“Permission and relief,” said a Focus Group participant from the financial services industry.   I’d asked the ladies that day to characterize transition using adjectives or single word descriptors.   She’d just been laid off from a swanky well-known firm.  She was taking a moment to think about what needed to be next for her.  The prior job and the firm’s culture never really fit her.  “I left my garage in the dark and returned in the dark.”  She went on to add, “You know when you are putting kids through private college….you know you don’t give yourself permission.”

Permission seemed to resonate with everyone in the room.  As I listened I wondered what role it played in transition?

Transition  – if you embrace Novofemina’s definition – is a process that requires us to re-examine our assumptions about identity, capacity and values.   Do we at some point grant ourselves permission to explore those assumptions?  If so what conditions need to be satisfied before we’re willing to go there?

And what happens to those women who are thrust into transition by conditions well out of their control?  Is permission still valid in that context as well?

As you can see these ladies really got me thinking.  Truth be told it tied in nicely with a piece of data that I’ve been searching for.   My hunt?  How many people actually transition?

Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, educators at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education,  offered the best data that I’ve found so far about the prevalence of transition among college educated adults in their newest book, Immunity to Change.

Up until the past decade psychologists and scientists believed that adult emotional/psychological development reached its peak at the same time as physical development.   That meant by the time we stopped growing – in height – so too our developmental capabilities reached their climax.   It didn’t mean we couldn’t mature – but it did assume that the boundaries for that maturity were in some way fixed soon after teenage growth spurts.

Kegan and others upended all of this as falsehoods.

(A bit of a disclaimer…I never studied psych in college.  My apologies if I over simplify the following.  I’m certain that I’m not doing it justice.)

Kegan and Laskow Lahey introduce three stages of adult development in their work.   Each represents an opportunity for a new way to ‘make meaning’ in one’s life.  Their data revealed that adults can ascend and plateau over the course of their lives through these stages.  Some never get beyond the initial stage.

The three are (Immunity, pg  17):

  1. the socialized mind – we are shaped by the definitions and expectations of our personal environment;
  2. the self authoring mind – we are shaped by our own belief system and its ability to self-direct, take stands, create and regulate boundaries on behalf of our own voice;  and
  3. the self transforming mind – we see the limits of our own ideology.  We’re friendlier to contradiction and opposites.



My kludgy drawing should give you a sense of the ascent and plateau rhythym.  If you’re interested a ten minute YouTube video by Kegan himself might bring it home for you.

Beyond the definitions the research’s conclusions were revealing.  For example the authors decoupled development from age.   A thirty year old could exhibit the developmental capabilities of any of the three stages (Immunity, pg. 14, Figure 1-2).  So too a person nearing retirement could still exhibit the socialized mind, or the earliest stage.

Also it seemed that not everyone transitions.  Fully 59% of college educated adults in their study achieved only the ascent to the second stage, the self authoring stage.  Never actually reaching that gate or its plateau.   Fewer than 10% reach the highest level of development.

I think permission in this context is about achieving personal important milestones of one development stage before allowing ourselves to go on to the next.

What do you think about all this?

I realize that it took a while for me to grant myself permission.  When my transition began I was searching for a new job.  Transition helped me set broader deeply personal goals.    That step alone brought energy, possibility and joy.

I wonder, are you ready to grant yourself such permission?

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