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  • Writer's pictureDavid de Souza

The Top 1% of Thinkers

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

65% of people never become high-functioning adults and only 1% reach the highest level.

The top 1% have transformed their minds, allowing then to see the world in higher dimensions, detached from binary thinking and their ego.

The reason that so many fail is because they outsource their thinking, relying on others to tell them what is right or wrong.

As adults, we don’t have a clear path for our development. We don’t know where we stand and we lack direction as to where to go.

This essay is an 80/20 guide on how to become a high-functioning adult based on Kegan’s Theory of Adult Development.

There are 5 stages of adult development:

  1. Stage 1 - The Impulsive Stage - Childlike - Less than 1%

  2. Stage 2 - The Imperial Stage - 6% of adults During this second stage, our own needs are the most important thing. We focus on what we want and how we can get it. The guiding questions we ask ourselves are: What’s in it for me? & Will I get punished if I don’t do this?

  3. Stage 3 - The Socialized Mind - 58% of Adults At stage 3, we get our thoughts, beliefs, and values from external sources, such as our parents or a religion. We worry about how others see us and we look for external validation to give us a sense of success. In stage 2 we stop at a red traffic light because we are afraid of getting into trouble, in stage 3 we stop because it goes against the rules of what we have been told is right or wrong.

  4. Stage 4 - The Self-Authoring Mind - 35% of Adults At stage 4 we independently define who we are and what we believe to be right or wrong, we don’t outsource our thinking to other people, laws, or religions. At stage 4 we might decide to go through a red light if it’s 3 a.m. and there are no other cars on the road.

  5. Stage 5 - Interindividual stage - 1% of Adults At stage 5 we can hold multiple truths simultaneously and we are comfortable with paradoxes. Nassim Taleb provides a good example of this type of thinking when he says: “With my family, I’m a communist. With my close friends, I’m a socialist. At the state level of politics, I’m a Democrat. At higher levels, I’m a Republican, and at the federal levels, I’m a Libertarian.”

Hopefully, if you are reading this, you are at least at stage 3, so I’m not going to waste your time progressing through the earlier stages. Let’s fast forward to Stage 4:

How to Get to Stage 4

The key to understanding ourselves is to get curious and to ask questions. Natali Mallel suggests 3 questions:

  1. What do I think?

  2. What do I want?

  3. What are my motivations?

1. What do I think?

Most of your opinions are actually just the opinions of other people that you have decided to agree with. It is rare for our beliefs to be self-generated.

We are unconscious conformists. Paul Graham writes in his book, Hackers and Painters:

“Let's start with a test: Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?

If the answer is no, you might want to stop and think about that. If everything you believe is something you're supposed to believe, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn't. Odds are you just think whatever you're told.”

Usually, the people that we agree with are members of our ingroup: our political party, our religion, or our family. We have a strong desire to align ourselves with our ingroup but in order to get to stage 4 we need to think independently.

Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired Magazine says, If your views on other things can be predicted from your view on one thing you need to be careful that you’re not in the gripe of an ideology….your opinions might be too highly correlated….that's suspicious because most people are much more complicated than that.

To start thinking independently, begin by assessing your values. Here is a list of 102 personal values. Which of the 102 resonate with you: loyalty, honesty or adventure perhaps?

Some people make a list of New Year's resolutions. I have a friend who writes down his values and rearranges them each year depending on what’s important to him. I suggest doing something similar and when a question arises, use your values as a starting point to navigate your opinion.

For example, if the question is about COVID vaccines, and your values are caring, humanity and compassion, you may agree with mandatory vaccinations. But if you are young, fit and your values are health and wellness you could have the opposite perspective.

When we come to realize that people have different values, we start to see that there are no right or wrong answers and that multiple things can be true (a trait from Stage 5). Much disagreement boils down to one person prioritizing their values over someone else's. However, just because a person prioritizes wellness over compassion, it doesn’t mean they are wrong (or right). Just as you aren’t wrong for donating to a nature charity vs a cancer charity.

2. What do I want?

Like our thoughts, our desires are heavily influenced by other people. The French social theorist René Girard called this mimetic desire and wrote:

"Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires."

But it’s not just material desires that we take from other people, their emotional wants are also projected onto us.

To reach level 4 we must understand what we truly desire and clearly communicate those wants to the people we interact with. We need to stop operating from a place of “what do other people want from me?” and focus on “what do I really want?”

Spending time assessing your values and prioritizing them will help you to understand what you want.

3. What Are my Motivations?

Everything we do is driven by motivations, and these motivations can be higher-level or lower-level motivations.

  • Higher-Level Motivations - Come from the identity of the person that we want to be.

  • Lower-Level Motivations - Come from: guilt, desire, ego, and uncertainty.

For example, imagine that you see someone being bullied. You decide to step in and start berating the bully. Your motivation could be higher-level: not wanting to see a weaker person being taken advantage of, or your motivation could be lower-level, arising from your desire to be powerful, seizing an opportunity to take your anger out on someone. Alternatively, your motivation could be a combination of both higher- and lower-level impulses.

The question to ask yourself is: Which one is motivating you more and why? It’s about becoming more aware and open and seeing yourself for how you really are, even your darker side. It’s not about trying to eliminate your lower level-motivations (that’s impossible), it’s about being more aware of them and not letting them control you.

How to Get to Stage 5

It’s rare for anyone to move beyond Stage 4; for the few that do, it usually doesn’t happen before middle age.

If you want to see the world from stage 5, you need to get comfortable with a few things:

1. Binary Thinking

Have you noticed how people often put things into classifications? Usually, these classifications are binary: left-wing or right-wing, introverted or extraverted, good or bad.

We like to put things into categories as it is easier on our brains but binary thinking comes at the expense of seeing the world clearly.

Imagine how much richer a picture becomes when you go from seeing it in 2 dimensions into 3D. The same is true with our thinking. By adding a new dimension, a more detailed picture is painted.

We think the media is informing us but often they propagate binary thinking. Think about how common it is for the media to call a person left- or right-wing. The Political Compass website gives a more nuanced picture of a politician, adding an additional dimension, showing where they fall on the spectrum of Authoritarian & Libertarian:

2. We are Multitudinal

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote: “The test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

If we expand on what Fitzgerald wrote, including not just ideas but thoughts, emotions, and ideologies, we become multi-faceted.

In physics, a force diagram is used as a graphical illustration to visualize the forces acting upon an object. It can help to see ourselves in a similar way, being pulled in multiple directions by different forces, not just the most powerful force that is acting on us.

For example, I have a British passport and I’m influenced by British culture, but I also have an American passport and I am influenced by my parent’s country of origin, my friends, and the books I read.

3. Embrace Paradoxes

Paradoxes are uncomfortable as they challenge our assumptions about ourselves and the world, but this discomfort is what makes them so powerful. The pain that we experience is the mental equivalent of the burn you feel after a good workout, and it’s a signal that you are developing.

Some of the most important discoveries originated from paradoxical thinking. Einstein, for example, discovered how an object could be both at rest and moving depending on the position of the observer. This thought experiment led to his theory of relativity.

Danish physicist Niels Bohrtried noticed that energy acted both as waves and particles. This paradox led to a new understanding of quantum mechanics.

Paradoxes not only tell us truths about the world but they can also tell us truths about ourselves. Carl Jung noticed that the characteristics in others that bother us, are often reflections of the parts of ourselves that we deny. For example, people who are untrusting, often can’t be trusted themselves.

A Paradox is an anomaly, a glitch in the matrix and as Shane Parrish says: How you respond to anomalies is a good indicator of your open-mindedness. You can identify these moments when you find something surprising, missing, or strange. Anomalies indicate the world doesn’t work the way you thought it did. These moments can be worth their weight in gold if you pay attention. Closed-minded people tend to ignore or gloss over anomalies. Open-minded people want to dive in and understand. Of course, diving in is hard as it may require you to discard your ideas and beliefs.

I suggest keeping a paradoxe journal, recording any that you notice similar to Mark Mason here. By embracing paradoxes, it will transform the way you see the world and yourself.

4. Transformation of Mind

When I saw a Magic Eye Book for the first time, I was on a family holiday in Germany. The book contained a number of pages of psychedelic patterns. As I flicked through the book I didn’t think the images inside were anything special.

My Dad came over and told me to look at the image on the cover and to relax my eyes as I gazed through the page. I stared, not really understanding what he meant by ‘’gaze through the page’’. Still, nothing happened. I had almost reached the point of giving up when all of a sudden I gasped as a 3D image magically popped onto the page. It was like I was seeing the world differently and from that moment, I was able to see other magic eye images almost instantly.

Nothing about the image had changed. It was simply the way in which I was viewing the image that caused me to see the book in a totally new and much richer way. The same is true with seeing the world and ourselves.

By seeing the world from a different perspective, and removing humanity's ego, Copernicus was the first person to realize that the earth was not at the center of the universe.

Development of the mind is about transforming the way we view the world - not simply adding more knowledge - and it requires a shift in perspective.

How can you shift your perspective? Use the feeling of surprise as a clue. As Morgan Housel says: When you catch yourself saying “That doesn’t make any sense”, “That shouldn’t happen”, “I didn’t expect that”, you’re surprised. That’s your cue to pay attention.

We are used to seeing the world through our own eyes, through our experiences, but when we zoom out, we see things from a different perspective. Americans often see the world from a US-centric perspective, but by zooming out and perhaps by looking at other countries, it helps to put our opinions into perspective.

Seeing things from a different perspective is foreign and difficult. Morgan Housel goes on to say: “The trick to opening your mind to viewpoints you disagree with, is to find people whose views on one topic you respect – that checks the box in your head that says “this person isn’t crazy” – and listen to them about topics you disagree on.“

When those two things align – a person you admire disagrees with you about something fundamental – pay close attention.

Seek out different views. Step outside the safety of your ingroup, that is where growth happens. Join debating societies, befriend people from different walks of life. Look for companies to work with that celebrate diversity.

5. Detachment

It is much harder to change our thinking when something is part of our identity. Buddhism teaches that suffering arises when we become too attached to our beliefs, emotions, and possessions.

The inverse of attachment is detachment. Detachment is not indifference. It is the act of viewing your world objectively, at arm's length. Notice the difference in saying: “I am angry” versus “I am feeling angry”. The former is part of you, the latter is something you are holding. Development occurs when the mind no longer considers something part of its identity. Transform your attachments: You are not your feelings, emotions, or beliefs. You have feelings, emotions, and beliefs.

Embrace others who are detached from their identity. As George Mack advises: “If somebody tells you something that goes against their incentives and identity – pay attention. Why? They’ve had to go against their identity to say it. They’ve had to swim upstream. For example: If someone tells you the worst part about living in their city or the worst part of their job – it’s usually signal rather than noise.”

Stage 6

Getting to stage 5 and joining the top 1% is an alluring goal but a fixation on "leveling up, from stage 3…to 4….to 5" misses the point: the measure becomes a target. In other words, when we use each stage to reward performance, we provide an incentive to manipulate the measure in order to receive the reward.

Paradoxically, stage 6 involves stepping outside the realm of stages altogether.

You may get more value in not being attached to "leveling up"... I've learned that focusing on the stages perverts development because my attention goes into asking "I think I should act like this" rather than focusing on life, and what I am committed to, and not worrying too much about development. As such, remember that these stages are more of a byproduct or an emergent phenomenon, rather than a target.

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