The Human Growth Project: In search of a grounding phenomenon

By Andres Fossas

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” – E.E. Cummings
 
Three years after leaving the U.S. military and one month after graduating college I was hired into an investment firm that focused on the buying and selling of green energy technologies. Though the firm had only just opened its doors, I was given a limited edition sports car and a $7,000 wristwatch as signing bonuses. My corporate salary easily covered all of my expenses, including an impressive bachelor pad overlooking the Washington D.C. mall and monuments. “You’ll be the youngest millionaire in the city after we close this deal,” the CEO once said. All in all, it was the opportunity of a lifetime for someone in their mid-twenties, or so I thought. Within two years I was promoted to a Director position, but within three years I quit the company.
 
Immersing myself in the corporate dream, as I had done, had been my best and most effortful attempt at following society’s instructions for living one’s life. A hefty income, an impressive title, a fancy car, the power to hire and fire, the identity of “having my shit together”—none of these ingredients, however, even when combined, granted me the joy I sought. Though I couldn’t see it yet, the tremendous work pressure, the terrible ways I came to treat people for the sake of efficiency, and the daily sacrificing of my own nascent inner values fed the wolves of greed and power within me. It all felt wrong on a visceral level—as if my heart was somehow fracturing in the process. And perhaps it did in a way. “But why?” I remember pleading with life, “I did everything I was supposed to do.” And just like that, the ground beneath which I had built my purpose and identity, simply vanished. There was no trace of energy or curiosity to apply to new jobs, to engage with the world in “business as usual”. I had betrayed myself, and for that, there were no easy answers. And as the sense of bitterness and meaninglessness grew in that post-work year, I did what any semi-sane person disenchanted with modern western society might do: I went to the east.
 
My search for a new life grounding took me first to a Buddhist monastery in Chom Tong, northern Thailand, and later to graduate study at Harvard University. I carried the confusion and aimlessness with me across the Pacific. That month of silent meditation with the monks did not lead me to replace society’s instructions for being a person with those of Buddhism, but rather it created an ineffable sense of being able to stand-on-my-own psychologically—possibly for the first time ever. A sense of fearlessness, confidence, autonomy, and what felt like a new and unusual form of love, are what I most vividly remember feeling in the meditative afterglow. There was also something odd about the conditions of the retreat that allowed more of me to emerge into the world. But what was that all about? I could not make sense of any of it—not yet. The answers came later, after changing careers to psychology and arriving at Harvard the following year.
 
My interests in happiness and meditation landed me in Daniel Gilbert’s laboratory, though my search would take me to other great minds. Early on I met George Vaillant, who was the thesis advisor to the heartful H’Sien Hayward, a PhD student whom I helped to replicate a 1970s study comparing the happiness of lottery winners and people with spinal cord injuries. I remember changing into a dry-cleaned suit in a shaded area behind the Massachusetts State Lottery building, after a sweaty 2-mile trek, to ask for their support in recruiting past lottery winners. Now and then I would help neuroscientist Sam Harris with the background research for his books, Lying, Free Will, and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion. And towards the end of my time at Harvard I interned with meditation neuroscience pioneer Sara Lazar, whom I now consider my friend. My relationships with these thoughtful human beings all touched me in different ways, but I had a hidden agenda in working with them that even I wasn’t fully conscious of at the time: to find an adequate grounding for life itself, for being human. If anyone had the answers, it was them, I thought. But the answer came from somewhere unexpected, from “left field” as they say, in the Adult Development class of Robert Kegan—a developmental psychologist I had never heard of.
 
To live well, I conjectured, meant to live in full alignment with our subjective, and evolving, human experience. But what theory or model for life could ever capture that—the way our highly complex and subtle inner experience changed over the lifespan? What theory or model was bold enough to have our subjectivity, and its evolution, as its main active ingredient? And that was precisely what Kegan’s Subject-Object Theory of human development did. And there it was: the best, or at least fullest, answer I’ve found to how we as humans can live well. It is the grounding phenomenon I had been in search of, precisely because it allows us to ground our human lives not in just another view, but in a view of how all views are formed, a story about all the stories we tell ourselves.
 
And with that, I introduce to you Perspectiva’s Human Growth Project—an initiative to explore some of the deepest issues concerning human growth, the self, and our relationship to reality. Our aim is to make human growth a topic of shared societal curiosity, initially by building the intellectual foundations to answer questions like what are we as human beings, what does it mean to grow, what can we reliably ground our lives in, and what does this all mean for society? Perspectiva’s Director Jonathan Rowson made headway on these questions in his Unrecognised Genius of Jean Piaget and ‘Beyond Consumerism’ posts (1, 2, 3, 4) and also alluded to the importance of what follows in his ‘Rediscovering the Heart of Wellbeing’. The Human Growth Project will expand on those ideas as it builds a robust and coherent model of what human growth looks and feels like.
 
I’ll end by briefly sharing what Kegan’s Subject-Object Theory taught me about my own growth. For starters, it helped me make sense of my fragmented journey when nothing else ever could—the disenchantment with society, the sense of emptiness and meaninglessness, the flight to Asia and to myself on the retreat, and then to psychology. These events were neither random nor coincidental, as I had often feared (i.e., was I just losing it?), but rather natural steps on a journey toward psychological growth that approximately one-third of adults go through. In Kegan’s theory, it is called the transition from the Socialized Mind to the Self-Authoring Mind, which involves, amongst other things, pushing back against the societal conditioning that defines who we are at one stage in order to begin defining ourselves by ourselves at the next stage. To no longer be made up by society, was, in the end, what I had been unknowingly fighting for. Even this, however, is one of several transitions on the developmental continuum, each of which I will explore more deeply in upcoming posts.

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