Where are you in the Adult Life Cycle?

Emotional intelligence is highly valued as a crucial element to leadership development. We know we need it but the question remains how to go about developing it. If adults spontaneously achieved higher levels of emotional intelligence simply with advancing age, we would be a culture of sages. Sadly we are not. If we agree with researchers such as Daniel Goleman and others that emotional intelligence consists of sets of learned behaviors, then how can we learn them?

One path is utilizing models of adult development to increase our self-awareness and empathy for others. Frederic Hudson in The Adult Years presents the “Adult Cycle of Renewal” as a beginning point to understanding the rhythm of our lives and why we may feel and act in certain ways, given where we are in our adult life cycle. Just as products have life cycles, we as adults move through predictable repetitive stages throughout our lives.

The Hudson model of the Adult Life Cycle of Renewal has four main phases- two “Life Chapters” which are periods of relative stability, and two “Life Transitions” which are periods of profound change. The first Life Chapter is entitled “Go For It” and is familiar to many young adults as the euphoria they experience when they actually become that financier, consultant, or entrepreneur or find their life partner all as the result of considerable time and effort.

In “Go For It” we are in a highly energized state, meeting our goals and gaining a true sense of satisfaction from our performance. This stage, however, is finite. Sooner or later we all begin to peak and our once boundless sense of satisfaction and enthusiasm give way to doubt and reassessment. Sometimes it is triggered by outside circumstances (e.g. job loss, market volatility, serious illness in our family, etc.) and at other times it is more unique to the person (boredom, conflict with associates, divorce, etc.).

The second Life Chapter entered is called “The Doldrums”. This is a time of sorting out our priorities and recognizing the end of the previous “Go For It” Life Chapter. The toxicity of “The Doldrums” emerges when we become stuck in a downward spiral of negativity and helplessness, which can hinder our ability to move on to make either a “Mini-Transition” or enter the Life Transition called “Cocooning”.

The “Mini-Transition” Stage consists of making minor but significant changes that allow re-entry into “Go For It” (e.g. assuming a new job with similar responsibilities, obtaining training in conflict resolution, re-allocating more time to spend with family, etc.). Often we will cycle through “Go For It”, “The Doldrums”, “Mini-Transitions” and back to “Go For It” numerous times until there comes a point at which there is no “Mini-Transition” strategy that will sustain us in “Go For It”. And we come to “Cocooning”, which is a more profound path of change.
“Cocooning” is about turning within and asking big questions like: why am I here? what does my life mean? what do I want to do with my life? It is a conscious process of searching for individual meaning within the larger contexts of our work and personal lives. As some of those answers begin to emerge, we move from “Cocooning” to the second Transition Stage, “Getting Ready”.

Here we experiment, network, and train to test out our desires to live our lives according to the passions and convictions that we have discovered and clarified during “Cocooning”. As we become more grounded in living our vision for what we want our lives to be, we are catapulted back into “Go For It”.

And so the story repeats itself again and again throughout our adult lives. On average we cycle through the Life Chapters every two to three years. By understanding that these cyclical patterns of adult life are normal, healthy and a necessary part of adult growth and development, we can consciously mine each stage for the richness and direction that it can give our lives.

This model also empowers us to recognize the positive potential of “The Doldrums” to provide us with a choice to either renew the current Life Chapter (“Mini-Transition”) or to end the current Life Chapter and start a new one (enter “Cocooning”). Further, the model highlights the significance of the “Cocooning” Life Transition, which plays a vital role in our ability to renew ourselves and avoid burnout, yet is largely ignored and sometimes ridiculed in American culture.

Lastly, the Adult Life Cycle of Renewal helps increase our sensitivity to the needs, desires and life experiences of colleagues, friends and family so that our actions can more effectively support and sustain those around us as well as ourselves.

Next week, we will explore how we can apply the cycle of renewal to teamwork in the workplace.

[Editor’s Note: Susan S. Wilner, M.S. is a personal coach and cross-cultural corporate trainer in the metro-Boston area. She can be reached at invisionfuture@aol.com]