The Evolving Self by Robert Kegan [Summary]

This is a comprehensive summary of the book The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development by Robert Kegan. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski. Supporting Members get full access.


In this ecstatic book, Robert Kegan tackles questions that have troubled the minds of all humans since the dawn of time – how to make meaning in the world and how we evolve. By observing human behavior from the moment a child is born, he distinguishes the different stages of human evolution and gives us ways to make sense of what’s happening around us. And while the insights are profound, you need a high level of literacy to digest the actual text in the book.

The Core Idea:

Beneath the hard to pronounce words and the perplexing statements, this book aids us in understanding the world around – ourselves and our peers. By categorizing the different levels of human evolution, and how meaning-making changes over our life span, the author wants to help us evolve both spiritually and intellectually. This transformation starts by detaching ourselves from the objects we find so precious and also by looking for ways to make the world a better place.


  • Growing up is a process where you start to separate yourself from the things around you.
  • To become a full-grown man you should create your own moral code and focus on assisting others.
  • Understanding others involves understanding how they perceive the things around them.

The 5 Key Lessons From The Evolving Self:

Lesson #1: To Grow Up, You Need To Outgrow Your Physical Desires

If you’re like me, you most probably think that we have full control over our petty existence. That we are the kings of our own universe and that only we can decide what happens to us.

But that’s not even close to the truth.

Aldous Huxley, English writer and philosopher mentioned in the book explains: “Experience is not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.”

There’s always something going on around us. And while we think that we are in full control, we actually spend most of our time responding to what happens to us.

Or in other words, life is constant back and forth with the environment around. Our surroundings shape our character and help us become wiser – or not, that depends on how we handle the external conditions.

But that’s just part of the story. Here’s the other interesting part:

Infants are unable to separate themselves from their surroundings. They think that their little hand before their eyes and that of the parent are the same thing. They are almost certain that the toys they are holding are part of their body (probably that’s why they cry, a lot, when taken).

Fortunately, later this notion changes.

With age, we start to realize that the things around us are not us. That we’re not our emotions and our perceptions. That we simply possess and experience these things.

To help us understand this idea better, the author shares how two young children standing on top of a large building see the folks below. A seven-year-old said, “The people look like ants” while the four-year-old said, “Look at the people. They are tiny ants.”

While the 4-year-old can’t see things from a different perspective – he thinks that people are actually ants – the 7-year-old is starting to get outside of himself and put things into perspective – people simply look like ants.

So what’s the conclusion?

Infants grow up with the help of the people around them – the environment. Growing up is a process where you start to separate yourself from the things around you. You slowly start to realize that you’re not your parents, toys, peers, fancy items, etc., you simply have them. Once you get that, things will start to get a little more sense. You’ll find your own meaning and realize that the most important thing in life is not pursuing trivial things – like, owning a pile of clothes or nice-looking cars.

“When the fifth graders are asked what they want to know about themselves, their answers concern the concrete activities, capacities, limits, and transformations of the physical body; but the high school students ask about the metaphysical or “psychological” self: ‘What am I here for? What purpose?'” Robert Kegan

Lesson #2: Understand The Moral Stages To Predict Others

A large part of becoming a thriving adult is molding something like a moral code that you can always follow and obey no matter the circumstances. Sadly, not everybody understands this.

The world feels like a single-player game, where everybody is trying to take advantage of others. We use other people as tools to reach our own goals and we’re careless of their own ambitions and desires.

But you can do better.

Your ability to understand the person standing in front of you, see their behavior from their point of view, is the thing that will help you become not only nobler, but also a better parent, leader, and husband.

In the book, there’s a table that swiftly summarizes the moral stages we all go through (well, not exactly all of us. Some get stuck in a certain stage and don’t move forward). The information is based on Lawrence Kohlberg’s study of the development of moral reasoning.

Understanding the stages and how people consider what’s right and wrong can help you understand people better, make critical decisions and potentially assist your peers to progress.

Here’s the short version:

Kohlberg’s Moral Stages

Level I: Preconventional
Stage 1: Heteronomous Morality
  • What is right: Not breaking the rules. Obedience for its own sake. Avoiding physically damaging others.
  • Reasons for doing right: To avoid punishment and the superior power of authorities.
  • Social perspective of stage: Egocentric point of view. Careless of the interests of others. Can’t hold two points of view (his and of the other person). Doesn’t understands that other people have their own interests.
Stage 2: Individualism, Instrumental Purpose, and Exchange
  • What is right: Following rules only when it is to someone’s immediate interest. Acting to meet one’s own interests/needs and letting others do the same. Right is also what’s fair, what’s an equal exchange, a deal, an agreement.
  • Reasons for doing right: Striving to serve his/her own needs or interests in a world where you have to recognize that other people have their interests, too.
  • Social perspective of stage: Concrete individualistic perspective. Aware that everybody has his own interest to pursue. What’s right might vary depending on the people around.
Level II: Conventional
Stage 3: Mutual Interpersonal Expectations, Relationships, and Interpersonal Conformity
  • What is right: Living up to other people’s expectations. “Being good” is important. It means having good motives, showing concern about others. It also means keeping mutual relationships, such as trust, loyalty, respect, and gratitude.
  • Reasons for doing right: Striving to be a good person in your own eyes and also in the eyes of others. Caring. Believe in the Golden Rule (treating others as you want to be treated). Desire to maintain rules and authority which support stereotypical good behavior.
  • Social perspective of stage: Acts in the interests of others. Aware of shared feelings, agreements, and expectations. Relates points of view through the concrete Golden Rule – putting yourself in the other guy’s shoes.
Stage 4: Social System and Conscience
  • What is right: Doing his duties. Laws are not broken unless there’s an extreme situation. Contributes to society, a specific group of people, or a specific institution.
  • Reasons for doing right: Making sure that the institution will continue to thrive. Doing everything possible to avoid breakdown in the system/organization/relationship.
  • Social perspective of stage: Understands that there’s a difference between the social point of view and his/hers. Mostly considers the point of view and the motives of the system defining the rules.
Level III: Postconventional, Or Principled
Stage 5: Social Contract or Utility and Individual Rights
  • What is right: Understands that people have different values and opinions. There are unspoken rules in the group and these rules should be respected. Values like human rights and liberty must always be preserved regardless of what others think.
  • Reasons for doing right: Comply with the law because wants to see justice in the world. Committed to family, friends, the organization. Believes that laws and duties are based on rational calculations.
  • Social perspective of stage: Takes into account the moral and legal point of view but finds it hard to act because these two often conflict. Emotions are no longer the guiding force, rationality is. Strives to form agreements and contracts with others.
Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principles
  • What is right: Chooses his own ethical principles. When outside principles interfere with the person’s chosen laws, he acts in accordance with his own views. His code of conduct is based on respect and equality among individuals.
  • Reasons for doing right: View himself as a rational person in a world of moral principles. Committed to live by his moral views.
  • Social perspective of stage: His understanding of the world is that every person has his own ambitions and desires. And that a person shouldn’t be used as a means to someone’s end. Their rights should be respected and valued no matter what.

As you can spot, the more you level up in life, the more independent you become. Your form your own views, principles, and you act in accordance with them. And while this might sound awfully selfish, this is when you start to consider the opinions of others. You no longer use people. You desire to help them.

This, might friends, is the moment you become a full-grown man/woman.

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