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Evolve Your Story, Evolve Your Life (Part 3): The Post-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 Part 2, I described the characteristics of conventional stages of vertical development, followed by a practice to activate that stage within you. In this post, I venture into the wild fascinating world of post-conventional stages, and at the end 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.

PART 3: Growing Beyond the Mainstream: Exploring Post-conventional Stages

Welcome back to our exploration of vertical development, a journey that reveals the evolutionary process embedded within each of us that shows up in distinct stages of what we call vertical development. I should note that this model is known to be the most scientifically validated and researched model, with fifty years of data from over 14,000 individuals in multiple countries. This is not just a flavor of the month idea.

Ok back to the thread of the post. So far, we've looked at how cosmic evolution manifests in human culture, and then ventured through the pre-conventional stage (Self-Centric) and three conventional stages (Group-Centric, Skill-Centric, & Self-Determining) of vertical development within an individual, each unraveling new layers of self-awareness and consciousness, and subsequently new capacities to take action in response to challenges and needs within them. Now, let's continue to explore what the stages look like when we break free from the norms of society -- otherwise known as post-conventional stages.

Stage 4/5 -- Self-Questioning: Consciously Navigating the Quest for Meaning

As we move into the Self-Questioning Stage (also known as the Individualist), we encounter a profound shift in our perspective that puts our very sense of self under the microscope. It's here that we begin to question the relentless pursuit of achievement and the belief that we can control everything through sheer effort, as exhibited in the previous stage. We start to invite more perspectives, including both non-rational and non-conventional ways of perceiving and being in the world.

At this point, self-inquiry becomes our guiding light. We open up to the depths within ourselves, asking fundamental questions: Who am I? What is my purpose? What do I truly desire? This introspective journey unveils a rich and uncharted world within our interior landscape. We reject the hegemony of convention in order to begin revealing our uniqueness.

We discover that our emotions, often seen as mere reactions to stimuli that we need to control, hold valuable insights into our past experiences and inner workings. Anger, for instance, isn’t just an emotion to suppress; anger becomes an invitation to explore its roots, potentially leading us to heal childhood experiences or fulfill unmet needs.

Our dreams may take on new significance too. We may see them as a therapeutic and imaginary playground for our minds, a place to uncover hidden patterns and themes that illuminate our lives. In this stage, we embrace many forms of non-rational knowing, opening ourselves to altered states of consciousness and meditative experiences. When at our best, curiosity is our underlying orientation.

The Self-Questioning stage marks a pivotal point in our vertical development journey. Here, we transcend conventional norms of success and question universal truths – which is why we call this the beginning of post-conventional stages. We realize that our truth may differ from others', and we embrace the idea that truths are context-dependent: “what’s right” is right for me, and what’s right for you is what’s right for you.

We know we’re operating at the Self-Questioning Stage anytime that we're questioning our socialization by society. When we're interested more in the journey than the destination, maybe when we're drawn to kind of alternative lifestyle choices that don't conform to the larger culture. Also, when we start to empathize with and seek inclusion of marginalized groups like people of color, women, and indigenous cultures. Those that are part of a marginalized group at this stage may question the dominant narrative of their group and the dominant narrative of the mainstream culture.

The Self-Questioning stage expands to incorporate the time span of our entire life until now (instead of just several years at the previous stage), with a focus on understanding our early childhood experiences and their influence on our present life and belief systems. This stage invites us to contemplate the intricate interplay between our past and our current perceptions and become open to a meaningful future. Indeed, this stage is often painful as we realize that the meaning we inherited from our culture no longer holds weight. We spend so much time deconstructing meaning -- family traditions, religious dogmas, even our beliefs in rationality or science -- that we can become nihilistic or lost. Paradoxically, this provides the clearing out of which the next stage emerges and reinfuses everything with meaning.

If we have developed beyond this stage and this stage is not integrated, we may advocate for grand narratives and so-called integrated maps that actually leave out significant perspectives from marginalized groups. We may have zero patience for "facilitated dialogue" and criticize slow collective decision-making in favor of our own vision.

Practice to Integrate a Healthy Self-Questioning Stage: Write down the objective facts of your day -- what did you do, with whom, when, where. Then write down how you feel about those facts, without trying to figure anything out -- just free-write, in a stream of consciousness way. Stay with the feelings, and write down what you’re curious about in all of this. What questions intrigue you that you wish to pursue? What are your blind spots or biases?

Stage 5 - Self-Actualizing: Embracing Deeper Principles

The Self-Actualizing (also known as the Strategist) Stage moves beyond the relativism of Self-Questioning to uncover deeper fundamental principles that govern reality. At this stage, we begin to perceive in a more sustained way the interdependence of all things and reweave meaning that is flexible enough to include diversity but constant enough to provide a meaningful integrated map of our reality. While we continue to embrace context-dependent truths that differ between cultures, we seek out cross-cultural patterns and intrinsic values that transcend diverse perspectives.

The possible ultimate meaninglessness and constant questioning of the previous stage give way to an abundance of meaning, clarity and purpose here. We start to see the patterns that connect: that spirituality and science are simply interior and exterior sides of the same coin of what it means to be human. These and many other domains are not mutually exclusive but complementary to one another. That cultures influence individual consciousness, and systems influence culture, and that there are many contributing factors to any given situation or outcome. Realizing the interdependent nature of things, we seek win-win solutions that optimize for whole complex systems.

At this stage, we begin to grasp the realization that perspectives, even though unique and subjective to each individual, are intrinsic to the universe in that every perspective has some grain of truth, even while some perspectives hold more truth than others. The realization at the Self-Actualizing stage invites us to align with underlying universal principles and explore their subtleties as they show up in individuals, cultures, and systems. Evolution is a principle of the cosmos that is real, just like an acorn becomes a sapling, which becomes an oak tree. It’s a natural hierarchy of growth. We seek mastery at this stage so we can both perceive these principles at play and facilitate alignment with them. We may seek to liberate trapped energy of whole systems or focus on the most transformative methodologies for human flourishing.

As you can start to see, it's at the Self-Actualizing Stage where the capacity for perceiving vertical development usually comes alive in a person (prior to that, a person is either uninterested or incapable of perceiving these principles). People at this stage really are all about it. Indeed, that's what vertical development is disclosing here: that there are principles of growth, and we can participate consciously with them.

Our duration of time expands as well. We can talk about genuinely leaving a legacy beyond our lifetime, and caring for multiple generations in the past and multiple generations in the future. We can genuinely perceive and care for the planet as a whole beyond "my people", "my nation", and even beyond "all of humanity", and begin to have the capacity to incorporate non-human creatures and, and non-living entities as well.

You know that you’re operating from this stage whenever you are able to really hold the paradox that everything is relative and there are absolutes. Anytime you are really excited and attracted to large integrative stories that provide a holistic map of reality that makes room for seemingly everything. So if you have an evolutionary story that you're really excited about, or an integrative worldview that clarifies and prioritizes multiple perspectives, this may reveal a Self-Actualizing Stage consciousness.

Very few people are here at this stage. Whereas the conventional stages make up 80% of the population, it is estimated that 15-20% of the population operate from these post-convention stages It can be lonely here at these later stages. You see things that other people don't, and you wonder, who am I? What's there to do? How can I participate in this? While you have a renewed clarity and sense of purpose, you're more humble at Self-Actualizing than you were at the Self-Determining stage. You’re humble and audacious at the same time because you’ve realized something so profoundly meaningful.

If you have developed past this stage and do not have it fully integrated, you may perceive the underlying worldviews that govern global complex systems, but hold a kind of existential uncertainty and nihilism about your role in it.

Practice to Integrate a Healthy Self-Actualizing Stage: Write down one belief or perspective that you hold strongly. Then write about where that belief came from – teachers, parents, society. What are the downsides to holding tightly to this belief? Now what if you believed the opposite? What could be the benefits be of the opposite stance? And finally, how could you integrate the benefits of both opposing views toward a common purpose that unites the two? What action could you take that would embrace the benefits of both perspectives and advocate for that common purpose?

Stage 5/6 - Construct-Aware: The Limitless Pursuit of Map-Making

In the Construct-Aware stage (also known as the Alchemist), we delve even deeper into the nature of reality and discover that even those deep integrative principles and purposes we hold so passionately are subject to a variety of means of interpretation. We realize that the very language, models, and stories we use to make sense of the world are abstractions of reality, not reality itself – that our perception of reality is constructed, not simply given. And while we can construct maps that are increasingly complex to try to include more of reality, the map is not the territory. At Construct-Aware, we start to see holes in our maps of reality that reveal their inherent limitations. Language itself becomes suspect and a challenge. The very act of uttering a word simultaneously reveals and conceals aspects of reality. (Furthermore, the very interpretive lens that the human body and mind has to perceive reality (as compared to a frog or a butterfly or an atom) by necessity limits reality. For example, we humans only perceive a limited range of frequencies on the light spectrum, whereas bees perceive ultraviolet light. What would it be like to see the world through a bee's eyes? Fascinating, I'm sure! Until we ran out of flowers.)

The way that we construct that map actually determines how we perceive what that map represents. For example, there are many maps of vertical development, and they use different names --- Kegan's Orders of Consciousness, Torbert's Action-Logics, O'Fallon's STAGES model -- and each one draws the lines between each stage slightly differently. Actually, if we looked closely enough and had enough evidence, we could probably say that there's 20 stages and look at the stages from different angles. We could find more and more granularity in any of our maps of meaning – it’s never ending! And we could create another map that includes all of the maps, but we’d still have more meta-maps we could create! (*At the end of this blog post, I articulate one such meta-map called Cosmo-Erotic Humanism.)

So we acknowledge the existence of multiple maps, each offering a unique perspective even of the same phenomena. It dawns on us that our constructions reveal truths while simultaneously concealing others. The ego itself, once seen as a fixed entity, appears as a dynamic construct woven into the fabric of reality.

In this stage, a renewed humility at the vast mystery of the universe softens the previous stage’s audacity at discovering deep principles that govern reality. We recognize that we are both creators and creations of our mental constructs.

At the Construct-Aware Stage, our timeframe expands yet again, potentially embracing countless generations in the past and the future. We grapple with the concept that our actions ripple through time and space, impacting the broader trajectory of evolution for centuries to come. We can look back and perceive the patterns of previous centuries and epochs (i.e. the Renaissance) that impacted us now and into the future, and how the major patterns of our current culture will impact those for centuries to come.

Practice for Cultivating Construct-Aware: Consider a map of reality that you hold dear – perhaps a developmental model like vertical development. Now, research other versions of this map of reality – for example, Robert Kegan’s Forms of Mind, Beck and Cowen’s Spiral Dynamics or James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. Look for the similarities and differences between these maps, and consider that the fundamental premise of development may not always be occurring in ways that make sense.

Alternatively, go out into nature, and find an animal. Lock eyes with it, and imagine being on the inside of that animal's experience. See if you can resonate with the experience of subjectivity that it experiences; also, imagine how might they be perceiving reality that is different from yours?

Stage 6 -- Unitive: Dancing with Paradox

The final stage that has been mapped out by Vertical Development theory, the Unitive Stage, is an enigmatic realm beyond paradox. It's a space where words fall short, and the boundary between self and the universe blurs. Here, we hold a near-infinite number of paradoxes simultaneously, and it kind of blows the mind. That’s how you know you’ve moved into this territory: your mind is blown by the infinite mystery of it all, and you settle into the direct experience of this moment.

Reality is no longer a fixed concept but a kaleidoscope of shifting perspectives and interconnected truths. Action and stillness, contemplation and activism, the material and the spiritual, all coexist without contradiction in a seamless flow of experience.

At the Unitive Stage, the past, present and future are all accessible in what futurist Richard David Hames called the expanded now. Every thought and action has a cascading effect in all directions in time and space, and those at the Unitive Stage are more predisposed to look for “acupuncture points” that ripple throughout. The theory of the morphogenetic field that is connected over space and time according to scientist Rupert Sheldrake points to this notion.

While these words offer but a glimpse into this stage, they barely scratch the surface of its profound depths – I tremble even at the idea of attempting to characterize it, as I do not embody it myself. The Unitive stage is an elusive milestone that few reach, but its mere existence reminds us of the limitless potential (or deepest actuality) within us all. In all honesty, the very act of writing this journey through the stages illuminated something of them for me -- it opened me up to a wider frame of reference. This underscores an underlying premise about vertical development: that just learning about these stages and locating them within us begins to make them more available to us. They activate latent parts of our psyche. Just by learning these distinctions, learning the map, it somehow points out potentials within ourselves, until the distinction between the map and the territory ceases to be so sharp.

As we conclude our journey through the stages of vertical development, I hope that you find inspiration to embrace your own path of growth and evolution so that you live more fully, experience your radical aliveness, and make a significant impact.

May you recognize that you have a unique role to play in the unfolding story of the cosmos, and that you you discover a journey toward wisdom, and an ever-deepening connection to the mysteries of existence.

Interested in getting a glimpse of what a late-stage map of reality looks like? Click here for my blog called Cosmo-Erotic Humanism: A Late-Stage Map of Reality.


Work with me!

I am certified as a Leadership Maturity Coach by Beena Sharma and Susanne Cooke-Greuter of the Vertical Development Academy and a Certified Unique Self Coach by Claire Molinard of the Unique Self Institute. If you're interested in learning how I can coach you through 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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