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Evolve Your Story, Evolve Your Life (Part 1): The Transformative Journey of Vertical Development

Updated: Apr 11

By David Cicerchi, certified Leadership Maturity Coach (Vertical Development Academy - Veda)

with advisory support from Beena Sharma, President of Veda

In this three part series, I provide a framework of meaning -- a map -- for our developmental journey into later stages of maturity. I begin by outlining the evolutionary context within which a particular developmental model – vertical development – can support you in your growth. In part 2, I describe the characteristics of conventional stages of vertical development, followed by a practice to activate that stage within you. In part 3, I will continue with the post-conventional stages, provide one such illustration of what a late-stage worldview looks like. Gentle Warning: this blog post is more complex and sophisticated than how I normally write, so I encourage you to read it carefully and take your time.

evolutionary context for meaning
What's my connection to the big story of evolution?

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PART 1 of 3: The Evolutionary Context of Vertical Development

Do you ever find yourself tired of the latest self-help program, and yearn to participate in something more significant and lasting? Do you intuit that there’s a relationship between your work and your personal life, and long to integrate them both together? Do you ever ask yourself: How does my personal or professional development connect with something larger?

One of the fascinating discoveries of the past 50 years is the scientific realization that humans develop. We aren’t just born in a static form, and as adults, our development does not stop. The term used to describe this phenomenon is Vertical Development, sometimes referred to as ego development, leadership maturity, adult development. It's an area of research advanced by Susanne Cooke-Greuter and applied through the Vertical Development Academy, led by Beena Sharma that is increasingly taking hold in the organizational leadership space. If you’re not careful, though, you may make the mistake of lumping it in with any other leadership training that is offered. In this three-part blog post, I will walk you through the transformational journey of vertical development, offering insights into its evolutionary nature and the stages that define it.

As you read this blog, notice how it makes you feel and what images or memories from your life journey come up. If you follow closely, you’ll see your own life story open up to become part of the most significant – meaning-filled, purpose driven – journey there is available to us as humans. You’ll begin to chart the unfolding of your own developmental journey and see the path open up in front of you. And I’ll show how this big story is also what animates your everyday seemingly mundane activities. Transformational coach Tony Robbins often says “change your story, change your life.” I’ll restate it by saying “evolve your story, evolve your life.”

The Evolutionary Cosmos

At its core, the field of vertical development is akin to an evolutionary map of our inner selves and points out the thoughts, feelings, and sensations within us that generate the will to act -- this sentence will make sense as you read further. To understand this, we must first acknowledge that we inhabit an evolutionary cosmos. When we think of evolution, what comes to mind? It typically conjures up images of Charles Darwin, DNA, and natural selection. While these are indeed vital aspects of evolution, they represent only a fraction of the grand narrative – biological evolution.

The true epic story of evolution begins around 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang, the moment when something emerged out of nothing. From that point onward, the underlying process of evolution has been about parts coming together to form larger more complex wholes. It commenced with subatomic particles forming protons and neutrons, which, in turn, combined with electrons to create atoms. Over billions of years, the universe unfolded, galaxies formed, stars burned, and solar systems formed, all fueled by the fundamental forces of gravity, strong and weak nuclear forces, and electromagnetism.

Then, roughly 4 billion years ago, under perfect conditions, life emerged on Earth. In this transition, parts of matter came together to create more complex wholes - single-cell life. This life form that we call a cell transcended the simplicity of the previously formed celestial bodies (stars and solar systems) by exhibiting metabolic processes and the ability to respond to its environment. The evolutionary impulse that brought matter together to form galaxies and solar systems continued to bring these parts together to form more complex wholes called life. The overall direction of evolution is the movement toward more complexity, more consciousness, and more connectivity. This same impulse lives in you and me.

Movement Toward More Complexity

As time passed, single-cell organisms advanced to multicellular life forms, paving the way for the emergence of fungi, plants, and eventually, animal life. Animal life, in turn, led to the evolution of mammals, and within this diverse branch of life, the conditions were ripe for the appearance of pre-human beings. Finally, our species, Homo sapiens, entered the stage between 80,000 and 250,000 years ago. What set us apart from other creatures on earth was our capacity for reflection. Our minds evolved to engage with and transform the world around us, thanks to the growing complexity of our brains. Again, evolution brought matter to form galaxies and solar systems, then life, and now more conscious self-reflective life.

The evolution of homo sapiens in body and mind

With opposable thumbs and an adaptable physique, we became more versatile creators. This transformation led to the rise of civilization, with hunter-gatherer societies evolving into horticultural and agrarian communities. The great wisdom traditions encoded knowledge that could be disseminated and passed down through generations, leading to large-scale human organization, even while these same traditions tended to overrun ancient indigenous and small-scale cultures. Each stage of collective human development brought both progress and disaster, as solutions to old problems gave birth to new challenges. All of this was animated by this single evolutionary drive to bring parts together to form larger, more conscious and connected wholes. It was the same drive that brought sub-atomic particles to form atoms – small groups came together to form civilizations. And it’s the same drive that lives in you and me.

A Cultural Renaissance and the Dignity of the Individual

In the grand trajectory of human history, pivotal convergences marked cultural transformations. The Renaissance in the West in the 15th century was one such convergence that we often refer to as Modernity. Out of the dark ages emerged a new worldview characterized by rationality and the scientific method. For the first time that we are aware of, humanity realized its ability to uncover objective truth through reason, rather than relying solely on divine revelation or inherited wisdom.

This revolution gave birth to the sciences, including physics, and led to a profound new understanding of how the world worked. Simultaneously, it underscored the autonomy and inherent rights of every human being – because now every human being was considered an individual agent that could discover truth for themself. The industrial revolution catalyzed a growth in technological progress. Democracy emerged as a new form of governance, state sanctioned slavery was eventually outlawed, and the belief in human rights became widespread. All these features marked monumental changes in cultural evolution of our species, but these advancements were accompanied by a dark side: the destruction of many indigenous communities and the earth, and myriad forms of violence stemming from a relentless pursuit of productivity and efficiency. The evolutionary impulse, with its light and darkness, moved toward more large-scale connectivity, complexity and consciousness. And this same impulse lives in you and me.

The Postmodern Awakening

Recognizing the unsustainable path we were on, Homo sapiens began to question their self-imposed constraints. Approximately 50 to 100 years ago, some members of Homo sapiens began to break free from the dominant narratives of civilization, capitalism, and other established norms in the western world. This postmodern revolution aimed to dismantle mainstream paradigms and embrace alternative worldviews, focusing on inclusivity and reevaluating societal norms in ways that preserved the biosphere and protected vulnerable groups. Some of the Great Traditions also caught on to this awakening and evolved their relationship to marginalized groups and the earth.

It was at the leading edge of this post-modern worldview that humans began to discover that the stages of collective cultural evolution also simultaneously unfold within individual psyches. Upon observing individuals over time, pioneering researchers such as Baldwin, Piaget, Erikson, Jane Loevinger, , and others noticed a pattern: individuals could evolve through predictable stages of development. Remarkably, these stages of individual development mirrored many of the qualities of the collective stages of human cultural evolution over the past 250,000 years. In other words, the evolution of the universe, our species, and each individual are all interrelated: It’s all part of one evolutionary process.

Vertical Development Unveiled

This discovery marked the emergence of vertical development as a field of study. While not necessarily using this language, for the first time, individuals became aware that the same process that powered biological evolution was occurring within individual and collective consciousness. This realization opened humans up to become what contemporary philosophers Barbara Marx Hubbard and Marc Gafni call conscious evolutionaries – those who can actively participate in this powerful process.

Vertical development, it appeared, follows a trajectory towards more inclusivity, uniqueness, and an increased ability to hold paradox and nuance, including the experience of both inner and outer worlds. This developmental trajectory also tends to lead to a more integrated sense of self, one less fixated on separateness and instead more intimately interconnected with a larger reality.

Philosopher Dr. Marc Gafni outlines the process as “the Four Big Bangs”. First, the big bang that birthed matter. Second, the big bang that birthed life on earth. Third, the big bang of conscious human life. And fourth, the big bang of consciously evolving human life. Each big bang is as miraculous and spectacular as the one that preceded it – even more so.

In Part 2 of this blog post, we dive deeper into the stages of vertical development in an individual, unraveling the journey from the self-centric stage to the more expansive and inclusive stages that follow, through the Unitive Stage. Please join me for an exploration of a process that just may unlock the key to the next phase of your own growth.


Work with me!

Click here for a free webinar on how I help authentic leaders create whole systems flourishing

I am certified as a Leadership Maturity Coach by Beena Sharma and Susanne Cooke-Greuter of the Vertical Development Academy. If you're interested in learning how I can coach you in your vertical development, please reach out to me at You can also find more at


For more information on the topics discussed above, click the links:

Watch my impromptu video that inspired this blog post:

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