Reach Out

Vertical Development: The Topic Underneath All Topics

Dec 14, 2023

Public discourse on today's challenges pertains mostly to the outer world.

What incentives can we give businesses to stop polluting? How do we make healthcare more affordable? How can we create more public housing?

But there's an essential question missing: What "inner conditions" do we need to manifest these outer conditions? 

I.e. How can we transcend bias? How can we align values and actions?  

The inner world and outer world are inextricably linked, and we ignore the inner world to our peril.

Psychological drag at the individual level will slow progress in all things until we pay attention to inner world and confront what we find — specifically, what prevents transformation and what enables it. 

To date, Western education has failed us in this regard, resulting in an outer world that conflicts with the inner world.

Workplaces shun "unprofessional" emotions, schools optimize for test results instead of healthy  child development, and prisons cause more trauma than they heal. 

What to do?

Generally speaking, the West conceives of self-development in terms of “self-improvement” — acquiring skills, accomplishing goals, and fulfilling your potential. This is important, but not the whole picture. 

Developmental psychologists know a powerful truth: humans can grow through discrete stages of ego development, each with increasing flexibility of thinking, openness to experience, capacity for self-regulation, and integration of more sources of truth.

Given this, I distinguish between two distinct, yet intertwined, forms of development.

Horizontal Development is about becoming more skillful. Run a faster mile, shoot a cleaner free throw, write a better investor update. It’s about improving technique, being more productive, and performing at your peak. “How do I get better, faster, stronger?”

Vertical Development is about becoming wiser. Meditation, shadow-work, and double loop processing (I.e., examining not just the problem, but how you see the problem.) It’s about exposing your assumptions, shifting paradigms, and expanding your sense of self. “What am I not seeing about myself and the world?”

Horizontal Development increases competencies in specific domains. Vertical Development increases competencies that transfer across domains — e.g. the ability to listen, navigate complexity, and see the limits of one’s perspective. Because of this, as we advance through stages of Vertical Development, we gain access to more powerful “Archimedean points” — places to stand and levers to move the world.

I believe that our species’ most existential problems — ecological crisis, mental health deterioration, political gridlock, isms (sexism, racism, etc.) — exist because we lack critical mass of vertically developed leaders to solve them. Ask yourself: Do you think we’ll solve political gridlock by building better spreadsheets, or by becoming better listeners?

Human development is the hidden topic underneath all topics.

I believe that it should be among individuals’ highest priorities to attend to their vertical development and among society’s highest priorities to facilitate it on a collective scale.

This means educating people about what vertical development is, and creating the conditions in which it is possible.

As a coach, I track both horizontal and vertical development. Research shows that this approach can make you and your team produce better longterm business results.  More importantly, it can help you become a truly great leader -- not just for your company, but for humanity.

Are you in it for the exit? Or are you in it for something bigger?

If you are a leader / founder / VC who resonates with the above, please reach out.

~ Josh

New York City

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