The Evolving Self by Robert Kegan [Actionable 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.

Printable: Download this summary to read offline.

The Book In Three Or More Sentences:

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.

Lesson #3: Get Outside of Yourself to Understand The World

Sometimes people act cruelly. They do not consider the perspective of others and act selfishly. Unfortunately, it’s not only sometimes, it’s pretty much all the time.

Robert Kegan writes:

“The child who thinks there can be more popcorn in a box just by shaking it also happens to have one brother. If we asked him if he has a brother he would say yes. If we asked him if his brother has a brother he would say no. He is unable to get outside of himself, to look at things from his brother’s point of view and see that, indeed, his brother does have a brother, and it is he.” Robert Kegan

If you stop thinking and talking about yourself for a moment, you can actually understand the person standing in front of you and probably even offer some sort of advice that can help them overcome the hardship. But no, you stand there and you completely disregard the pain of your friend or the trembling voice of your spouse.

Why are we unable to understand others?

We have not yet grown. We’re still in the midst of our evolution and we, unfortunately, refuse to advance.

Getting outside of yourself is the step where you “move from subject to object,” as the author nags continuously in the book. In this phase, you can finally distinguish between your views and the ambitions of the people around you. Realize that there is no right or wrong because people are always right for themselves.

This high-level of adultship means to accept others even when the stuff they’re sharing doesn’t make a lot of sense for you. For instance, if someone states that the sun is blue, don’t engage in a fierce argument just to prove you’re right and make the other person “pay” for their words. No. Start to ask questions so you can understand him/her better.

By doing this, you will not only dive deep into someone else’s mind. You will also have the opportunity to see the world through their eyes.

Lesson #4: Don’t Be Your Relationships, Have Them

If you haven’t found yourself. I mean, truly know what you want from life. If you haven’t found meaning higher than receiving praise from other people, you’ll be most concerned about how others see you and what they think of you.

If this happens, the perception you have for yourself is molded by the opinion of your peers and the stuff you own. If they don’t speak good of you, naturally, you’ll feel down. If you don’t own the latest hardware, you will be sad as well. Why? Because you’re seeing your self-image as a reflection of others instead of a person with hopes and ambitions.

If you are your relationships with others rather than simply having those relationships, you’re in trouble. Plus, if you are the objects around you rather than simply possessing them, you’ll idolize brands and big shopping centers will be your go-to place.

The result of the above?

Social media addicts who are eager to storm malls when there’s a sale happening so they can clear all the shelves.

So, what to do before you become a broke-ass fake social media guru?

Find who you really are. Find what you want to do. Realize that you’re not the people around you and you’re not the items you have in your apartment – these are simply things you own. Then, find a task that’s worth doing and devote your life to it.

Lesson #5: Understanding The Stages of Human Evolution Will Help You Grow Up

Psychologists, when talking to them, rarely care about your accomplishments, your clothes or your accessories. They want to see the person beneath the person you’re presenting. They evaluate your character not by what’s visible, but by what’s left unsaid.

How they do it?

I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist (duh!). But in the book, Robert Kegan presents a table that describes the stages we all go through. The author calls them Evolutionary balance and psychological embeddedness.

In human language, this means more or less the following: No matter how independent you might feel now, there is never just a you. We’re all attached to something in the world. Your relationship between you and the external things defines your evolutionary stage.

Below I’ll summarize the subject-object relationship evolution as the author calls it. This will help you spot where you are in your progression and see what you can do to advance faster. But not only that, but it will also assist you in understanding others and possibly predict their desires and behavior.

Stages of Human Evolution:

Incorporative stage (between 6 months and 2 years):
  • Embedded in: Reflexes, sensations, the mother figure.
  • Can’t live without: Physical presence, eye contact, recognition from the mother.
  • Let go of: Nursing and carrying are reduced. Starts to understand when you refuse something.
  • Transition to: No longer an infant. Becomes part of the family culture.
  • Thing that can stall the transition: Prolonged nursing.
  • Thing that helps the transition: A soft and comforting object: blankie, teddy bear, etc.
Impulsive stage (between 5 and 7 years):
  • Embedded in: Impulses, perceptions, the parents.
  • Can’t live without: Fantasy world and insanely attached to people (mainly parents).
  • Let go of: Starts to recognize his or her feelings. No longer wants to sleep with mommy and daddy.
  • Transition to: Going to school and having friends.
  • Thing that can stall the transition: Divorce of parents during the transition.
  • Thing that helps the transition: Imaginary friend. This “friend” possesses qualities that were previously the child or are such that he’s yet to become.
Imperial stage (between 12 and 17 years):
  • Embedded in: Needs, interests, wishes, school, peer gang.
  • Can’t live without: A specific role, personage, the child accepted.
  • Let go of: Understands that other people have needs too and looks for ways to co-op.
  • Transition to: Family and school become secondary in favor of his peer group.
  • Thing that can stall the transition: Family relocation.
  • Thing that helps the transition: Best friend, roommate. Another person with identical interests.
Interpersonal stage (age range cannot be defined):
  • Embedded in: Culture of cooperation and agreement. One-on-one relationships.
  • Can’t live without: Sacrificing himself to save a relationship. Often falling into “feelings” mood.
  • Let go of: No longer an adolescent. Takes responsibility. Understands the independence of others.
  • Transition to: Partners and relationships are seen as long-term.
  • Thing that can stall the transition: Partner leaves during the transition.
  • Thing that helps the transition: Going to college or working a job.
Institutional stage (age range cannot be defined):
  • Embedded in: Independence. A partner. A group of people. Specific work.
  • Can’t live without: Ambition to have a career, not merely a job. Life partner, not merely girlfriend (boyfriend). Authority. Self-definition.
  • Let go of: Childish behavior. Let go of relationships that are nonintimate.
  • Transition to: Total independency.
  • Thing that can stall the transition: Job loss or partner leaves the scene.
  • Thing that helps the transition: Involved in religious, political or another type of community. Love affairs if partner not available.
Interindividual stage (age range cannot be defined):
  • Embedded in: Living in harmony with a partner. Genuine love for specific work.
  • Can’t go without: Culture. Family. Friends. Intimacy. Independence of himself.

“How this helps,” you might say?

In a lot of different ways. But the most important thing was already said by the author:

“What is most important for us to know in understanding another is not the other’s experience but what the experience means to him or her, our first goal is to grasp the essence of how the other composes his or her private reality.” Robert Kegan

Actionable Notes:

  • Get over your emotions: Here’s an interesting parable mentioned in the book: “Man’s basic impulse in the presence of fire is to urinate upon it and extinguish it. However, in order to use fire and so become “industrial” – man had to learn to control the impulse to extinguish it.” If you’re getting angry at someone, yelling back won’t help. If you control yourself and consider his point of view, you can neutralize the negativity and actually find common ground.
  • Become easily recruitable: Why? So you can attract more folks. More people interested in you can help you find worthy relationships and work that is both highly paid and interesting. How can you do it? Surely you can run around and say how awesome you are but you can also make yourself “too good to be ignored.” This way others will want to recruit you without you having to do all the running around. Or as stated in the book, “Who comes into a person’s life may be the single greatest factor of influence to what that life becomes. Who comes into a person’s life is in part a matter of luck, in part a matter of one’s power to recruit others, but in large part a matter of other people’s ability to be recruited.”
  • Don’t lose yourself: Here I don’t mean getting lost in the woods. It’s something more abstract. It’s taking care of your own needs first. Being independent and self-sufficient even. A lot of people care too much about other people’s opinions. They live their entire lives to get approval from their peers and their family members, never embracing their true desires. Respect yourself so others can respect you.
  • Kids have a hard time separating from their parents and their toys: Why? Here’s a section that will help you understand the statement better: “From our point of view, the risks to the infant of separation have to do not so much with issues of attachment as with issues of detachment.” When you take a toy out of the hands of a kid, they don’t cry because the toy is no longer in their possession, they’re upset because they think that the toy is part of them. They don’t think they’ve lost an object but some part of themselves. So, to help them grow up, you need to help them realize that they’re not the toy.
  • Who are you?” When asked, people will simply state their name and probably their job title. “My name is John Smith. I’m 32 years old, I live in Canada and I work as an accountant.” But is this really you? Are you your job? To evolve, you need to separate yourself from others and find the “individual” hiding inside. You’re not your job or your possessions. You simply have them.

Commentary and My Personal Takeaway

If you consider yourself a smart person, you won’t like this book. Your grammar skills will be tested to the extreme by the sophisticated words used inside. I was personally challenged to understand what the author was trying to say throughout most of the text. On top of that, I often skipped sections and felt asleep. Not intentionally, but because I wasn’t simply getting what Robert wanted to say and my attention quickly wandered.

Yet, the elegant, but complex words and statements, were not enough to stop me from finishing the book. What Robert Kegan gathered in The Evolving Self is staggering. As a fan of human psychology and a lifelong learner of personal behavior, reading this book was like giving candy to a baby. I was able to understand so much about how the minds of the infants work that it will be hard to tell you all about it in this summary. You simply have to read the book. But be warned, the text is really complicated to grasp. First, I thought it was just me. But once I read reviews of the book online I realized that I’m not the only one struggling with sentences like:

“But how did our four-year-olds come to find themselves in this predicament in the first place? How did they get embedded in their perceptions? Why do they get disembedded? And what does disembedding do to the subject-object balance?”

Key takeaway?

You’re not the relationship with other people. You’re not the stuff you have around. You simply have these things. If you give too much attention to the objects around, they’ll cage you. You need to separate yourself from your environment (the stuff around) to find meaning.

Notable Quotes:

“If you want to understand another person in some fundamental way you must know where the person is in his or her evolution…the way in which the person is settling the issue of what is ‘self’ and what is ‘other’ essentially defines the underlying logic (or ‘psychologic’) of the person’s meanings.” Robert Kegan

“But what can be found can also be lost. The process of differentiation, creating the possibility of integration, brings into being the lifelong theme of finding and losing, which before now could not have existed.” Robert Kegan

“All growth is costly. It involves the leaving behind of an old way of being in the world. Often it involves, at least for a time, leaving behind the others who have been identified with that old way of being. The two-year-old’s ‘No” is really a repudiation of his own old way of being. Seen from the point of view of his evolution, his declaration is really to his old self, which had been embedded in the world.” Robert Kegan

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