Sometimes I just get discouraged. The life that I am called to is too complex, too uncertain, too risky and too big. I long for what I have never had, a declarative lifestyle, where my arguments are not complex and doubts are few. I wish for the simple world, where “God said it, I believe it, that closes it” or whatever that phrase is. Or even “That’s wrong” or “This is what you should do.” Something where constants are constants and not constants only in particular physical environments. I long even for Newtonian physics without the confusion of Planck and Co.
According to the late Elliott Jaques, the psychoanalytical social psychologist who coined the term “midlife crisis”, I have no hope of getting this world back, if I ever had it. Jaques posited that we are born with a particular path of growth in our mental complexity and that we grow along this at a predefined path, unless psychological or physical damage prevents that growth. This is why you get to a particular point in your life and you not only realize you can do things that you never could before, but you also no longer like doing work that previously excited you. Jaques would argue that this complexity of thought is only going to get worse, only to increase.
It is an unpopular idea, but nonetheless true, that people mature along innately established, predictable pathways in potential capability (time horizon). [Elliott Jaques, Social Power and the CEO, p. 89.]
This causes problems for some people. As people age, those born with the potential for more complexity increase in mental complexity at a greater degree than those with less potential. My brother has mentioned how some people that he used to get along with now just seem so removed from his life. It’s not that they have such separate interests now where that wasn’t true. They have simply “grown apart.” The curve is not the same for all people. Persons who have been born with a greater potential for complexity will increase in complexity at a much higher rate (steeper curve going up) than those who have less potential. Those who have the least potential hit a peak at about 58, and from there on actually become less complex.
Jaques’s theories are complex and incredibly controversial. He is accused of being a Nazi, of supplying the basis for racial politics and discriminatory policies, for supporting “tracking” in education. None of which is true. Jaques believed in making organizations more democratic, more uplifting. We’re not happy in positions that we don’t have the ability to do nor are we successful. And his cross-cultural research says that all human communities, except for those who are damaged by some type of psychological or physical disaster (e.g., wars, famines, biological weapon attacks), will have similar ratios of people in each category.
We know this instinctively, which is why certain people are recognized as being successful “leaders”, a term Jaques and Clement go to lengths to describe as useless. A study of presidential nominees across several elections has shown that the most complex thinker (as judged by what the nominees said during interviews) of the two won every election. Kennedy was more complex than Nixon in 1960, Carter than Ford, Reagan than Carter or Mondale, Bush Sr. than Dukakis, Clinton than Bush Sr. or Dole. The only election where the most complex thinker didn’t win was the last one, between Gore and Bush Jr. They both had the same complexity and had the same future complexity of information processing, since they were about the same age. Which is why the American people has such a dickens of a time choosing between the two. Americans didn’t even seem to care that much about the Florida recount.
Still, if Jaques is right, you can never recapture that innocent belief that you once had. Your experience and knowledge of God will be different at different stages of you complexity development. Worse, I cannot expect that others can follow me into this new confusion. If I don’t understand what’s going on, I will move into a new complexity of thinking and try to talk to people with this new language. But my old peers may not understand me. Somewhere in this is a huge danger, a massive problem that we don’t have a language for. I have not been taught how to handle this. Very little that is written prepares me to handle this problem, to continue to have good conversations with people, putting my thoughts into language that they can comprehend. A threat of not only misunderstandings but of hurt.
Referenced in this post:
- Art Kleiner’s article from strategy+business, “Elliott Jaques Levels With You“
- Allison Brause’s findings on American Presidential elections
- Elliott Jaques and Stephen Clement’s Executive Leadership