On Being Self-Authored

Robert Kegan's Theory of Self-Development

I was first introduced to the work of Robert Kegan in this excellent talk by Daniel Gross - ‘How To Win’.

Kegan is best known for his Theory of Self-Development.

Kegan’s work didn’t connect with me at first. But a few months later, my coach introduced it to me in a different context, and I’ve since fallen into it completely. As it’s not widely known, I think it’s worthy of much more attention.

The original research was published in a book called The Evolving Self in 1982. Wikipedia notes that: “due to the density of Kegan's writing and its conceptual complexity, some readers have found it difficult to read,” which is an understatement. If you don’t have 12 hours to read the book, here are two good introductions:

The part of Kegan’s theory I’m most interested in, is where most of the adult population is stuck - at Level 3 - where you move from defining yourself through others, to being self-authored.

What finally made all this click for me was taking the research and turning Kegan’s description of Level 4 into a set of statements that would be true if you had reached the level.

I’ve shared the statement set below. It’s long, but hopefully it’s worth it.

I think for many people, being able to say that all of these were true would bring a great sense of relief.

I have an independent sense of self. 

I have clarity about who I am, what I think, what I want and why.

I am “self-authored”: I choose my own principles, projects, and commitments.I don’t look for external validation to derive my sense of self.

I understand that others choose their own principles, projects, and commitments. They have experiences that are not my experiences. 

I am no longer in relationships that define me; I have relationships. 

I am no longer a stream of transient emotional experiences; I have experiences.

I can take responsibility for my own inner states and emotions.

I am referential to a system that treats people impartially, based on rights, responsibilities, principles, and procedures.

I can prioritise the roles I have. 

I recognise that my responsibility for a particular role has particular limits; and I can enter and exit roles by choice. 

My personal systems honour certain boundaries and distinctions. 

When there is a conflict between important ideologies, institutions, or people, I don’t have a hard time answering the question: what do I want? 

I understand that I am a person, with thoughts, feelings and beliefs that are independent from the standards and expectations of my environment. 

I generate my understanding of the world and am not unduly shaped by the context in which I find myself.

I realise that I am always changing, that who I am is something that I can still negotiate.

I can distinguish the opinions of others from my own opinions to formulate my own “seat of judgment”. 

I have developed an internal sense of direction and the capacity to create and follow my own course.

I do not get my thoughts, beliefs, morals (what I know to be true) from external sources.

I can question expectations and values, take stands, set limits, and solve problems with independent frames of mind.

I take the time to state and explain my beliefs and thoughts.

I don’t do things because I feel guilty or ‘bad’ - I do them because they align with the person I want to be.

I have shifted my energy from worrying about what other people think, to clearly determining what I think.

I don’t spend too much energy trying to avoid hurting other people’s’ feelings.

I am not oblivious to or ignorant of others’ experiences. But I am not flooded by them, and can evaluate whether or not to respond to them, and how best to do so.” 

I’m no longer focused on others’ expectations or societal roles.

What I think, believe, and feel is not dependent on how I think others experience me.

I generate my own understanding of the world and am not unduly shaped by the context in which I find myself.

I operate from the place of “what do I want” versus “what do other people want from me”.

1. I clarify what I want to myself.

2. I clarify what I want to the other person (they can decide if they can give me this or not) and

3. I decide what I’m willing to live with.


Click, Click

1. After reading this Derren Brown profile in the New Yorker, it gave me more appreciation for the art of what he does.

2. Superorganizers is my new favourite newsletter. Nerd alert: it’s about the way people use their productivity tools. Foursquare cofounder Naveen’s interview is a good place to start.

3. Writing processes are becoming increasingly popular to pull apart - see Working, by Robert Caro - but I also loved this one on John McPhee. His profile of Bill Bradley - A Sense of Where You Are is a personal favourite.

4. This is a great framework from Atlassian’s Dom Price for reflecting back on 2019 over the Christmas break: what did you love, what did you loathe, what did you long for, and what did you learn?

5. We have just hired a Chief of Staff at Blackbird (hallelujah!). Here’s my original ode to the role. I think every leader should have one.


On Sunday night, I saw Nils Frahm play Hamer Hall,. Nils is one of my musical heroes and his records were playing when both my sons were born.

I compiled his setlist from Sunday into this Spotify playlist. He’s so good.

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