Cry. Wave arms and legs. Make eye contact. Smile. Gradually reach for things. Raise head. Roll onto tummy. Crawl. Faltering steps. First words. Walking. Asking. Phrases. Dawning sense of self as separate from others. Friendships. Reasoning. Simple descriptions of cause and effect relationships. Adjectives. Adverbs. Understanding that others have their own world, different from mine.
These developmental stages that small children go through, if nothing interrupts them, are familiar and easy to see. They take place in a predictable order, each building upon those that come before.
What’s less easy to see is that adults go through developmental stages too. Like the stages in children they are sequential, each building upon the other. But unlike those in children, they come with no guarantee. If circumstances allow, we can continue our development throughout our adult lives, finding ourselves in new orientations to ourselves and others and life itself as we go. Or we can remain over long periods of time in a more fixed, static relationship with the world.
While the developmental stages in children are easily identified by corresponding shifts in physiology or skilfulness (stronger muscles that support walking, the capacity to speak and understand), developmental changes in adults are marked most clearly by shifts in our relationship with the life in which we are living. Put most simply, each shift brings about a greater capacity to respond to the inner and outer world and lessens the hold of our reactive, habitual patterns. Or, said another way, development brings about the ability to include more and more of the complexity of the world, relate to others who might be quite different from ourselves, and act in the pursuit of what’s genuinely important rather than what feels comfortable or familiar.
In many contexts, the world of work in particular, we don’t pay very much serious attention to development. We largely think of adults as fixed – able of course to learn some new kinds of skills but not able to significantly shift our orientation to the world by opening to wider horizons and greater possibility.
It could even be said that in many contexts we actively work against the possibility of genuine development, because as we become less rigid and able to respond in more sophisticated and subtle ways to what’s happening and what’s needed, we also start to question more. Our development wakes us up first to our own wishes and longing (what’s important to me that might be different to what I was taught or from what is being asked of me now), and then to the wishes and longing of ever wider circles of concern (the communities in which I participate, the society in which I live, the wider world of which we’re all a part). Our development opens up far wider horizons for possibility and relationship while at the same time, necessarily, having us ask questions about how we’re working and how we’re living. And this kind of questioning can be unwelcome in a world of targets and measures, performance ratings and behaviour frameworks, predictability and rigid process.
It seems clear to me that our development is important, necessary even, if we are to take full responsibility for our own lives and for the organisations and projects to which we contribute.
Because unless we can develop, opening more and more to ourselves and others, we risk sleepwalking through, in thrall to our preferences and habits, doing things simply because ‘they are this way’ or because ‘I am this way’, fixed in a predictable cycle of event and reaction.