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  • Writer's pictureJason R. Waller

A New Model for Personal Development: Elliott’s Gradients of Growth

Do you know where you are on your journey of growth?

I often struggle to balance the growth I want with an appreciation for where I am and what I have. I also sometimes recognize when my stories send me into a negative loop, and I feel frustrated for not being able to stop them. There are always a million things I’m working on. Lately, though, I’ve found value in taking stock of where I am, where I came from, and where I want to go.

This is why I put together a new way of looking at an old model. I think it’s incredibly helpful for building more clarity and awareness into our personal development. It gives us a roadmap to understand where we are and what might have to change to progress. It’s called Elliott’s Gradients of Growth.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a Starting Point

Most of us have heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Truthfully, it’s origins aren’t very scientific or rigorous. Abraham Maslow created this theory as a way to classify human stages of growth and motivation and didn’t use a ton of objective research in the process. Some of the ideas build off of well-founded principles in developmental psychology, but Maslow’s sample size was small and fairly skewed. His method of biographical analysis was subjective.

Nevertheless, the Hierarchy of Needs is a model that’s gained a lot of traction outside of the psychological community. It’s in business, education, development work, and many others. It’s become increasingly popular, and for good reason. The model is simple, easy to understand, and, while it may not be perfect, it can be useful. It has five main parts, although many have been edited or added to overtime:

  1. Physiological needs: Our biological requirements for human survival.

  2. Safety needs: Structure to keep us safe and secure.

  3. Belongingness and love needs: Relationships and friendship; being part of a group.

  4. Esteem needs: Reputation, respect from others, and respect for ourselves.

  5. Self-actualization: Seeking deeper fulfillment and personal growth.

Now, I would never base a scientific study on theory alone, and I would never use it for self-evaluation or anything predictive. But I do use it with individuals in my coaching work as an entry point for deeper discussions. I find we both connect quickly and intuitively to the structure.

Still, I find it limited in terms of driving change. The Hierarchy of Needs is a categorization model more than a sense-making model. I wanted something that could lead more directly to new insights and actions.

Elliott’s Gradients of Growth

Elliott’s Gradients of Growth is an interpretation and adaptation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, with a few key differences.

Here’s how it’s different.

Element 1: Each gradient builds on our earlier growth.

The first and most simple difference is the naming convention at each stage. The Five S’s are both easier to remember and more tied to models of growth and adult development, such as Kegan’s Orders of Mind. These gradients are less about our needs and more about where we are in our growth journey.

  1. Survival: Reactionary, impulsive, and focused on being and existing — we start off here as infants, concerned only with staying alive.

  2. Safety: Focused on preserving what we have; self-centered, fear-driven, and still looking back at survival.

  3. Socialization: Centered on relationships and sharing, both focused on existence (closer to safety) and fulfillment (closer to self-awareness).

  4. Self-awareness: Where we begin real meaning-making and defining our own lives; we understand where we are and are authors of our own worth.

  5. Self-actualization: Hyper fulfillment-focused and values-driven; here we are both aware of where we are and accepting of where we are, embracing the paradoxes.

Now is as good of a time as any to mention that these five stages are not concrete or discrete. They are gradients of each other.

Visually, there are five divisions, but practically, there are many more. Each overlaps and bleeds into the other. These are not distinct mile markers and not a judge of progress or “goodness.” These are only entry points into reflection.

Element 2: We grow from existence into fulfillment.

The second difference in Elliott’s Gradients of Growth is that the model is rotated 90 degrees on its side, with a line dividing the scale into halves. The first half is “existence,” where we focus on deficiency and scarcity. The second half is “fulfillment,” where we focus on growth and opportunity.

As we grow, we climb through these gradients, moving from more existence-focused objectives to more fulfillment-focused objectives. But this growth is not linear. We may dance from side to side, exploring our boundaries, or backtrack into other gradients. Some parts of us may live in different gradients, and at different times.

Element 3: Our decisions are rooted in our perceptions.

The third and final difference is that this model grows in area instead of shrinking. It’s an upside-down pyramid. This is because we’ve added something called “the void,” the shaded area where we risk (or perceive we risk) harm or even death.

This is critical. On the far left of the gradients, we are walking a tightrope. Any miscalculation and we risk falling into the void. As we progress, however, we gain more stability, and the area of the void shrinks. At some point, represented by the dotted midline, the perceived possibility of falling into the void becomes smaller than the possibility of exploring our lives unharmed. We transition from deficiency needs to growth needs, from scarcity to opportunity.

Yes, there’s more area to explore as we progress. But imagine the model in three dimensions, on an incline and getting steeper over time. Energetically, it’s easier to go side-to-side or down than it is to climb up. But it’s also riskier; there’s more void. This is our internal calculus of risk versus reward, and why lateral moves (feeling “stuck”) become more common as we develop, even as our basic needs are being met.

This is essentially the Hierarchy of Needs mapped to Kegan’s Orders of Mind, but I laid it out more explicitly, rotated it 90 degrees, and had it grow instead of diminishing in area. In other words, I did a Missy Elliott: I put the thing down, flipped it, and reversed it. Hence the name.

What We Can Learn from the Model

The model is all well and fine, but what does it really give us? As an entry point for reflection, I believe it gives us quite a lot.

Insight 1: We cross a tipping point from reactive to creative.

At some point in our journey, the risk of harm becomes smaller than the opportunity for growth — our pyramid becomes bigger than the void. And the line of that transition is smack in the middle of the socialization gradient.

Where we are in our socialization depends on whether we are building relationships for existence or fulfillment. Do we seek safety and acceptance, or are we seeking connection and partnership?

If we stay focused on the former, we are being built and authored by the views of others. We seek approval and acceptance above all else. We operate out of fear. If we live in the latter, though, we are self-authoring our story. We operate out of curiosity and interest. We seek meaning.

This is a great test for where we are in our lives. Each part of us is different. Who we are at home might be several gradients removed from who we are at work. We might feel differently about one behavior or part of ourselves than another. The real question for reflection is: which side of the line are we on?

Insight 2: We are invited to become explorers as we grow.

As we grow and move through the pyramid we begin to explore our boundaries. In existence, we are cautious of our boundaries — we are on a narrow path. In fulfillment, we are curious and excited about our boundaries — we are on a wider path.

Perception here is everything. We may be timid if we believe the cliffs are near. We may be foolish if we ignore how close they are. But the reality is that, after we cross the midpoint in socialization, our focus becomes more internal than external. Our task is no longer to survive but to explore.

This is a paradox that can be hard to accept. As we grow, we find more questions than answers. We find more and more safety, but there’s also a bigger area to discover than ever before.

Insight 3: The path isn’t and shouldn’t be linear later on.

In the beginning, we’re forced onto a fairly direct route as we grow from survival to safety to socialization. The risk to backtrack or deviate is high. As we grow from socialization onward, however, there’s more space to wander. This means that we may very well move from side to side or backward. The risk to do so is low.

Farther up the pyramid, there’s more space to wander. And this is kind of the point. With a larger area comes more opportunity for discovery. We can’t just dip into self-awareness and be done, there’s a huge landscape to explore. Our task here is to cover more ground than ever, to map out this new edge of our growth.

Insight 4 through 100: Our strongest stories are carried with us from “existence”.

Here is the biggest implication. Since the existence phases of our lives are so much more direct and obvious than the fulfillment phases, they also establish our most ingrained patterns of living.

The early points in the journey are when we learn to tell ourselves that we must succeed to be accepted. Or we must be perfect to be loved. We tell ourselves stories in this part of life — stories to keep us safe. And these stories persist because of the simplicity of safety.

The tricky part is when we grow into a different way of being when safety is no longer our main focus. We take messages and models from our existence lives and carry them into our fulfillment lives. But there they can hold us back. When our stories persist into a life of growth, we’re left with voices of insecurity or perfectionism or defensiveness or obedience that no longer serve us.

The task, then, becomes rewriting our stories, stories that are grounded in growth, not safety.

Where To, From Here?

I really like this model and what I’ve dubbed Elliott’s Gradients of Growth as a way to understand and reflect on where I am and where I’m going. The observations that I’ve listed above I also take to heart in my own development.

Here are four areas of inquiry I’ll leave you with:

  • At a time, we cross a tipping point from reactive to creative: Which side of the line, between existence and fulfillment, are you on? Which parts of you look to relationships for validation, and which parts look to them for a deeper connection?

  • We are invited to become explorers as we grow: Where are you trying to grow and explore today? Do you see the future unknown as scary, inventing dangers and risks where there are none, or do you see it as an opportunity and a journey?

  • The path isn’t (and shouldn’t be) linear later on: How are you going to be compassionate to yourself when the climb is steep, as it will be, or when you backtrack or move side-to-side, as you will?

  • Our strongest stories are carried with us from “existence”: What story am I telling myself today that was written when I needed safety and protection? When was it written and why was it written?

We could talk about each of these topics and insights for an article at a time, but I’ll close by focusing on this last idea, that our strongest stories are built in the existence phase of life. It’s an area that’s been meaningful to me, and what I still work on most.

The story that I learned to tell myself when I was young was about perfection. This isn’t a new concept, but I’ve never visualized it as clearly as before. And what I’ve taken away from this model of growth is that these stories don’t have to be the stories we live with. There’s a vast area of fulfillment to explore, and I can rewrite my story.

What are you taking away? What are the stories you tell yourself and where do they come from? What new lens does this give you to look at your life and your growth?

Originally published in Mind Cafe

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