In the 1930s, long before machine learning was anything more than a figment of popular sci-fi imagination, the Swiss clinical psychologist Jean Piaget identified four universal stages of cognitive development. His work suggested that adolescents reached a final, “formal operations” stage, in which they remained throughout adulthood. This includes the ability to think through things in the abstract and draw conclusions, without the need for direct, physical experience.
Today, thanks to breakthroughs in brain science, we know a lot more about cognitive development than Piaget did. Research on brain plasticity in particular has shown that we don’t reach some kind of plateau, and that’s the end of that. We’re capable of so much more.
This should come as good news to any adult who has to face the messy ethical and moral choices that adult life inevitably presents us with, especially today. As machine learning and other forms of workplace automation gain ground, technical competence alone doesn’t cut it. To stay competitive, we need to get comfortable making difficult, complicated, higher-order decisions more regularly—until we’ve achieved what Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan refers to as “immunity to change.”
Sound daunting? Hopeless, even? Don’t fret. It isn’t about turning yourself into a superhuman or somehow making yourself “smarter.” It simply means tapping into the potential that your mind is already hardwired to possess. Here’s how.
In his 2009 book (coauthored with Lisa Laskow Lahey), Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Kegan makes no bones about the difficulty of the challenge. Successfully navigating a world of inherent unpredictability, he says, demands catapulting ourselves into higher levels of thinking. But they sketch out a cognitive path to help get us there.
At level three of what is essentially a five-part hierarchy, we operate according to our “socialized mind,” where ideas and beliefs are shaped by our “tribes” (i.e., our politics are regurgitated from our chosen news sources and our purchases mirror our friends’ and social circles’ purchases). One level higher (level four) is the “self-authoring” mind-set, and above that (level five) is the “self-transforming” mind.
Kegan and Laskow Lahey don’t see these echelons as inevitable—some folks, they believe, bottom out at one or another, making people who’ve achieved the more rarified mind-sets, well, rarer.
The tricky part, though, is that Kegan and Laskow Haley believe the world we’re living in demands more people operating at those higher levels. Their “self-transforming mind” isn’t just some sort of mystical techno-speak. It recalls F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (a contemporary of Piaget’s—the two were born six weeks apart) “test of a first-rate intelligence,” which he defined as the “ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Kegan and Laskow Lahey intended Immunity to Change as a wide-ranging, 340-page user manual to the modern mind—a tool to help readers uncover their “hidden competing commitments” and big, but usually erroneous, assumptions. But there may be some other, more straightforward brain hacks to train your mind so you’re less blindsided by future events.
Psychiatrist and futurist Charles M. Johnston has developed a concept he calls “cultural maturity,” based on some four decades of research. To help clients achieve cognitive upgrades, Johnston offers an exercise that goes something like this. Start by seating yourself in a chair and articulate a specific challenge that you feel uncertain how to solve–maybe you’re worried that your job will be automated, for instance, and don’t know whether to make a career move. Then ask yourself who else is in the room and set out a chair for each of them, which may include the angry part of you, the fearful part, or even the part that’s excited by possibilities for change.
You then move to another chair to give the “angry” perspective an opportunity to express itself, then the fearful part, and so on. It may feel silly at first, but take your time. As you focus on your challenge from these different angles, you don’t just illuminate potential courses for action and give an outlet to your mixed emotions—you also reorient your brain.
“I’m always amazed by the incredibly creative information and ideas that come out of such conversations,” says Johnston. “By addressing conflicting internal perspectives this way, complex cognitive changes begin to happen.” This one-person game of musical chairs that you’re enacting in physical space is similar to the one you’re training your mind to undertake when it faces complex challenges.
CEO of Human Synergistics Rob Cooke cautions against dismissing exercises like this as ineffective. He finds that when people change things up in small ways, they begin to develop more constructive styles to problem solving—roughly akin to Kegan’s and Laskow Lahey’s levels four and five—and move toward what psychologists call an “internal locus of control,” a belief that they can influence and impact the future rather than be swept along by it. “People with constructive styles take self-development seriously,” says Cooke. “They’ll deliberately seek out and assemble an unconventional mix of people to help them question assumptions, take small risks, and try new approaches.”
According to one recent analysis, level five thinking is currently limited to just 8% of the population—good news for those who want to differentiate themselves and remain marketable in an uncertain future, but not so great for society at large. According to Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son, who in a recent investors meeting sounded only too willing to replace workers with machines, it’ll be just 40 years before “artificial intelligence will exceed the wisdom of human beings.”
That’s highly disputable, given how multifaceted “wisdom” is, but even if it’s much longer before machines “think wisely,” it’s worth considering that not many humans currently do. The good news is that your brain can be rewired, and leveling up just a little could put you considerably ahead of the pack.