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2 August 2023

The Hidden Beauties of Developmental Communities

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

A dozen years ago, I had a funny sort of problem. My work in adult development brought me in touch with so many interesting people, people who were both engaged in their own development and also in supporting the development in others. People who wanted to help make the world a better place. And yet these people didn’t know each other. They knew me, and I knew them, but that wasn’t much of a robust network model. So with my friends Keith Johnston and Carolyn Coughlin, I started the Growth Edge Network. 

Our hope was to expand beyond the classic ways other groups talked about adult development—with research conferences, expert panels, professorial keynotes. Don’t get me wrong, I love that stuff (ok, in the spirit of full disclosure I do not like expert panels), but those societies exist (the Society for Research in Adult Development was interesting then and is still interesting now). The focus on many of these more traditional spaces to think about adult development, though, was about sharing answers: research and theoretical findings, expertise, etc. Keith, Carolyn, and I were looking to create a place where we could bring our questions, our musings, our desire to build ideas together. We sent out a letter to 50 colleagues wondering if they’d like to be in some kind of community of practice. Forty nine of them said yes. They mailed us checks, we made a website, and we started hosting conference calls (on the phone!) where someone would bring a question that related to adult development ideas: How is friendship developmental? How does our relationship to experimentation change as we grow? What’s the relationship between development and the use of power?

We had our first in-person gathering in Sydney in 2013. People brought their questions and their confusions. They told stories, cited papers, got the ideas for dissertation studies. They made friendships, created communities of practice, built work together. 

Now it’s ten years after that first gathering, a dozen years after the first idea. The Growth Edge Network is called Lume now. I love the tagline: Curiosity loves company.

At last we are gathering in person after the long Covid absence, and for the first time we’re gathering in Europe—in late October in Lisbon. As my excitement builds for our time together and I think about the questions I might bring, I’ve been wondering about what has changed in me as I consider this community oriented around adult development ideas. I think the biggest difference is this: twelve years ago, I thought the most important thing that the community would do is build ideas. I still believe that building ideas is wonderful. But I have noticed in the years since that while community is important in building ideas, the adult development ideas are important in building a vibrant community as well. That was unexpected. I think this is because some of the animating assumptions of our community are so helpful at building deep and long relationships. Let’s unpack ­­­four of those.

Meaning-making matters.  When you care about adult development, it’s not what someone thinks about but how they think that is most interesting. Those who are interested in adult development, then, are those who are fascinated by the stories of others and in particular the way those others hold their stories. This has generally meant that it is curiosity about others that is the driving force of their conversations. And because it’s actually really hard to measure development (although that’s also rewarding—you can learn more about that here), we don’t go around measuring each other—that’s too hard (and also too weird). Instead, that curiosity travels with us as we inquire deeply into what is most important to each other. That makes for conversations at lunch time much more interesting than the usual, “So what do you do for a living?”

Diversity is beautiful. I am guessing there are people who find monocultures and mono-meaning systems beautiful, but they are rarely the folks I know who are interested in adult development. When you care about development, every new perspective is additive and expanding of your own perspective, and so a diversity of perspectives is not only welcome; it’s necessary. This also means that people tend to understand some of the difficulties of speaking and hearing one another across our differences, and they tend to try harder to understand what it is like to be in the shoes of the other—while also knowing we can never fully arrive at that understanding. To be in a place where the baseline assumption is that difference is beautiful means that it’s somehow easier to show up in a full way. Whatever your unique pathway to this moment has been, it has forged something individually fascinating and expanding. It’s fun to be around people who think difference is cool.

Adult development is a small part of the story. At Lume, people come in with a whole variety of interests. Some are coaches. Some are leaders. Or professors. Or wilderness guides. While we’re all interested in the growth of human meaning making over time, we all have a ton of other interests as well. Each of us knows that adult development is one small piece of the story of what it means to be human—an important part, but only one part. We are interested in how our body handles trauma and growth. We are interested in complexity. We are interested in how organizations could be structured to make a better world. We are interested in how schools for kids might support their inner development as much as they support their growth in knowledge. This diversity creates the context for us to each hold slightly different pieces of the endless puzzle about what it is to be human, what it is to live a good life, what it is to work together to create the next chapter that humans need to craft on this fragile planet. 

Above all of these things, though, perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned at Lume these last dozen years is that relationships are where our growth happens. Yes, there are ideas, and they are important. Yes, there are practices, and those practices can help us metabolise our difficulties into growth. But it is in our relationships that we find the most important ingredients for our own growth—the ability to see ourselves, to have ourselves reflected back, and to have the reason to change—to improve the quality of our relationships and thus the quality of our lives. I learned long ago that the inquiry into someone’s meaning system—deep listening, questioning without judgement, profound perspective taking—these were the ingredients of love. But now I have learned that love is one of the key elements of development itself. Our willingness to change is often in a context of relationships; it is worth growing as we face into the difficulties of parenting, partnering, leading. And it is the loving support of someone who is willing to hold us as we change that can make development safe and possible. 

A community founded on these assumptions makes the growth of those relationships so much more possible.  Too often, the implicit agreement in relationships seems to be, “I won’t grow if you don’t.”  When we join together seeking to both admire and respect the self we are today as well as make a safe space for the self we might be growing into tomorrow, we create the conditions for growth.

Our community is imperfect. We have been too long apart (this European in-person meeting will be our first since 2019) and we have lost some of what has glued us together. As we move into this next chapter, we’re trying to figure out what leadership looks like as the founders take a step back and others step forward. Like all communities, we need to continually refresh and restore what we mean to one another. But these dozen years have shown me that communities based deep curiosity and in supporting human development can be powerful forces for good. I wonder what I’ll learn in October in Lisbon. Curiosity does love company indeed.

Interested in learning more about adult development ideas? Vernice Jones, Rodney Howard and I are offering a free webinar to explore some of these questions. You can find more information here.

Interested in finding out what we’re up to at Lume?  Email Sam, our administrator, and she’ll get you some information about our community and our Lisbon conference in October.

The photo today is from that first gathering more than a decade ago. 

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