Updated: Sep 14
The human lifetime itself is a process with various phases and ups and downs which are important to understand if we are to build organizations that provide for learning and growth on a continuous basis.
The cultivation of the “whole” human being takes place over a lifetime. Unfortunately most organizations are not designed in a way that accomodates the changes that take place in the course of a human life. Instead we seem to assume that anyone over 21 is an adult, and apply fairly uniform expectations until retirement.
In a way you could say we look at life in the West as one stage. We idolize youth, and pretend that old age and death will never happen to us. Organizations tend to push and promote youth as fast as possible. But, given the demographic shifts that are pressuring the workplace to access talent, organizations are beginning to seek ways to retain older people. This tends to be done, however with little understanding of the unique perspectives, issues, values and competencies that older people present.
Perhaps the simplest way to begin understanding the developmental shifts that take place in adulthood is to divide a human life in half. Sigmund Freud popularized an interest in understanding the developmental stages of infancy and childhood. He postulated the existence of the ego, the unconscious, the id and the superego as a way of explaining how eaety life experiences impact later develoment in life. For Freud, the goal was a strong, well developed ego, strong enough to withstand the onslaughts of the id and unconscious urges.
Carl Jung focused on the other end of life. He was interested in the spiritual dimension of life and the changes that people go through as they begin to encounter the unconscious world through dreams and transpersonal experience. For Jung, the goal was a strong enough ego to withstand a transformation later in life through which a the ego is transcended and a more profound experience of Self becomes possible.
Combining these two views, we can discern a three stage view which includes a stage in which the ego is developing but not strong enough to fully deal with the pressures of life, a stage in which the ego is fully developed, but not yet challenged by the possibility of yet another level of development, and finally a stage in which the ego has become subordinated to a higher level of Self. We might call these stages childhood, the ego and power years, and the wisdom years.
Childhood years, from 0-27 through which we (hopefully) become fully functioning adults. These years are about discovering our gifts, learning skills, gathering base knowledge, and becoming competent at completing tasks, and dealing with other human beings.
Ego and “power years” from 27 – 54, during which we carry the full burden of adult responsibility as the primary drivers. These years are about production, about achievement of outcomes and the accomplishment of missions.
Wisdom years from 54 on, in which our relationship to the world of work can shift to accommodate changes in capacity, health, need, desire, and more importantly the perspective and depth that we have to offer the community of work. These years are about the cultivation of presence, of clearing away the distractions of the ego, and becoming a source of wisdom and meaning.
The Transition into Adulthood
In our adulation of youth in America, there is a strong tendency to push ever younger people into ever higher levels of responsibility. This feverish rush begins at conception as parents stress over getting their child accepted into pre-school. Although there are certainly some exceptions, in most cases, there is very little consideration of the other end of the journey, the value and requirements of older people in the wisdom years. Although the prevalence of older individuals is increasing in our population, there does not seem to be a corresponding increase in the wisdom of the leadership of our organizations whether those individuals are young or old.
There appears to be a lack of understanding of what it means to be a whole, adult, mature human being and how an individual develops over their lifetime. Jean Piaget identifies two transitions in relation to adult life. The first transition into young adulthood consists primarily of overcoming isolation and the capacity for various kinds of intimacy and commitment to lasting friendships, and mutual devotion. This transition is characterized by the development of the capacity for love. The second transition from young adulthood into adulthood is marked by the capacity for generativity, to overcome self-absorption and care for the results of one’s intimacy (for example, one’s children).
In general, the transition to adulthood is marked by two major shifts: The first is a commitment to a primary other and the second is to a social function, whether it be a job or career, or the nurturance of children. In both cases, the young adult evidences the capacity to commit, first to another person and thereby to shift their primary love investment from parents to a partner, and in the second case a commitment to a social role which serves as a vehicle for what Michael Washburn calls “the identity project”.
The commitments making up the identity project both have negative and positive motivations. Initially, the motivations are to a significant extent negative; the young adult is still troubled by feelings of nothingness and guilt and seeks through the identity project to overcome these feelings by achieving a sense of worldly being and value. In becoming an accountant, carpenter, clerk, person in relationship, mother, father, socialist, Republican, Christian, Buddhist, and so forth, the young adult achieves a sense of being someone and a sense of making a legitimate contribution or statement in the world. (1/105)
Young adulthood is thus marked by these two commitments which provide the possibility of making a place in the world. We can obtain some insight into the nature of this transition into young adulthood by considering the difficulties that arise in the transition. Carl Jung describes the problems that arise in the transition from “Childhood” to what he calls “Youth” (from puberty to age 35 or 40):
We are all familiar with the sources of the problems that arise in the period of youth. For most people it is the demands of life which harshly put an end to the dream of childhood. If the individual is sufficiently well prepared, the transition to a profession or career can take place smoothly. But if he clings to illusions that are contrary to reality, then problems will surely arise. No one can take the step into life without making certain assumptions, and occasionally these assumptions are false- that is, they do not fit the conditions into which one is thrown. Often it is a question of exaggerated expectations, underestimations of difficulties, unjustified optimism, or a negative attitude…Very often it is the disturbance of the psychic equilibrium caused by the sexual instinct: equally often it is the feeling of inferiority which springs from an unbearable sensitivity. (Carl G. Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Collected Works, Vol.8, pp. 749-795) The Portable Jung, p.9
Jung goes on to focus in on the crux of the difficulties with this shift:
If we try to extract the common and essential factors from the almost inexhaustible variety of individual problems found in the period of youth, we meet in all cases with one particular feature: a more or less patent clinging to the childhood level of consciousness, a resistance to the fateful forces in and around us which would involve us in the world. Something in us wishes to remain a child, to be unconscious or, at most conscious only of the ego; to reject everything strange, or else subject it to our will to do nothing, or else indulge our own craving for pleasure or power. In all this there is something of the inertia of matter, it is a persistence in the previous state whose range of consciousness is smaller, narrower, and more egoistic than that of the dualistic phase. (Carl G. Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Collected Works, Vol.8, pp. 749-795) The Portable Jung, p.9
Consider the prevalence of individuals in the workplace who are either in the process of making this transition into adulthood, or who have not successfully made the transition, and given their age, should have. Many workplace supervisory challenges pertaining to motivation, discipline, communication, conflict, and commitment revolve around such workers who have not yet developed the capacity for commitment to relationship and to role.
It seems, however that few organizations have put much thought into how they can support the young adult in the developing this capacity for commitment and crafting an identity project that both fulfills in the individual’s need for a sense of being and value, and the organization’s need for a reliable, disciplined workforce.
It is all too common for instance for workers to receive little if any career counseling whatsoever, and there is a strong tendency for new workers to receive an informal, negative orientation to the job, delivered by unhappy co-workers and inappropriate treatment by managers instead of a formal, positive, well thought out orientation delivered by competent managers who have carefully thought through the kind of perceptions they want new workers to have of the organization, its purpose, and the kind of behavior that is required.
There are significant exceptions to this tendency which are worth mentioning.
Uniformed professions such as the armed forces, police, and firefighters receive extensive orientation in the form of training academies and boot camps. Becoming a part of a university or profession involves a long process of training, internship, and usually, continuing education.
These models tend to result in higher levels of job satisfaction, retention, and a clarity about what it means to be an honorable and respected member of that community. The degree of investment made in such programs makes sense if viewed as a support mechanism for making it possible for a young people to craft their identity project successfully and thereby become a fully functioning member of that community of professionals.
The Middle Age Turning Point
The second major transition encompasses a wide range of tumultuous changes that take place over the second half of adult life, and we tend to lump them all together under the term “midlife crisis”. There is limited understanding of the variety, intensity, and prolonged nature of these changes and challenges, let alone their cause or strategies for addressing the challenges.
In my experience, a great deal of organizational dysfunctionality arises from the behavior of more senior employees (40+), who have risen to positions of responsibility, and therefore increased impact on the organization, whose behavior is negatively impacted in various ways by the developmental transitions they are experiencing, but which they neither understand, nor have the tools to deal with. Of this transition to middle age, Jung says:
Statistics show a rise in the frequency of mental depression in men about forty. In women the neurotic difficulties generally begin somewhat earlier. We see that in this phase of life – between thirty-five and forty an important change in the human psyche is in preparation… The very frequent neurotic disturbances of the adult years all have one thing in common: they want to carry the psychology of the youthful phase over the threshold into the so-called years of discretion… As formerly the neurotic could not escape from childhood, now he cannot escape from youth. He shrinks from the gray thoughts of approaching age, and feeling the prospect before him unbearable, is always straining to look behind him…
Is it perhaps at bottom the fear of death? That does not seem to me very probable, because as a rule, death is still far in the distance, and therefore somewhat abstract. Experience shows us rather that the basic cause of the difficulties of this transition is to be found in a deep seated and peculiar change within the psyche. In order to characterize it, I must take for comparison the daily course of the sun- but a sun that is endowed with human feeling and man’s limited consciousness. In the morning it rises from the nocturnal sea of unconsciousness and looks upon the wide, bright world which lies before in an expanse that steadily widens the higher it climbs in the firmament. In this extension of its field of action caused by its own rising, the sun will discover its significance. It will see the attainment of the greatest possible height, and the widest possible dissemination of its blessings, as its goal. In this conviction the sun pursues its course to the unforeseen zenith- unforeseen because its career is unique and individual, and the culminating point could not be calculated in advance. At the stroke of noon, the descent begins. And the descent means the reversal of all the ideals and values that were cherished in the morning. The sun falls into contradiction with itself. It is as though it should draw in its rays instead of emitting them. Light and warmth decline and are at last extinguished… Mans values, and even his body, do tend to change into their opposites.
We might compare masculinity and femininity and their psychic components to a definite store of substances of which in the first half of life, unequal use is made. A man consumes his large supply of masculine substance and has left over only the smaller amount of feminine substance, which must now be put to use. Conversely, the woman allows her hitherto unused supply of masculinity to become active. (Carl G. Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Collected Works, Vol.8, p. 749-795) The Portable Jung, p.12-16
The midlife transition appears to constitute a major reversal in psychological dynamics. The masculine tendency begins to shift to a more feminine tendency, the active to the receptive, and vice versa. Furthermore, there tends to be a marked shift in interest and emphasis in relation to the psychological functions discussed earlier. Whereas the individual, in youth and early adulthood, focuses primarily on the development and differentiation of the dominant and auxiliary functions, in midlife there is a tendency toward increased interest in the tertiary and inferior functions. This is likely a result of our inclination towards wholeness, to wish to complete ourselves.
It may also be a result of a tendency, as middle age proceeds, for the individual to begin to explore, or at least to be subjected to the contents of the unconscious. The inferior function is sometimes described as the function which presents us with our surprises, the window to the unconscious, and the function through which “the divine speaks to us”. It is also considered by Jung to be synonymous with the “shadow”, the dark side- the parts of ourselves that we have not come to grips with.
The inferior function is practically identical with the dark side of the human personality. Carl Jung, CW 9i, par. 222
This is the side of us that we deny repress, project on other people and dislike them for it. It sneaks up on us and can cause big problems. It is also the entry point to a much deeper exploration of all of our potential and the pathway to wholeness.
To the extent that a person functions too one-sidedly, the inferior function becomes correspondingly primitive and troublesome. The overly dominant primary function takes energy away from the inferior function, which falls into the unconscious. There it is prone to be activated in an unnatural way, giving rise to infantile desires and other symptoms of imbalance. This is the situation in neurosis. Frith Luton, The Inferior Function, Primary and Auxiliary Functions
In the grip of stress, the inferior function can become activated resulting in dramatic shifts in personality, perception and behavior resulting in uncomfortable and sometimes disruptive surprises. Here are synopses of the eight inferior functional types:
Inferior Extroverted Feeling ISTP, INTP: Strong, undifferentiated feelings about others tending to be black or white, easily poisoned by others, with a stubborn, “stickiness”, unable to let go of the positive or negative feeling attitude. Challenged by dealing with other people’s feelings. Emotions can sneak up and erupt when under extreme stress. Can be blunt with others even if it upsets them but feel discomfort relationships are in turmoil.
Inferior Introverted Feeling ESTJ, ENTJ: Tend to act without a clear understanding of the values that drive their action. Often out of touch with their own feeling needs, may lack control of their feelings, be unable to express feelings, may hide feelings and may be intolerant of the feeling needs of others, and have outbursts of uncontrolled emotion. Under extreme stress, feelings one does not know how to handle can be overwhelming. Get lost in pushing to get things done and lose track of where one is going and why, motivation and drive suffers resulting in listlessness.
Inferior Extroverted Thinking ISFP, INFP: Interested in an immense number of facts, can be overwhelmed by the content. Can over-intellectualize, have an excessive need for control, and be concerned over their intellectual abilities and feel inferior, viewing others as intellectually superior. This can manifest as a hypersensitivity to truth and accuracy, a quickness to detect manipulation and insincerity, and an extreme focus on evil and wrongdoing in the world. Difficulty completing tasks, procrastination, disorganization, but under stress feel a pressure to put things in order.
Inferior Introverted Thinking ESFJ, ENFJ: Motivated to understand why people do the things they do. Frustrated by people who do things that don’t make sense. Under stress tending to go in circles trying to understand a situation. Sensitive about other’s assessment of their intellectual capacity. May project this as a criticism of other’s inadequacies or perceived attempts at control.
Inferior Extroverted Intuition ISTJ, ISFJ: Capable of very powerful, even archetypal fantasies (bad omens), triggered by external events which tend to be sinister in nature and are difficult to assimilate. Often preoccupied with the negative possibilities of the external world, they appear as worriers. Plans not grounded in past experience are viewed with concern, and time is required to connect past experience with new experiences. May project blame on the environment and others.
Inferior Introverted Intuition ESTP and ESFP: May be concerned that others devalue their carefree attitude. Normally positive and confident, but under stress, the future may seem bleak and unchangeable. Fear one may be perceived as shallow or lacking in feeling or ambition. Often plan little for the future. They may brood over dark intuitions or attribute meaning to isolated incidents. Leads to worrying about something that might never even happen, but it feels inevitable at the time.
Inferior Extroverted Sensing INTJ, INFJ: Can be extremely out of touch with the world of facts and the senses, overlooking the needs and condition of the body, and can produce reports which are extremely inaccurate about which they can become very defensive if pointed out by others. Not good at making fast decisions and like to have time to think. Try not to overindulge. But under stress tend to binge with junk food, television, and or shopping.
Inferior Introverted Sensing ENTP, ENFP: Needing to see things from afar, they tend to be unpunctual and vague. Not very good with details, but under a lot of stress, tend to get over focused on details. Excessively picky and want to do everything just right. Often out of touch with their physical condition can overlook exhaustion and may miss opportunity through a lack of persistent follow through.
Although an individual can work on their inferior function early in life, full engagement with the inferior function is more likely in the second half of life after the dominant and auxiliary functions have been fully exercised through the identity project. As such, the inferior function often becomes increasingly interesting in middle age as the individual seeks wholeness and to work through the issues that have played out as major themes in their lives. The inferior function thus presents both an opportunity to resolve long standing weaknesses, but also an opportunity for exploration as the inferior function is often invested with a sense of the mystical or mysterious.
This extended development possible in middle life may not become a reality for many individuals, often because they are not aware of the possibility, but more likely because the investigation of the inferior function and the unconscious elements that are related to it, represents a significant change in direction, away from the familiar, and into the unknown.
Michael Washburn, in his transpersonal synthesis of the work of Freud and Jung, presents a fascinating overview of human development, focusing particularly on the development of the ego in relation to what he calls the “dynamic ground”. His work explains why so few people adventure into the realm of the unconscious, inferior function territory. Washburn explains that the challenges experienced in midlife are a direct result of the very mechanisms required for the formation of the ego in the first place. Prior to the establishment of the mental ego, the child is immersed in and not differentiated from what Washburn calls the “dynamic ground”. Dynamic ground is Washburn’s term for “pre-egoic potentials, the energies which fuel all psychic processes, what Freud called the unconscious and the id, and what Jung called the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. It might also be what is referred to in the great spiritual traditions of the world as “spirit”.
According to Washburn, the child’s emerging ego cannot survive the power of the dynamic ground and protects itself through “primal repression” through which it separates its “self” from the powerful forces of the dynamic ground, and thereby creates a safe place for the ego to develop. This is a necessary developmental process which, in normal circumstances results in a sufficiently developed ego to embark on its “identity project”. In modern western societies, it is commonly believed that this identity project is the end all and be all of life.
In midlife, however, we may discover that the identity project is not all that it is cracked up to be. Primal repression has some side effects which become increasingly apparent in middle life. For one thing, primal repression of the forces of the unconscious is accompanied by primal alienation, through which we are separated from other people. This allows us to develop as an individual, but it results in significantly less intimate and satisfying relationships.
Primal repression has a similar impact on life experience in general, in that, the dynamic ground is the fuel for all psychic processes, and therefore has an important amplifying effect on all experience. Primal repression therefore results in a flattening of experience, reducing experiential highs and lows, the terrifying, as well as the profound.
The challenges of midlife, then are a result of the ego discovering that the identity project as pursued by the mental ego, has not been, and ultimately cannot be deeply fulfilling and satisfying because of the limiting effects of the mental ego through repression and alienation.
The happiness promised by the identity project cannot in fact be achieved because there is no way for the mental ego to feel complete and enduringly happy as mental ego. The mental ego, resting upon primal repression-primal alienation, is disconnected from the nonegoic pole of the psyche and from others. Owing to this double disconnection, the mental ego, as mental ego cannot possibly achieve a sense of wholeness. Accordingly, no matter how successful the mental ego might be in the identity project and no matter how many reinforcing recognitions and rewards might be enjoyed as a consequence of such success, the mental ego has no real chance of achieving lasting fulfillment by pursuing the goals of the identity project.” (Michael Washburn, The Ego and the Dynamic Ground, p.111)
The challenges of midlife seem, in our culture, to be summed up as “midlife crisis” and humorously associated with flings, red sports cars, and treated with anti-depressants. In a culture so completely devoted to the cultivation and satisfaction of the ego, it is not surprising that midlife challenges receive so little serious, well-informed attention. These experiences are not only challenging to our ego, the fundamental script of our lives, but also the very fabric of our culture. According to Washburn, this next developmental process, which he calls “regression in service of transcendence” has two stages:
The first stage of regression in the service of transcendence consists of a set of interrelated difficulties that have been made famous in writings of the existentialists, included among which are such states of mind or feeling as alienation, meaninglessness, nothingness, guilt, anxiety, and despair. During this period, the world loses its meaning, life loses its purpose, and the mental ego loses its presumed substance and justification. The period is one of disillusionment and alienation from the world. Worldly engagements are suspended, and worldly being and value are lost. The process leads, it seems, nowhere and to nothing—except to existential exile and despair. In fact, however, the first stage leads to an acknowledgment of "nothingness" and "guilt" and from there in some instances to an inner conversion that loosens primal repression and reopens the Dynamic Ground. Michael Washburn, The Ego and the Dynamic Ground, p.172)
Consider the prevalence of prescriptions of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, not to mention the vast industries devoted to diverting us from a sense of meaninglessness. It seems that there are two primary strategies employed in the west to overcome this existential angst. The first is diversion from the restlessness and anxiety arising from the sense that “something is not right” in our lives, or that “this cannot be all there is to life”. The second is a redoubling of our efforts in our identity project. According to Washburn, these strategies are often ultimately a failure, leading back to the depression and despair of meaninglessness and may lead to the second stage of regression in service of transcendence.
The second stage, much rarer than the first, is the period of encounter with the prepersonal unconscious that follows the opening of the Dynamic Ground. During this stage, the ego comes into contact with the physicodynamic potentials of the nonegoic sphere and is affected by these potentials in dramatic and disconcerting ways. Accordingly, the second stage of regression in the service of transcendence consists of a variety of highly unusual phenomena that for the most part are described only in works dealing with either psychopathology or mysticism. This stage sometimes begins with the sudden occurrence, triggered by the reopening of the Dynamic Ground, of extraordinary experiences such as transport, raptures, deep intuitive insights, and visions. These experiences accompanying spiritual awakening, when they occur, are highly impressive and can mislead the ego into thinking at it has achieved enlightenment or spiritual fulfillment. For this reason, they are called "temptations," "corruptions" (Buddhism), or "diabolical phenomena" (makyo, Zen). The fact of the matter is that a radically new realm of experience has been opened up, but not exactly the realm that the ego had hoped and prayed for. The ego has indeed been opened to the Dynamic Ground, the source of spiritual life. The ego, however, which is still predominantly a mental ego, is far from being ready to live harmoniously with the power of the Ground (or with physicodynamic potentials generally). Accordingly, following the “honeymoon" of initial awakening, the ego begins to enter extremely difficult developmental territory. The opening of ego to the Dynamic Ground leads at first not to the final goal of moksha, nirvana, or salvation: rather, typically, to a long and dangerous encounter with the prepersonal unconscious.
The prepersonal unconscious is the sea upon which the second Stage of regression in the service of transcendence unfolds. This sea is vast, and the far side of the sea is reached, usually, only after many trials have been endured. Among the difficulties that can be encountered on the way to the far shore are (1) disconcerting feelings; (2) strange bodily phenomena; (3) dread and a sense that the world has become strange; (4) disturbances to cognitive processes; and (5) recurrence of the ego- Ground conflict accompanied by fear of ego death.
The experiences belonging to the two stages of regression in the service of transcendence, and especially those that occur during the second stage, are difficult to comprehend in terms of established social, psychological, and spiritual categories. Considered individually or from a non-transpersonal perspective, these experiences do not fit into a coherent pattern. It is little wonder that they are usually considered symptoms of psychopathology. (Michael Washburn, The Ego and the Dynamic Ground, p.172-173)
Adult Transitions in the Workplace
In relation to the workplace, two transitions are of particular interest. The first is the transition from childhood to adulthood, when, presumably, an individual becomes ready to fully participate in the workplace. The second is the transition from the “ego and power years” into the “wisdom years” in which the relationship to work potentially changes.
We have a tendency to believe that we need to find meaning in our work. But it is worth considering that, instead, when our work is meaningful, it is because we find a clearer awareness and realization of our Self, who and what we are, through the work we do. This understanding of the mechanism of meaning is important if we are to successfully navigate the developmental changes of adult life, and if we are to create organizations that bring out the best in people.
For the young adult, meaning will be found in a successful launch of the identity project and the establishment of a stable primary relationship. The identity will most likely be built on the dominant function supported by the auxiliary function, and success is most likely in jobs which depend on these two functions. As the individual proceeds into adulthood, it will become increasingly important to explore the various dimensions of the self, strengths, and weaknesses, and learn how to work successfully with others in complementary relationships and teams.
The challenges encountered in working with others present precisely the conditions required for the further evolution of the Self (which is capitalized here to differentiate from the ego self). As the ego becomes stabilized, it tends to want to believe that it is “all and everything”, and that it should in all things have its way. It turns out that life, especially in the workplace is very good at challenging this belief, and if one is receptive to these messages from the world one begins to suspect that the ego is not all there is, that other people have very valid views, and if the individual is sufficiently confident and receptive, begins to become more at peace with the idea that what we really are extends beyond the ego, beyond even the physical body.
Often life presents “peak experiences” which reveal this greater sense of Self. These are the “Flow” experiences in which our experience of Self expands to include a greater expanse, including those we love, those we work with, perhaps our entire community. This expanded sense of Self can come to us through a loving relationship, ecstatic team experience, immersion in nature, creative work, spiritual practice, or intense physical activity. These insights can become very important when the difficulties of middle age begin to manifest.
In middle age, as we encounter the beginning of the “setting of our sun” and discover that the promised fruits of our identity project may not be as sweet and fulfilling as we had hoped, two paths diverge. This juncture is announced to travelers as unease, restlessness, questioning whether there is anything more to life, anxiety, depression, disillusionment with the current life, and even despair. Standing in the face of this experience, we are presented with two paths.
One path is taken by those who have not been blessed with the greater experience of Self. This path leads in a loop back to reaffirm one’s identity project, upping the ante so it will produce even greater ego gratification. This path also includes the classic diversionary activities: the red sports car, intense shopping, sexual exploits, plastic surgery, drugs, alcohol, and increased domination of or dependence on others.
As an organizational psychologist, I see many older people, who have reached positions of significant authority, who begin to make very unwise decisions, usually very self-centered decisions, often very destructive decisions, such as have been very common in corporate America and around the world in recent years. I have come to wonder at the dangers inherent in this intersection of the path to renewed affirmation of the ego with ever increasing power. More on this in a later discussion on leadership.
The second path leads into a more contemplative region. It begins with the consideration of the possible richness of inner life. It does not lead completely away from the outer world, but it leads to a greater balance of inner and outer experience. This path also tends to lead to a progressive letting go, of what is no longer meaningful, a recapitulation of life, and a gleaning of what one has learned and wishes to pass on to others.
There has been in the modern workplace a renewed interest in mentoring, in the realization that there is a great deal that the younger generation needs to learn. Often, however these mentoring programs produce less than is hoped or needed, largely because the mentors stay engaged in the first path, resulting in insufficient wisdom to be helpful, and young people who have bought the central message of our culture: “It's all about being young and getting what you want”.
The creation of meaningful work is something that, primarily, we have to do for ourselves. It depends on honest self-reflection on what is truly meaningful for us, versus what is just a worn-out diversion. Then, perhaps we can find our deeper journey, find where our life is taking us, and discover the joy of a real-life adventure.
There are some things we can do in organizations however, to encourage meaningful work. We can seek ways to properly select people or work that plays to their dominant functions. We can cultivate the values that guide our organizations in a way that employees will identify positively with their community of work. We can provide career counseling conversations with people at key transition points, especially around 30, 40, and early 50’s.
We can encourage people to take needed vacations for self-renewal and reflection. We can encourage changes in jobs at least every seven years to prevent stale, automatic work lives. We can think carefully about the level of maturity required in key jobs and carefully consider the level of development of the applicants for those jobs.
The creation of meaningful work can be greatly enabled through an understanding of the relationship of work and the pursuit of identity. Development in young adult years revolves around the “identity project” through which the individual seeks to make a place in the world in relationship, and in community through which they have the opportunity to see their unique qualities make a difference. In this mirror, the process of development unfolds resulting in engagement, motivation, and fulfillment.
In midlife, the work relationship shifts if the individual recognizes that the desires of the ego do not produce the satisfaction they expected. Here, the process of reengagement depends on the realization that the ego is not the same thing as the Self, and a life devoted entirely to the fulfillment of the whims of one’s ego is not going to produce a truly fulfilling life. In this hard-won realization, the individual enters into the final stage of adult development described by Erikson as Wisdom, which he describes as the achievement of the integrity of experience in the face of the despair that often accompanies the aging process.
Consider the difference between an organization guided at the most senior level by individuals who have made this transition, who have reflected on a life of experience, who have earned insight into their own strengths and weaknesses, who are in the process of coming to grips with the darker elements of their shadow. Compare this with an organization led by individuals who seek to remain as children, always to have their own way, who avoid anxiety and restlessness through endless diversions, and who seek to continually aggrandize their egos by ever increasing the pursuits that generate the accolades and compliance of others.
In my experience, these are vastly different organizations. The latter tend to be dramatic and highly acclaimed “high performers”, largely because their leadership produces, one way or the other, dramatic outcomes, and effective public relations. Often, however, the results turn out to be exaggerated, or manipulated, and when the full bill comes due, the organization is far worse off in the end.
Organizations are amplifiers of human energy. The outcomes they produce depend to a great extent on the maturity and skill of their leadership. Perhaps the most basic competencies required of leaders are those adult developmental qualities described by Erikson. In your work, are you capable of love? Can you form sincere, intimate relationships with the people you work with? Do you care? Are you aware of those ways in which you are self-absorbed, and can you overcome that limitation and really produce value for those you serve at work?
And finally, if you are entering into middle age, have you begun to consider the meaning and purpose of life for you, beyond just survival and the demands of your ego? What is your commitment to making the rest of your life fully meaningful? Do you plan to play out the same program your ego laid out all your young adult years, or is there a deeper, more fulfilling adventure possible for you?
You might be wondering at this point what comes after Regression in Service of Transcendence. This is a subject far beyond the scope of this article. But Washburn provides a hint as to the net stage which he calls “Regeneration in Spirit”.
In surrendering to the transformative power of the Ground, the ego surrenders to a process that leads both to its own spiritualization, and to the personalization of Spirit. The ego is spiritualized in that it becomes an expressive vehicle of the power of the Ground. People undergoing regeneration in spirit do not act by egoic means alone; they act, rather, or at least are beginning to act according to the promptings of spirit. To be sure, the actions of people are grounded acquired knowledge and skills and are frequently guided by creative insight. People undergoing regeneration in spirit do not act blindly. They do, however, act spontaneously, from sentiments of the heart as well as from considerations of the head. The ego is no longer separated from the Ground, and the power of the Ground now wells =up in the ego, animating it and moving it to action. The ego is filled with spirit, and therefore is no longer the sole author if its actions. It is now spirit through the ego, rather than just the ego that acts. (Michael Washburn, The Ego and the Dynamic Ground, p.220)
This transpersonal view of human life indicates a very different goal and purpose of life than that of the egocentric, materialistic view that has become the center of our culture. According to Suleyman Dede, the last Sheikh of Konya, leader of the Mevlevi Sufi Order.
“If we do not strive
For inner perfection,
we will remain
What we are now-
The world has never been
without its teachers.
Jesus Buddha, and Muhammed
Were some of the great ones,
but there are always qtubs, special beings
who take care of the world.
The perfect human,
The complete human,
lies within every one of us.”
Konya Sheikh Suleyman Loras
Copyright 2023 Kim Payton