The shape of your mind is one of the single most important characteristics of your life.
And you've probably never heard of it.
The way you think, feel, lead, relate and process your experience and the world is defined in large part by the shape of your mind. In a moment we'll walk through all ten shapes of mind that have evolved to date; I'll be using data drawn from population-level studies of adults in western Europe and the United States. But first, what is it?
The topography of your mental ecosystem
The shape of your mind is the geometry that defines how your mind takes external input from the world and combines it with 1) pre-existing knowledge (or knowledge gaps) and 2) emotional patterning, thereby generating new thought, skills, emotions and behavior. It is your current "map" of the world, helping you to navigate your experience. But unlike a flat, paper-based map, this map is better thought of as topographical. As your mental geometry becomes more complex, the topography of your map becomes more complex and multi-dimensional. (It can also be thought of as a mental ecosystem because it obeys ecosystem-like rules: massive variability amongst its parts, interdependent relationships, non-linear development, creativity and decay.)
Practically speaking, the shape of your mind creates the backdrop for every experience you have and all the meaning you ascribe to it, setting the mindscape through which you navigate your marriage, worldview, goals, relationships, emotional wellbeing, spiritual depth, leadership potential, career success, money habits...in a word: everything.
It is always changing and can be expanded intentionally (or, in an imprecise manner of speaking, intentionally contracted) .
The dimensions of your mental topography
Before I describe each of the ten shapes of mind, let’s go through the key dimensions that help to drive your mental geometry, one-by-one. If your shape of mind is topographical, these represent the earth moving equipment.
Inputs: Correlated with your scope of life experience, what you choose to read, feel, eat, travel, try, etc. all define the scope of the inputs you have fed your mind. The broader and more varied the scope of inputs, the more your mental geometry will have to grow to be able to synthesize them into a new pattern of meaning-making that keeps the mind coherent and stable.
What you know: Every experience you have, from the sound of the phone ringing to the thought about tomorrow’s party, is processed by what you already know — knowledge you already have. What you know impacts your current mental geometry, which is why some knowledge can itself accelerate the evolution of your shape of mind.
What you don’t know: Some people lean into a knowledge or perspective gap. Others don’t. Sometimes you’re triggered in a particular domain–religion, politics etc.–where you don’t want to lean into those gaps. But how you process experience that triggers what you don’t know (and what makes you uncomfortable) is at least as important, if not more so, as any that encompasses what you do know.
Emotional patterning: Your emotional circuitry has a pattern that it will follow every single time certain conditions are met (e.g., getting angry when someone cuts you off in traffic). Each pattern has been built because it works for you (i.e., it either protects you from harm, affirms your sense of self, or gains you positive rewards, or any combination of the three). While there are as many possible patterns as life situations (i.e., virtually infinite), there are probably only a handful of “mega-patterns” you rely on. Emotions can act like a giant fence around your otherwise robust earth moving equipment, locking them in so that your current shape of mind clings tightly to its known topography.
Hardware: And of course, genetics, biology, neurophysiology and dozens of other factors bear on the basic biophysical scope of possibilities and patterns of each shape of mind. (I believe they'll find that neuroanatomical differences that foster openness to experience as a personality trait, for example, will be shown to correlate in some instances with later-stage shapes of mind). This variability makes it all the more amazing that developmental psychologists have discovered that shapes of mind aggregate into one of ten basic "mega-patterns."
The ten shapes of mind
Here are the 10 shapes that we find across all of human life, along with percentages of their prevalence (across the adult population in the US and Europe). You will notice that these 10 shapes are sequential, starting at 1 and growing in very few people to 10. There is a huge amount to know behind this list, so consider this a simplifying primer to a complex topic.
1. Incorporative (~0%) — Infantile consciousness that has not yet differentiated from the environment, in adults this requires institutionalization. This isn’t you.
2. Impulsive (<1%) — Impulse-driven consciousness marked by cognitive simplicity characteristic of children from 2-4 years old. Impulsive adults will be easily overwhelmed, confused and emotionally disturbed. This also isn’t you.
3. Opportunist (9%) — Warrior consciousness where might makes right and power is its own reward. Black and white distinctions made about a world animated by magic, full of danger and dark forces. Opportunists address the perceived scarcity of the world and threats to life through power, projecting power and displays of fearsomeness. This may be you, but more likely you’ll see these folks at music award shows or dictators wearing military uniforms. Bonus points if you can name three brands that appeal to this stage of consciousness (hint: there's one where grown men wear makeup and costumes).
4. Diplomat (12%) — Conformist consciousness where adherence to “the tribe’s” expected values and behavior is the defining value system. The Diplomat’s goal is to avoid overt conflict and promote order and stability within the in-group. A shape of mind with limited cognitive nuance, as leaders they are unable to create the truthful communication and discernments necessary for a group to navigate the complexity of the world. The dominant value system is to address the perceived scarcity of the world and threats to life through social visibility, working very hard to effect an approved, popular public appearance and social persona. There are various social media celebrities and religious personalities in this group.
5. Expert (38%) — Expert consciousness attempts to perfect itself and its world through mastery of knowledge, expertise and continuous improvement. Experts see the world and life as a system that has rules and can be optimized, giving rise to movements such as quantified self, Big Data and the underpinnings of Silicon Valley’s dominant techno-meritocratic epistemology. As the most prevalent shape of mind in corporate leadership, they spend inordinate amounts of time on water-tight analysis of data and quantified argumentation, and yet this also can present a bias against collaboration and deep, empathic listening (EQ is typically valued less at this shape of mind than certain others). Experts typically display a high level of self-certainty, cognitive assuredness and rapid judgment formation. Generally they are not interested in inner mental or emotional work as the complexity of perspective required to do so—seeing one’s own interior as an object to be worked upon—is still largely out of reach for the Expert. The Expert’s values call for addressing perceived scarcity in the world and threats to life by winning and maintaining self-certainty, which it does by not allowing itself to become overly open-minded to contradictory views. Wall Street's analyst corps is trained to this stage in the early-part of their careers.
Author's note: In the first 5 shapes of mind we just covered 60% of the adult population.
6. Achiever (25%) — Achiever consciousness places rationality, universal ideals and earnest conviction at the forefront of a life well-lived and a society that can be perfected through ongoing progress, technology and rationality. This is the shape of mind that all modern social systems (e.g., education etc.) are designed to develop adults to become. Achievers believe deeply in the notion of autonomy and freedom and are very goal-driven, even while they can begin to see the impacts their actions have on the broader world. Achiever values are found everywhere, from the curation of TED to the pages of Fast Company and Inc. magazines.
Cognitively, the achiever shape of mind sees a powerful world-system at work that through optimization and further discovery can be progressively enhanced, believing in the notion of system perfectability. Achievers begin to run into the deeper contradictions inherent in reality and remain fearful of losing control. But they cannot yet see the constructed nature of reality, meaning-formation and intersubjective contexts (i.e., they are not yet aware of their own “epistemic situatedness” in terms of their values, their language, their social contracts etc.). Achiever leaders are the primary goal of corporate programs—they are effective, focused and goal-driven. Nevertheless, they struggle with the complexity required of senior leaders in large, global organizations today, which require more advanced shapes of mind.
7. Relativist (10%) — Relativist consciousness makes an important breakthrough to seeing truth as situated in context and thereby bounded by the system from which it's generated. In this regard Relativists begin to suspect that the best reply to the complexity that they're beginning to see in the world is to privilege each individual's viewpoint on it. Truth, beauty and goodness tend to become subjective for the Relativist, a values-sensitivity that philosophically presaged and still underpins the equal rights, environmental and gender movements.
Cognitively the Relativist shape of mind begins to see that world is composed of innumerable interacting complex systems and that "finding a right way through" has to give way to "anything goes as long as no one gets hurt."Relativist values have permeated contemporary culture as aspirational values–even though only 10% of the leading edge of the population is Relativist, it nevertheless animates downward an ethos: from the authenticity of craft brewing and the maker movement to the conscious lifestyle of the yoga and mindfulness movements the heritage of Relativist consciousness is passed down to Diplomats, Experts and Achievers who constitute a significant part of those movements.
Relativists often evolve away from the Achiever's bias for autonomy and freedom and towards a new bias for community interaction, group process and emotional sanctity. Paradoxically it is their loyalty to the precious subject that often prevents them from being able to maintain stable, unified communities, despite this being the most communally-inclined shape of mind to evolve since Diplomat. They soon discover that sanctifying every subject's viewpoint is a recipe for massive communal fragmentation.
Nevertheless, because the Relativist is rediscovering their inner life for what feels like the first time after leaving the highly exterior-orientation of the Achiever, it is a shape of mind that often feels like a euphoric liberation of magical possibility. Heavily populating the new age movement of the modern west, it is the mind through which a "re-enchantment of the world" occurs. The Relativist's values call for addressing perceived scarcity in the world and threats to life by trying ever harder to reconcile differences and foster (sometimes domineering) movements of liberation. In the end Relativists can accept anything goes except those people for whom anything doesn't go.
8. Strategist (4%)–Strategist consciousness emerges when the fragmentation of the Relativist viewpoint creates enough cognitive tension to force a move to deeper discernment, often situated in natural hierarchies of order, power, social regulation and complex systems. Strategists are able to not only cognize the complexity of the world's competing systems in the manner of the Relativist, they begin to synthesize how these systems interoperate, allowing them to reestablish a definitive sense of direction, strategy and capability in the face of overwhelming complexity. Animated by this newfound ability to integrate complexity, Strategists sometimes wear themselves out through sheer overreach: seeing what can be done and must be done, and then deciding that they must do it.
Strategists, though still relatively rare, make highly-effective, often visionary corporate leaders: they've integrated at least some of the interior fluency of the Relativist (emotional intelligence, spiritual sensitivity and communal coordination) with the hard-hitting efficacy of the Achiever and Expert. They can develop a compelling vision, can rally people behind it and can proceed to implementation.
The Strategist's response to scarcity and threat is paradigmatically different than previous shapes of mind: rather than contract into a threatened-self or a set of lofty but judgmental ideals, the Strategist understands that scarcity and decay is a natural aspect of reality, but can be influenced by creating new systems of abundance. Paraphrasing Bucky Fuller: don't try to change a system, create a new one that makes the old one obsolete. Eventually, however, the Strategist runs into its limiting problem: they begin to suspect that the scope of their vision and the complexity of their mind are themselves at the core of a more fundamental limitation of their own self-identity, a being-in-the-world who can only redeem its potential by finding the simplicity on the other side of all that complexity. As they approach Alchemist they understand finally that to be a nobody after being somebody is the only sustainable unwinding of the world-knot they see, and though true for everyone eventually, it becomes urgent for themselves.
9. Alchemist (<1%)–A tiny fraction of adults in the western world evolve to Alchemist consciousness, a shape of mind whose defining characteristic is the ability to see through all constructions placed on a mysterious reality–from language to economic systems, from emotional patterning to political discourse–and to do so in nearly real-time. For the Alchemist this creates what feels like a paradoxical and irresolvable tension of living authentically amidst a world of ever-reflecting surfaces: even though the Alchemist can see through all of them it still requires constant surrender to the tension of being anybody at all in a world that desperately demands somebodies (demanding they offer salvation in its various guises). Indeed, this becomes a surrender into a near-constant state of presence as the only realm where the illusive play of opposites is resolved without artifice.
As leaders Alchemists can wield the extraordinary innate power this represents if they are motivated to do so, though they are just as likely to smile politely at the incentives that social systems (corporations, government, unions etc.) have learned to use to motivate earlier-stage shapes of mind. And just as well, as Alchemists might embark on positively-subversive transformation projects that may not nourish how earlier shapes of mind judge goodness and utility; they cognitively inhabit a time-scale, sense of being and breadth of consideration that is foreign to a majority of the adult population. (One prominent developmentalist has told me he has never seen this shape of mind in anyone before their late 30s, and most far later than that.)
10. Unitive (~0%)–There is (scant) research that suggests that in the case of a select few adults today they have reached a 10th shape of mind that situates itself as a unity with being. Though words inevitably will fail to convey what Unitive consciousness feels like from within, and very little research is available to depict the topography of the shape of mind from without, some comments can be made. First, from my work I have absolutely no doubt that this shape of mind will be emerging ever more prominently over the coming few decades; I know personally several people who I believe are entering this shape of mind now. Because the Unitive emerges as the solution to the central conflict of the Alchemist, the Unitive has largely dissolved a separate sense of self as apart from reality, and instead operates as being a transcendent cosmic unfolding: not a subject viewing evolution as witness, but as evolution witnessing itself. The felt-state of the Unitive, therefore, is love. When one is nothing, one is everything; and when one is everything, loving is one's identity. Not as a noun, but as a verb. The Unitive shape of mind is the act of loving the unfolding nature of being as itself, with no substantive differentiation amongst beings. And yet with no loss of one's ability to be a unique expression of that love in the world. The Unitive is a unique self.
More to know about the shapes of mind.
• Your shape of mind will determine what you can see, make sense of and therefore the complexity of problems you can work on.
• As you can imagine, the question of "better" and "worse" shapes of mind is a loaded question. The important question is whether you're happy with yours. This is not as superficial as it might sound: any shape of mind that is well-suited to your current life conditions will often produce a powerful and nourishing sense of order, happiness and efficacy. On the other hand unhappiness and disharmony can sometimes signal a shape of mind that is still in a disintegrated transition zone, either leaving an old one behind or a new one not yet having firmed up entirely. Over the years hundreds of my friends have talked to me about feeling purposeless, with their career becoming less meaningful after they've achieved success. I tell them to watch for a several year-transition from Achiever to Relativist as they shuck off the conventional definitions of success that they thought they were supposed to achieve.
• It will also determine the upper-limit of complexity you can cognize without feeling overwhelmed or excited.
• It will strongly influence the nature and success of your goals and therefore bears strongly on all behavior change and habit formation.
• Higher complexity of life conditions as well as mental-emotional practices drive adaptations to higher-order shapes of mind.
• People cannot self-assess their own shape of mind. When they try, they often overestimate by up to two levels.
• Changing from one shape of mind to the next can take 6-10 years in adulthood, and there are definitely some practices to accelerate the process (I'll post on how to do so at some point).
• Every new shape of mind is a solution to the core problem that the former stage created as it evolved, and it brings with it the seeds of the next core problem (i.e., each shape of mind is an "evolutionary truce" between one's way of making-meaning and the complexity of its surrounding life conditions).
• There are tools to change your shape of mind. My intention is for Chrysallis to evolve as transformational technology that might do so at-scale in a full-spectrum way; we will both succeed and fail in our own ways, but what we learn might pave the way for a successful approach.
• Be careful what you wish for. Changing your shape of mind is not a panacea.
• The story is more complex than I’m telling you, because that would be a very long post indeed.