David Chapman has, among other things, been writing about modes of approaching meaning, in a way that’s informed by Robert Kegan’s developmental psychology. He’s written a summary of this recently on one of his blogs, and he discusses it frequently on Meaningness (see e.g. this post and posts it links to), but I thought he had a particularly good discussion of it recently on the Imperfect Buddha podcast. (You can skip to about 22 minutes in if you want to skip over the discussion of the state of Buddhism in the west.)

He focuses on stages 3, 4, and 5 of Kegan’s model. Stage 3 is characterized by a focus on communal values, individual relationships, emotions, and experiences. Stage 4 is systematic: it accomodates complexity in a rigid way, by mapping it to a model. Stage 5 is meta-systematic: if you’re in stage 5, you’re skilled with dealing with interface between systems and reality, and can handle use that to handle vagueness while embracing precision and complexity.


I’m trying to come to grips with whether or not I think this is a helpful model. (And, if so, in what contexts it’s helpful, or how that help manifests.) For now, I’m having a hard time thinking about it in terms of an individual’s development as a whole, but it seems to me like a plausible match to how somebody thinks about specific aspects of their life?

For example, I’m a software developer who has spent some amount of time thinking about and experimenting with agile software development. So it feels to me like I can tell the difference between stage 3 and stage 4 use of agile: stage 3 agile is saying / believing that you do agile because that’s what cultural forces present as normal behavior, while if you’re asked what you do, you have some idea that agile = scrum and it means that you have standup meetings once a day, call each two weeks on the calendar a sprint, and store a backlog in Jira. (And a stage 3 agilist will do all of that while happily continuing to have separate requirements, design, implementation, test, and maintenance phases, and while constantly generating estimates and plans that are far more ambitious than what they actually get done in a sprint.)

Whereas a stage 4 practitioner will say that the phrase “we do agile” doesn’t make sense, because agile isn’t a methodology, it’s too vague for that. But they’ll have a precise idea of what it means to follow, say, Scrum or XP, and they’ll be skilled in following that precise model and helping teams follow that model.

Which, in that light, means that I’m probably not a fully stage 4 practitioner, because I’ve never been on a team that followed Scrum or XP as a whole, or that had a well-considered homegrown system that it actually stuck to. (Which doesn’t mean that I’m in stage 3, either, because I’m generally quite aware when teams aren’t following methodologies, either external ones or ones that they’ve written down for themselves.) But, if you go down from full methodologies to smaller practices, like test-driven development or refactoring, I can make a better case that I’m a pretty solid stage 4 practitioner.

And if we move outside of software development, I can tell a similar story: e.g. I’m quite sure that my Tai Chi teacher has an excellent systemic understanding of Tai Chi (and hence I also believe that it makes sense to talk about a systemic understanding of Tai Chi), I’m equally sure that I don’t, but I also feel like I’m learning relatively concrete facts and improving in ways that I can point to? So I’m consciously trying to start the journey towards a stage 4 understanding of Tai Chi, I just haven’t gotten very far.


Stage 5 is more of a mystery to me. One of the points of stage 5 is that systems are only models, and hence are always flawed. But the issue there is that there are multiple ways that you can get to a rejection of systems: you can take a stage 3 approach of not really thinking about them seriously; you can take a nihilistic approach (Chapman calls this “stage 4.5” and is pretty worried about it) of correctly understanding that systems are always imperfect models and using that as a reason to reject them; or you can take a stage 5 approach of appreciating the nuances of the boundaries between systems and reality. Which should mean that you can use the power of systems in contexts where they apply well, you can avoid them in contexts where they don’t apply well (or, potentially, switching to a different system that applies better there), and you can tell when you’re near the boundary, using the system to inform your actions but not to rule them, and potentially using your observations to update the system as well.

At least I think that’s what stage 5 means: but it also feels to me like my understanding of all this stuff is probably basically at a stage 3 level? Chapman sounds sensible when he talks about this, it feels to me like he’s getting significant value out of it and believes that it’s tied pretty well to other forms of thought that he finds valuable, but I can’t say that I’ve seriously tried to put the framework to use. So, ultimately, I’m mostly just parroting / cargo culting what he says, which (I think) is stage 3 behavior?


One feeling that I’ve had over the last few years: more and more, when making programming decisions (broad design decisions, narrow decisions about what to type now, decisions about how to segment my work while trying to go from my current state towards a desired future state), my mind is starting to associate weight to those decisions. And here, by “weight”, I mean that my mind literally associates certain decisions with something that feels heavier or more solid, whereas other decisions feel like more of a haze. Hmm, I guess weight alone isn’t actually all that’s going on in my internal perceptual apparatus: e.g. there are some that feel like pebbles, solid and reliable but also like small steps, some that feel like mist, where I don’t perceive any weight but I also don’t understand what’s going on, and some that feel like they’re crumbly terrain, actively and concretely dangerous to proceed along. So maybe it’s more of a combination of weight and texture?

If I wanted to try to tie that into this Chapman / Keegan model, maybe that’s saying something about the boundary between stage 4 and 5? The areas where I have these feelings are situations where I don’t just know how to follow a given system, I have a pretty good idea of what the specific consequences are of doing so or not doing so (or doing so in different ways). So that means that I’m getting a better appreciation of reality pushing back (the “interface between systems and reality” that I mentioned above): when a certain question is answered well within a given system, when I’m pretty sure a given system is accurately warning about something, when I’m on the edge of a system, when I’m pretty sure I should work within a different system, and when I just don’t know?


Hard for me to say: like I said, I don’t understand the theory very well. And, for all I know, I’d get as much from linking my understanding to any other random list, e.g. The Five Levels of Taijiquan. (Different numbers in that book’s levels, though!) And, don’t get me wrong, there are certainly areas where I’m firmly in stage 3: e.g. when reading Twitter I’m just as likely to react to events in a way that ultimately comes down to group membership as anybody else is. But it is nice to start to have a deeper sense of what substantial expertise might feel like…

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