Yes, Your Mind Can Grow

I want to invite you to take on a new project in your life. It’s challenging, but has big payoffs. It’s weird, but will help you get along with a wider range of people with less stress. It takes effort, but will resolve many problems you are submerged in today.

The project? Grow your mind.

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I’m going to wager that growing your mind doesn’t appear on any action lists, on your calendar, or even in your life design (if you have one). In fact, I’m going to double down and bet that this is one of the first times you’ve been invited to grow your mind. Unless, of course, you read this teaser.

There’s a reason why this is a foreign concept. Until recently, people believed that growing up ends at adulthood. As soon as you hit your full height, you might get slimmer, and you might get fatter, but otherwise you are done. The way you are at age 20 is essentially the way you’ll be at 40 and 80.

Buterfly

Or so the theory goes.

And, if you think about it, the theory works really well for people who aren’t open to developing. If you don’t like how I lead my team, the way I communicate, or how I handle conflict, tough luck. That’s how I roll.  ENTJ, thank you very much. Sure, I may change a few behaviors, but on the inside, what you see is what you get. I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam. Popeye said it in 1929, and many of us believe it today.

Sadly, the theory that growing up ends at adulthood doesn’t work well for the rest of us. Want to develop yourself in a way that resolves many issues that confound you today? According to this theory, you are screwed. The next time you will fundamentally change is when you die—and by the time that happens, you won’t be around to celebrate.

The good news is that this theory has been thoroughly rebuked. Recent advances in neuroscience and psychology tell us that adults can and do change. We may not all choose to change, and our life situations may reduce the odds, but the potential is within us.

The evidence comes in two forms. The first, neuroscience research, studies our exterior selves, the dimensions of human beings that can be studied with the five senses and their extensions (microscopes, X-Rays, MRIs, etc.)—in this case, our brains. The second evidence, adult developmental psychology, studies our interior selves, the parts of ourselves that cannot be seen by X-Rays or MRIs but only interpreted through conversation. That’s why this psychological research is based on what is on people’s minds (as understood through interviews and survey instruments) rather than what is happening in their physical brains.

If this sounds confusing, let me make things simple. The important point is that two branches of scientific research that study very different things through very different means have come to the same conclusion: adult human beings can and do grow. Witness:

  • Neuroscientists teach us that the adult mind is plastic. Our neurons (brain cells) can rewire themselves. When they do, we can gain the capacity to respond differently to life’s events. We can become more resilient, expand our repertoire, and behave skillfully in situations in which we used to struggle and or feel enormous stress. The scientific term for this human capacity is neuroplasticity. The short phrase to remember is that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” For more on this, check out the work of Sharon Begley or Daniel Siegel. For applications to leadership and organizations, good resources are David Rock and my colleague, Janet Crawford.
  • Adult development researchers, specifically in the field of constructivist developmental psychology, teach us that the adult mind can pass through anywhere from three to ten stages of development. Each of these stages is as distinct from the prior one as the teenage mind is from the mind of a 9-year-old. Yes, that big! For example, Harvard educator, Robert Kegan, makes a distinction between the Socialized Mind and the Self-Authoring Mind. Once we are in our early 20s, most of us have developed the Socialized Mind. How we view the world, what we think, and how we act, is heavily influenced by the values, expectations, and messages of others. The catch is that we aren’t aware that this is happening. It’s just how we are. Our assumptions about what to do and how to behave hold us, rather than us holding them. As Kegan writes, we are “subject” to our experience. We are in it, but we cannot see that we are in it. In contrast, over a period of years or decades, we can grow our minds into the Self-Authoring Mind. Here, we become aware of all the ways our views are influenced by others. We may still do what others want us to do, but it’s a conscious choice, rather than reflexive. Instead of our assumptions having us, we have our assumptions. If you’ve experienced this—even a little—you know how freeing it can feel. To repeat, growing from the Socialized Mind to the Self-Authoring Mind is as big a leap in complexity as growing from the 9-year-old mind to the teenage mind. For more on the research, look at the work of Bob Kegan or Susanne Cook-Greuter. For its applications to leadership and the workplace, check out the writings of Jennifer Garvey-Berger, Bill Torbert, or Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs.

Bottom line: adult human beings can and do grow.