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Evolve Your Story, Evolve Your Life (Part 2): The Conventional Stages of Vertical Development

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

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. In part 1, I began by outlining the evolutionary context within which a particular developmental model – vertical development – can support you in your growth. In this post, I now describe the characteristics of the first four stages of vertical development, followed by a practice to activate that stage within you. 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.



Part 2 of 3: Developing Vertically - Exploring the Conventional Stages


In Part 1 of this blog post, I described the evolutionary trajectory of reality that brought us through the four big bangs: matter, life, conscious human life, and the conscious evolutionary human. We developed through stages of collective unfolding when evolution got to human life. In an individual, this correlates to what we call vertical development. What I want to convey clearly is that evolution is encoded within us, and by implication, the power of evolution -- transformation -- is as accessible to us as the air we breath.


In this post, I’ll outline each individual stage of vertical development and how we can recognize the stage in ourselves. Here it is appropriate that we ask the question: what is it that is actually developing? We call this the ego. There are many ways to describe the ego, but here we're specifically talking about the ego is the part of ourselves that interprets our experience: the storyteller. As we grow up, we tend to settle into distinct habits or ways of telling the story of who we are, what is reality, and what we’re to do in life (albeit mostly unconsciously) -- these habits are called stages of ego development or stages of vertical development. Each later stage requires us to pass through earlier stages. The stage that we operate from most of the time is considered our current stage, but we also can "peak" into later stages and "fall back" into an earlier stage at times and in certain contexts, or when we haven't fulfilled an earlier need. This is the general outline of vertical development. It's never as clean and ordered as it appears on paper, but the model can orient us to this unfolding in ourselves and serve as a compass for growth.


As I describe each of these stages in sequence, notice what feelings and thoughts come up for you and how much you resonate or relate to it in your own life -- because these are not mere abstract principles, but lived realities that you can access right now, within yourself. The stage that you resonate most strongly with is likely your current stage or the stage you’re growing into (or alternatively, an earlier stage that you haven’t fully completed in your development and really need to re-integrate. This is important to know, as it offers a clearing, a path forward, with many guides and signposts to show you the way so that today's challenges can be yesterday's lessons learned!


This is especially useful in areas where you feel overwhelmed in your life or cannot seem to keep your head above water. The next stage may be inviting your transformation.




Stage 2/3 - Self-Centric: Living the Impulse in the Here and Now


The Self-Centric stage (also called the Opportunist by developmental researcher Bill Torbert) is where our journey begins. It's the stage of immediate self-preservation and protection, focusing on "me" and my immediate circle, typically including family and close friends. This stage operates on a short-term timeframe, often dealing with the now, or at most, days and weeks ahead.


At the self-centric stage, our actions are impulse-driven and closely connected to our physical body and concrete objects. It's important to note that this isn't inherently negative; it's a fundamental aspect of our development, and actually essential that we have a healthy integration here. We all have this stage within us, and the key to vertical development is integrating every stage of our growth in its positive expression.


When this stage is not integrated, we may consistently fail to get our basic needs met -- food, security, raw power. Under stress, or when our survival feels threatened, we may occasionally fall back into aggressive or seemingly childish ways and become irrational and selfish.


So, how do we integrate the self-centric stage?


Practice to Integrate Your Healthy Self-Centric Impulse: Pause, place your hand on your belly, and ask yourself, "What do I need right now?" and take a moment to feel that impulse of what your body needs. Don't overthink it—just feel the sensations and an impulse and move toward fulfilling that need. This practice lays the foundation for understanding and harmonizing the different stages of vertical development within yourself.


The Self-Centric Stage is considered pre-conventional because a person's behavior at this stage doesn’t voluntarily adhere to societal norms. In the following section, we'll move through what we call “conventional” stages: Group-Centric, Skill-Centric, and Self-Determining. These are considered conventional because they adhere to or are constrained by societal norms of thinking and behaving.


Stage 3 - Group-Centric: Conforming to the Collective


Moving beyond the Self-Centric stage, we expand our sense of identity -- "who am I?" -- to the Group-Centric stage (also known as the Diplomat). As the name suggests, it's all about the group—be it a family, a community, a religious congregation, or even a nation. The timeframe here expands beyond the immediate present, but is still limited to the short- and medium-term, likely encompassing the cycles of a year or more.


At this stage, we discover that it's worthwhile to sacrifice our own immediate gratification for the sake of a group. It's the feeling of being embedded within a group and finding our identity there. We're drawn to participate in group activities and feel a sense of belonging. Have you ever sung with a choir or played on a sports team? That feeling of bonding with others in the group or partaking in community rituals is a clear sign of the group-centric stage within you.


You might also notice this stage when you wear clothing that symbolizes unity with a particular group or when you willingly sacrifice your immediate needs for the benefit of others or a longer-term communal goal. It's about fitting in, seeking approval, and living into the importance of the collective and our role within it.


When this stage is not integrated, we may feel perpetually left out, and sensitive to rejection in the social groups around us. As a coping mechanism, we may reject conforming to any group so as to avoid the possibility of being rejected. As a result, we feel lonely and isolated.


Practice to Integrate Your Healthy Group-Centric Impulse: Find a community where you’d be willing to sacrifice some of your immediate needs in order to belong. Join that community and lean into their norms, rituals, and ways of interacting. Allow yourself to lose yourself in the community, knowing that this community does not fully dictate or replace your individuality, but nourishes it.


Stage ¾ -- Skill-Centric: I Am What I Do


When the Group-Centric Stage can no longer fulfill the desire for meaning, or we’re inspired to stand out and be recognized for what we do as distinct from others within the group, we move into the Skill-Centric stage (also known as the Expert). Here, our identity becomes defined by what we do. While we may maintain our commitment to the group, our dedication shifts more towards mastering our craft or skill and differentiating ourselves from others in the group.


We're willing to invest time and effort in honing our expertise, often guided by recognized authorities or experts in our field. If these authorities suggest we leave our current group for another that values our skills more, we may choose to do so. This stage has a relatively short-term perspective, focusing on achieving proficiency over a few years. Those of us at Skill-Centric could join a conventional profession like a lawyer, doctor, teacher, or accountant; but even those in alternative or spiritual professions can operate from a Skill-Centric stage. Consider the priest who can recite every word from the Catholic doctrine as the best source of truth, or a Reiki healer who could tell you all about the energy meridians and philosophy behind it, without consideration of any other legitimate healing modality.


We can recognize the Skill-Centric stage within ourselves when we feel like an expert or specialist in a particular area. It’s when we confidently assert our opinions based on the established standards or ideal ways of doing things within our expertise. When we are motivated to know the right answer and be perceived as “right”, we are likely operating from this stage. At this stage, our commitment to our craft is strong, and we prioritize it alongside our commitment to the group.


When this stage is not integrated, we may feel persistently judged as inferior to those around us, or we may be overly self-critical without appreciating our unique skills. We may be unable to speak up and offer our perspective in a group, and prefer the comfort of fitting in. You may also judge others who stick out or assert their authority as being overly disruptive, dominant or arrogant.


Practice to Integrate Healthy Skill-Centric Impulse: What is a strong skill that you have? Dedicate yourself to becoming an expert in that skill, or recognize the many years of experience in one area that could be considered a craft. Find opportunities to highlight these capacities in public spaces and give yourself permission to confidently assert your legitimate authority in that area or craft.


Stage 4 – Self-Determining: Creating My Future


When we yearn to be defined by more than a narrow set of behaviors, we move into the Self-Determining stage (also known as Achiever). Here, we transcend our expertise and group affiliations, realizing that we have the power to shape our own future and achieve our desires, whether or not we’re part of a particular group. Our focus shifts from specific rules of a group or authority to principles of success dictated by societal norms.


At this stage, we’re driven to let go of traditions that slow us down and instead set and achieve our own goals, not bound by the approval or disapproval of authorities. We become adept at creating our own rules and strategies to make our visions a reality. Our time horizon extends beyond a few years, allowing us to envision and plan for a more distant future.


You can identify the self-determining stage within yourself when you’re inspired to set goals that transcend group affiliations or specific expertise. Whether you’re inspired to make a bold new idea into reality, embark on an entrepreneurial venture, or implement a fitness regimen without prior skills, you’re driven by your inner vision and the belief in your ability to make it happen.



When this stage is not integrated (and we have moved into later stages), we may deny our own agency (ability to act according to our goals), vehemently reject societal notions of success and lose touch with rationality and critical thinking. We may struggle to achieve anything and demonize those who do. We may unknowingly experience powerlessness, feeling lost or perpetually uncertain about our direction in life.


Practice to Integrate the Healthy Self-Determining Stage: Look back over the past year and write down what you’ve accomplished, and imagine what you want to do next. Write down a vision of your future that illustrates in as much detail as you can where you want to be in three years - what will you be doing, where will you be, who is around you? Then, work backward from there by writing the specific goals or milestones that you’ll need to achieve in order to succeed in realizing your vision.


As we continue to explore vertical development, remember that these stages aren't rigid categories that define "who I am" in any permanent way. Instead, they're fluid aspects of our personal growth journey – the answer to the question "who am I?" changes with each stage, even though we may not consciously realize it. Also, even though different aspects of us (e.g. cognitive, psychosexual, interpersonal) can be at different stages, our “identity” (a.k.a. ego) tends to gravitate around one stage more than others.


Note also that every action we take in our lives emerges out of a particular stage. Indeed, in Bill Torbert’s model, the stages are even called “action-logics” to emphasize that a person’s action is determined by the logic of that stage. This is why vertical development takes time, and it's also why we call moving from one stage to the next a transformation -- everything changes! It's not just a new idea or a skill that we learn -- that would be called horizontal development. It's a fundamental shift in our identity, fueled by the same process that started the Big Bang, created photosynthesis and prompted the signing of the American Declaration of Independence.


Our personal evolution is embedded into the same fabric that evolves everything.


The goal is not to get to the later stages as fast as possible; rather, vertical development is about integrating all these stages within ourselves at whatever pace allows us to respond to our inner desires and the demands placed upon us by our surroundings. As we grow, we are able to navigate life with a broader perspective and greater self-awareness. It’s not always about transforming, but about being at home in our own skin, at home in the world. In the next part of this series, we'll delve even deeper into the later stages of development, called post-conventional stages, and I'll provide an experiential glimpse from one worldview that comes out of these later stages.


 

Work with me!


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 David@evolutionaryemergencecoaching.com. You can also find more at www.verticaldevelopment.com.


 

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


Watch my impromptu video that inspired this blog post:


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