In over our heads : the mental demands of modern life

by Robert Kegan

Hardcover, 1994




Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1994.


If contemporary culture were a school, with all the tasks and expectations meted out by modern life as its curriculum, would anyone graduate? In the spirit of a sympathetic teacher, Robert Kegan guides us through this tricky curriculum, assessing the fit between its complex demands and our mental capacities, and showing what happens when we find ourselves, as we so often do, in over our heads. In this dazzling intellectual tour, he completely reintroduces us to the psychological landscape of our private and public lives. A decade ago in The Evolving Self, Kegan presented a dynamic view of the development of human consciousness. Here he applies this widely acclaimed theory to the mental complexity of adulthood. As parents and partners, employees and bosses, citizens and leaders, we constantly confront a bewildering array of expectations, prescriptions, claims, and demands, as well as an equally confusing assortment of expert opinions that tell us what each of these roles entails. Surveying the disparate expert "literatures," which normally take no account of each other, Kegan brings them together to reveal, for the first time, what these many demands have in common. Our frequent frustration in trying to meet these complex and often conflicting claims results, he shows us, from a mismatch between the way we ordinarily know the world and the way we are unwittingly expected to understand it. In Over Our Heads provides us entirely fresh perspectives on a number of cultural controversies--the "abstinence vs. safe sex" debate, the diversity movement, communication across genders, the meaning of postmodernism. What emerges in these pages is a theory of evolving ways of knowing that allows us to view adult development much as we view child development, as an open-ended process born of the dynamic interaction of cultural demands and emerging mental capabilities. If our culture is to be a good "school," as Kegan suggests, it must offer, along with a challenging curriculum, the guidance and support that we clearly need to master this course--a need that this lucid and richly argued book begins to meet.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member lauriebrown54
I picked this book up after a psychologist said it was an incredible read, one that made her do a lot of thinking. She was right; Kegan presents some ideas that I’ve not encountered elsewhere. He proposed that there are stages of human development; this isn’t new, but his idea of what these stages are is new.

His five stages start with very young children in the first order; older children (about 7 to 10 years old) in the second; the third order is teenagers and the majority of adults (most never get past this stage); some adults make it to the fourth order, in which people are capable of analyzing situations and making their own decisions and are self-motivated; and the fifth order is one that almost no one makes it too and if they do, it’s as older adults. This post modern stage sees the big picture; they see the world in shades of gray and find the similarities in different systems.

Some parts of this seem obvious; we already know that babies don’t understand that things happen to things and people when the baby is not looking at them (First order); that children are pretty much in the ‘all for me’ stage (Second order); that by the time we’re in our later teens or early adulthood we (hopefully but not necessarily) understand and take into consideration other peoples (and other groups) feelings. That stage 3 people don’t create their own theories or philosophies isn’t so obvious. Most of their actions would seem to show them as fully mature adults, but he’s right: most of the people I know don’t create their own world view but adapt themselves to the philosophies of others. The 5th stage I haven’t really managed to understand; obviously, I’m not nearly there and I’m not sure I know of anyone who is. Is the 5th stage based on examples, or is it something that Kegan hopes people will eventually evolve to? Who would be considered 5th stage? The Dalai lama?

The book is dense and I found it slow going. I’m generally a fast reader but it took me nearly two weeks to finish this book. Admittedly, it’s written for graduate students and I have no degree whatsoever, but I suspect that no one would find it an easy read. It is, however, very interesting and has given me some new ways to look at people.
… (more)
LibraryThing member jpsnow
In 350 pages I just couldn't get into this book. It's about five orders of consciousness and how we're catching up to the demands needed to distinguish between various schools of thought and philosophical systems for ordering our post-modern world. I leave open that I may be too caught up in my own fourth-order thinking or that maybe this just wasn't the right book at this time. I found it took a long time to make its points and even a long time to sufficiently explain the core concept.… (more)


Page: 0.3309 seconds