14 September 2023

What is Adult Development?

When we hear the word development, we most likely think of the development of children. If you observe children or happen to be a parent yourself, you know how quick and seemingly automatically they are developing. By actively engaging with the world, children move through certain stages of development. We learn that we don’t disappear from other people’s sight when we cover our own eyes, we develop a sense of morality independent of obedience and punishment, we start controlling our impulses to trade small but instant gratifications for a larger reward at a later time (if you don’t know the Marshmallow Test, here is a lovely take on how children struggle with this). With each stage in childhood development, we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, the people and the world around us (check out this experiment that nicely illustrates the way children understand the world).

What happens when we get older? Do we stop developing once we turn 18, when society labels us as ‘adults’? The development up until this point builds a solid base for building your career or starting a family. From this point onward, we acquire more knowledge and skills – these are very important, they build our abilities. So in a way we don’t stop developing, we continuously move forward and improve in specific areas of life. Theories around adult development see it as something different though, they see adult development in the same way as children develop – in a sense of gaining insights into our inner world, our motivations, our beliefs, our values. We learn to think in more complex, systematic and interdependent ways. Adult development is not only about learning or acquiring new things, it is about changing the way we make sense of the world and ourselves.

Think back to a time when you were a bit younger, not a child, but sometime at the start of adulthood, maybe the last year of high school. Think about yourself back then. What made you stand out as a person? How did you see the world back then?
Now think about yourself right now. What makes you stand out as a person? And how do you see the world now?
You will notice that you have more flexibility now, you can cope with more different things. You see the world a little differently.

How did your view change?

Think of adult development as climbing a mountain. When we are at the foot of the mountain, our sight is quite compromised. Our view is quite self-centered. The more we walk through life with an open mind – the more we will be able to see hidden paths leading us higher up the mountain. The more challenges we master in life – the more rocks we climb over toward the mountain top. The further up the mountain we stand, the wider our view: We can see more of our surroundings, can put aspects we did not understand before into perspective, we see connections and dynamic relationships. The more we can see, the more systematic and informed, and by that the wiser, our decisions and actions.

What is it that is changing, as we develop?

Adult development theories recognise that we all actively construct our own representation of the world that we live in. The aspect that changes as we develop, is our personal way of ‘meaning-making’ – the process that we each use to make sense of, and act into, the situations we face in our lives every day. Some aspects of meaning-making are more collective and shared (at least across people from our own culture) but some are entirely unique (for example, I might find the kitchen to be untidy when two dirty plates are standing on the counter while you might think it is super tidy – after all it is only two plates). Our personal meaning-making processes are informed by the sum total of all our beliefs, values, preferences, emotional responses and personal psychological patterns – no wonder it differs from person to person!

So, let’s get back to you – how has YOUR meaning-making changed as you have grown?

Unconscious Development

Getting older itself promotes a natural and unconscious development during adulthood. However, it is not simply the years we gain, but the experiences we have that can alter our perception of the world. At any given life stage, we have our way of meaning-making – our way of making sense of the world – and this can feel quite fixed and stable. Then we go by our lives and every once in a while we encounter a new situation, usually a challenging one – a change in our job, moving to a new city, a new relationship. In order to cope with the challenge, we apply our current way of meaning-making and either we are successful with that and we continue our lives as is, or we are not, because our current way of meaning-making can no longer deal with the complexity of the situation. Now imagine you are standing at this gateway – you have a choice. You can continue to try and handle this situation the same way, but just cannot wrap your head around it; or you shift your perspective, widen your view and see another way of handling the situation. You develop a new way of meaning-making. This does not mean that you drop all that you thought you knew before, but you integrate your new perspective into your old one, slowly widening your pool of possibilities, which gives you more room to maneuver in future situations.

Try to think of a time in the last couple of years that felt developmental for you – take yourself back to that experience.
How did you change and what new perspective could you gain from this?

Sometimes these experiences just happen, and you don’t even realize that you developed. You can only see it in retrospect. In other instances, moments might feel very monumental, in a way that you can almost feel your mind shifting to include a new perspective. You might gain a new insight about yourself or the world or successfully deal with a dilemma.

Conscious Development

‘We cannot solve our current problems from the same level of consciousness used to create them’
– Einstein.

Have you ever been in a situation that was difficult for you and you were trying to make sense of it, understand it or solve it? You were consciously trying to think about ways to do so, but the problems just had so many aspects that needed to be considered that you could not hold them all in your mind at the same time, preventing you from working through them? There are capacity limits to our conscious mind, just as to our physical body. We can only carry so many things at the same time. And building our meaning-making capacity is like strengthening our mental muscles. When we physically train our body, we can carry more things at the same time, because the different muscles in our body become stronger and we can use our lungs more efficiently. When we train our mental muscles, we learn to hold more information in our mind at the same time and by that we can work with more complexity. We train our mind to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity. We adapt more quickly to new situations and can be more flexible in our ways of relating to others, building deeper and more meaningful relationships.

At shiftspace, we help you shift your mindspace deliberately, so that you can work on your problems in a targeted manner, growing your awareness and increasing your meaning-making capacity. We do so in a step-by-step procedure. First, we set an intention – we broadly bring something into our attention, something that is causing us some sort of stress or struggle and that we want to work on. Second, we pay attention – we really notice when this feeling/these cognitions/this behavior shows up. Third, we explore our observations – what happens when we pay attention? What precedes this feeling? How do I react when I feel this? What do I think? What do these feelings lead to? Fourth, we (hopefully) gain insights – what does this feeling mean, why is it there and how can I work with it? We find and form connections, leading to insights. Fifth, we run experiments – we try out new reactions, new behaviors, new perspectives and observe the differences. Many of our practices emphasise embodied, rather than purely cognitive, change – so that changes have a better chance of ‘sticking’ and becoming embedded in our day-to-day lives.

Changing our ‘meaning-making’

Development in adulthood happens through transformation – a shift in how we make sense of the world, a shift in our meaning-making. You can think of each transformation as a personal ‘Copernican shift’. Before Copericus’ declaration, we believed that the earth was at the center of the universe. Then Copernicus came along and showed that the sun was at the center of the universe. And while nothing changed physically, our entire worldview was transformed. e see adult development in much the same way – we always perceive the world through our self-constructed reality, through our way of meaning-making. Each of us, wherever we are in our development, can work on our ways of meaning-making to increase our understanding of the world and our ability to act effectively in it.

The world we live in is highly complex and ambiguous, much more so than in the time of Copernicus. We might have understood more fundamental things, like the make-up of the universe, but nowadays we have to understand infinite global interconnections, rapid technical advancements, the complexity of a pandemic and all its consequences. Our world is changing rapidly, ‘Copernican shifts’ happen everywhere and if we don’t want to constantly feel overwhelmed and overstrained, we have to keep up with it all. If we are able to develop in adulthood, we increase our capacity to make sense of our surroundings and so become more and more capable of dealing with this rapidly changing and complexifying world.

Your Capacities for ‘meaning-making’

Drawing on our research into the field of Adult Constructivist Development (and other developmental approaches), we at shiftspace have defined three important meaning-making capacities, each of which can be developed over time.

  • Our capacity for ‘Self-Relating‘ – helping us to understand and manage ourselves, making sense of our own thoughts, feelings and reactions.
  • Our capacity for ‘Perspective Shifting‘ – helping us to create a multi-faceted worldview, a kind of zooming out to understand the perspective of others and by that creating a more realistic view of a situation.
  • Our capacity for ‘Opposable Thinking‘ – helping us deal with dilemmas and tensions within and outside ourselves.

Every one situation we find ourselves in demands one or more of these capacities to function. Sometimes we don’t really know why we feel a certain way in particular situations – in this instance, our capacity for self-relating helps us to gain awareness. In another instance, somebody might be mad at us and we do not understand why – so we use our capacity for perspective shifting to understand why he or she might feel this way. Or we might find ourselves torn in a dilemma – here, we can use our capacity for opposable thinking to help us make the right choice.

At shiftspace, you learn to actively develop your meaning-making capacity and transform your understanding of yourself and the world around you. You develop your capacities to become the best version of yourself. Don’t worry, all the capacities are already in you. You just might not have developed them to their full potential. Think of these capacities as muscles in your body: they are all there, but not all of them are as strong as they could be. So, are you ready to build your meaning-making capacities?