Five Books in Five Days (3) In Over Our Heads

This week, five books that have the potential to profoundly change the way you understand yourself, others, and life.

What does it mean to live in a world in which so much shifts and changes all the time? In which we’ve undone so many of the old certainties – the certainty of authority, the certainty of religion, the certainty of our family structures, the certainty of morality? For we have, over the past century or so taken many of these apart, in many cases for good reason.

This – the way in which we are, most of us, swimming in a sea of complexity to which we have little capacity to respond skilfully – is the starting question of Robert Kegan’s monumental book ‘In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life‘.

What does it mean that we live in a society in which we are, mostly, cognitively in ‘over our heads’? And how should we respond to the onslaught of advice – about parenting, education, management, work, good living – that comes our way in the midst of it?

Kegan, a professor of at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is one of the foremost contemporary thinkers about adult development, and it should be no surprise that his response in this book is strongly developmental. It is not enough, he says, to continue responding to the world from the same frame or stock of interpretations upon which we currently rely. Bigger, more inclusive, more complex interpretations are necessary, and these always require us to develop the complexity and nuance and reach of our thinking. All of which, he argues, is a developmental task.

Kegan lays out with clarity and precision the sequential developmental stages available to all of us, with many examples and much grounded, rigorous research. And he invites us into a bold project – living and working in a way that encourages us to deepen and broaden the complexity of our minds, our capacity to respond to uncertainty, and to paradox, and to the shifting, fluid nature of our times.

Mostly, he says, we’re not addressing this in our education system (which seems bent on teaching children how to pass tests but not how to learn, how to produce but not how to think or be creative), in our management and leadership education (which is fixated on behaviours rather than on developing complexity and responsiveness of thinking and action), in politics, and in how we parent. And, while he can offer no simple or easy path for addressing all this, he has much to show us that illuminates the possibility of cultivating a deeper, more skilful, more humane way of responding to the world.

A rigorous, stretching read, blending developmental psychology and philosophy, with acute observation about our society and what ails us, I think this book is essential reading for anyone who wants a more skilful, subtle response to the world than the latest fad or management-parenting-leadership technique. And vital for any of us who want to take more responsibility for the world in which we act, whether close in or in the leadership of bigger communities and organisations.

Photo Credit: darkday. via Compfight cc

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