Monthly Archives: June 2015

Plato’s Cave

Last week, I had a conversation with a colleague who told me how difficult the first year of his new job had been.  He had asked several other faculty from his new institution for advice and then tried to teach the way they did.  “Like wearing someone else’s shoes, it didn’t quite fit,” he said.  “I had to figure out my own way of teaching the course, and I’m excited to do it again completely differently next year.”

His statement rang a bell in my mind.  I had just spent a week at Harvard’s Kennedy School on the faculty of an Executive Education program.  One of the perks of this particular program was that I could attend a number of other remarkable presentations.

Lisa Lahey of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education gave a provocative session about the development of the human mind.  Her context was to help people exercise leadership.  But her concepts apply to all of us:  educators, artists, scientists, parents, partners, etc.

Lahey and her colleague Robert Kegan have been studying how adults learn.  They have catalogued five plateaus of conscious development.  The first two are very simple.  The infant’s pre-conscious world centers on physical need.  Movement and sensation drive impulse. The mind gradually begins to understand cause and effect.  Lahey and Kegan call the second phase the instrumental mind.  A child learns boundaries, but is still fundamentally focused on satisfying the self.

The third order of consciousness is the socialized mind. Its core agenda is belonging.  A person of this mind is a team player who believes what the current society believes.  Loyal and unquestioning, in alignment with what others are asking, identity is defined by how others respond. The mind frames it in these words: “If other people think I am good, then I am good.”

The percentage of people in this order is very high, according to Lahey.  Our  educational system reinforces this level of development.  Teachers ask students to acquire facts, but not to think. Many educators find this the easiest way to teach, and they do it very well.  As long as success is measured by test scores and grades, it will be difficult for educators to do anything else.

Actors understand this order of consciousness.  Trained by school or experience to follow direction, to be easy to work with, to be scared of rocking the boat, performers are susceptible to idea that others determine their worth.  This is also the consciousness of the military, organized religion, and political life.  It is the glue that binds civilization; it is also a root cause of sectarian conflict.

Moving to the fourth level of consciousness, the self-authoring mind, is a courageous act.  You step out of your social group enough to create an inner barometer of the truth.  You separate yourself from what others want you to be and live life with your own agenda. You are no longer the passenger, but the driver, making the journey on your own terms.

This is the leap that my colleague made.  He had been functioning in the socialized mind, which was both useful and necessary — up to a point.  He is now in the self-authoring mind, aligned with his own truth.  It’s a great step, seemingly obvious, but hard won.

How interesting it would be, I wondered, if our schools were focused on this kind of development.  Of course, teachers do need to provide information.  But to encourage students to examine their beliefs, to develop a critical inner life, to question social norms — all these should be a part of our education.

The next leap is a big one. Lahey told us that the self-transforming mind is held by only two percent of the population.  A person at this level of consciousness sees the limitations of her own way of thinking and recognizes the value of other points of view.  Contradictions can co-exist. This individual understands that every action is interrelated in a complex pattern.

Lahey used the story of Plato’s Cave to illustrate this development.  In this parable, a group of people are sitting on the floor of a cave looking at their shadows on a wall.  This is their reality.  But one person turns around.  He is surprised to see a light aimed towards the wall making the shadows.  (This, incidentally, is why Plato mistrusted the theater; for him, actors were manipulators of the truth.)

Perplexed, this individual leaves the group.  He discovers a pathway leading out of the cave where he finds a totally different reality lit by the sun.  He comes back to persuade the group to turn around and leave with him.  They mock him and disregard his pleas.  They cannot open their minds to any other reality but the shadows of themselves.

How does one move from one plateau of consciousness to the next?  Until recently, prevailing theory said that the mind stops developing in mid-life.  Now, research has revealed how plastic the brain actually is.

In order to grow, consciousness needs support and challenge in equal measure. For example, the socialized mind loves clear expectations and appreciation for a job well done.  Questioning authority, evaluating one’s own performance, assuming new responsibilities, and making independent decisions stretch a person at this level.

The self-authoring mind is happiest creating its own reality.  This person thrives when recognized for acting upon her own belief system.  Seeing the limits of that system stretches this individual. Can she make space for others’ ideas? Can she identify the patterns?  Can she take responsibility for being a part of the problem?

I have heard both Lahey & Kegan speak about their hopes for world leadership.  They are optimistic that the small percentage of people at the fifth level will grow.  Would it be possible, for example, for the United States to truthfully examine its contribution to the on-going discord in the Middle East? Would it even be thinkable for us to listen when we have so demonized the other?

We don’t land on a new plateau without effort.  Nor do we stay there.  We are moving back and forth between levels in the various strands of our lives: spiritual, emotional, mental, social.  My colleague is using the self-authoring mind in his work; I’m sure that in other aspects of his life he is already headed towards the self-transforming phase.

The point is to challenge ourselves to expand.  Lahey ended her presentation with a quotation from Rumi:  “If your pitcher is small, don’t blame the ocean.”  What we can do, what we need to do, is help ourselves, and the people who surround us, become bigger pitchers.



Kegan, Robert and Lisa Laskow Lahey, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).

Kegan, Robert and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2009).