly there and I’m not sure I know of anyone who is. Is the 5th stage based on examples, or is it something that Kegan hopes people will eventually evolve to? Who would be considered 5th stage? The Dalai lama?

The book is dense and I found it slow going. I’m generally a fast reader but it took me nearly two weeks to finish this book. Admittedly, it’s written for graduate students and I have no degree whatsoever, but I suspect that no one would find it an easy read. It is, however, very interesting and has given me some new ways to look at people. 

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