These are the stages of ego development according to Ken Wilber. For further learning, check out Wilber's work at

SYMBIOTIC: Adult  Population: ~0%

Differentiation from the environment occurs when an infant discovers that an undifferentiated self/environment has consequences, for example biting finger hurts, biting toy does not. This marks a differentiation from the surrounding environment and the first beginnings of a self-environment boundary. Stage one is an infantile consciousness that remains almost completely fused with all biological impulses and their environment. In adults this requires institutionalization.  

IMPULSIVE: Adult  Population: <1%

Differentiation from the prior stage occurs as rudimentary forms of language arise and interaction with the primary caregiver gets needs met. [Summary]: Impulse-driven consciousness marked by cognitive simplicity characteristic of children from 2-4 years old. Impulsive adults are their needs and are easily overwhelmed, confused and emotionally disturbed. They are still not fully differentiated as selves and experience the anxiety arising from their constant state of helplessness. As adults they need institutional or caregiver support. 

OPPORTUNISTIC: Adult  Population: 12%

Differentiation from the prior stage occurs as the child becomes not totally dependent on another for all aspects of their life maintenance. This is the first stage where the child is a whole self, in itself. 

In adults, opportunists represent "warrior consciousness" where might makes right and power is its own reward. Because it is the first stage of an actual self, as such, it understands the world as a power struggle between itself and all else outside it. This creates black and white distinctions in 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.

DIPLOMAT: Adult  Population: 25%

Differentiation from the prior stage occurs as the child (approaching adolescence) learns that "might makes right" doesn't work very well in a social world where there are other people with their own interests and agency. Their embeddedness in a self-only world gradually gives way to a desire to be part of a self-social world.

This stage is often called conformist consciousness because adherence to “the tribe’s” expected values and behavior is the defining value system. Flush with the novel euphoria of belonging (to something bigger than the narrow confines of the previous self-only world), the Diplomat’s goal is to avoid overt conflict and promote order and stability within the in-group. This is a shape of mind with limited nuance because the range of cognitive differentiation is still narrowly confined to the self-interests of the prior stage and the group-interests of the current stage (with which they are completely identified).

Diplomats represent a not insignificant portion of the adult population and are quite skillful in service and the helping industries. As leaders they struggle to communicate candidly and with the discernments necessary for a group to navigate the real complexity of the surrounding world (which sits several stages higher than this one).

The dominant value system of the Diplomat 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. Because a Diplomat's self-identity is isomorphic to group norms and expectations–that is, it doesn't represent a compromise to conform, their very self is already conformed–it is safe to say that many social media celebrities, political and religious personalities come from this stage of development.

EXPERT: Adult  Population: 30%

Differentiation from the prior stage occurs as the emerging adult moves beyond group-centric mind and instead begins to establish their independence. They want to be their own person and pursue their own values. Whereas the Diplomat's self-identity is embedded in the groups with which it identified and therefore individual differences weren't seen–they literally had no meaning because they barely registered–the Expert differentiates from this group identity and emerges into its photo negative: an independence yielded precisely by as much individual difference and distinction as they can find.

Hence, expert consciousness attempts to perfect itself and its world through mastery of knowledge, expertise and continuous improvement. It is on a hunt for as much distinction from everyone else as it can achieve. This is true even when, ironically, it does join groups of experts that both animate this distinction from everyone else while also being a part of a group of the like-minded. This yearning combines with the Expert's perception of the world as a system, with rules and open to full optimization, to give 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 business leadership, Experts spend inordinate amounts of time on exterior realities and the "one right way" to accomplish their aims: water-tight analysis of data, quantified argumentation, etc. Yet this also can present a bias against collaboration and deep, empathic listening (i.e., EQ is typically valued less at this shape of mind than certain others because they perceive a right way to do things that is largely blind to inner forces).

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.

Many companies live at the Expert stage, building brands and products that convey the expertise, certainty and "one best way" to achieve goals in a complex world. Like every stage, the Expert stage can produce terrible outcomes if not checked and balanced: as Wall Street's analyst corps is trained to this stage in the early-part of their careers, and the value system of Wall Street itself often serves the money-at-all-costs values of the Opportunist stage, it sometimes creates the toxic mix of greed and apparent certainty that produces social disasters such as the CDO meltdown and ensuing Great Recession of 2008.

ACHIEVER : Adult  Population: 23%

Differentiation from the prior stage occurs as an adult begins to encounter the fuller complexity of a world that is perfectible: life requires taking full responsibility for choices; the world is more nuanced than the Expert believes; mindsets and the thoughts that frame choices become important; in short: thinking about thinking becomes a critical skill for navigating the emerging world of the Achiever.

Achiever consciousness places rationality, universal ideals and earnest conviction at the forefront of a life well-lived. The Achiever believes that society can be perfected through ongoing progress, technology, and rationality. The Achiever 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 sees a powerful world-system at work that through optimization and further discovery can be progressively enhanced, believing in the notion of ideals and system perfectibility. 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.), which drives those who continue growing into Relativist consciousness.

Achievers are not just the goal of our educational system, they are also the primary goal of leadership development 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.

RELATIVIST: Adult  Population: 10%

Differentiation from the prior stage occurs as an adult begins to encounter the contradictions of a world that has vastly different perspectives than their own on what constitutes an ideal: values, methods, perspectives, cultures, backgrounds all differ greatly and present the Achiever with an incommensurable degree of complexity at their current shape of mind. Relativist consciousness emerges to provide 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 the world is composed of innumerable interacting complex systems and that "finding a right way through" often has to give way to a more muted, relativistic "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. As Ken Wilber has pointed out, the postmodern-pluralism that's undermined the truth has promoted either no truth (nihilism) or my truth (narcissism), neither of which are capable of holding a society together. 

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 self-development, coaching and empowerment movements 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 movements of liberation (which sometimes go on to a domineering militancy themselves). In the end, Relativists get caught in a contradiction: they accept that anything goes except those people for whom anything doesn't go.

STRATEGIST: Adult  Population: 4%

Differentiation from the prior stage occurs 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. These are the critical distinctions in which Strategist consciousness emerges.

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. The Strategist's grasp of systems is far more complex than the Achiever, for whom the inner life was just emerging, and who hasn't yet wrestled with the enormous complexity of competing perspectives, values and idealisms that the Relativist works through (often for a decade or more).

But this also causes the central dilemma for the Strategist: animated by a 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 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.

ALCHEMIST: Adult  Population: <1%

Differentiation from the prior stage occurs when the Strategist becomes increasingly exhausted by the complexity of their mind and the limitation of being a self that pursues ever-grander goals while constructing realities through mental activity in order to propagate those goals and that self. The Alchemist emerges from a deep knowing that all experience is an ongoing process of mental construction and the self is maintained only through a contradictory process of storytelling.

A small fraction of adults in the western world evolve to Alchemist consciousness, a shape of mind whose defining characteristic is the ability to see through 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 (meaning that the Alchemist doesn't overly-identify with the shifting, phenomenal nature of experience).

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 that everyone play their roles and adopt various guises to satisfy wants and social expectations). 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 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 (decades, centuries or more), 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.)

UNITIVE: Adult  Population: ~0%


Differentiation from the prior stage occurs as the Alchemist finally dissolves the tiring dialectic of self-no self: the Unitive dissolves the separate self as an ongoing locus of consciousness. 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. 

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.


You may also like

If you found this information useful, I welcome you to join me at the BodhiBuilding Institute, where you can empower yourself with an abundance of knowledge, downloadable resources, expert guidance, and an engaging community. Take advantage of our forums, where all your queries will be answered, and join us for weekly live Office Hours. 

If you have ever wanted to invest in personal coaching or therapy, but can't afford to commit to it, then BBI is the place to start! You can access so much information and get your queries answered for FREE, or you can upgrade for $97/mo to get personal 1-1 guidance with all the tools needed to start (or advance) your own health, fitness or personal development journey!