Re-thinking Assumptions About the Plasticity of the Adult Mind

Dan White
May 20 2021 | Insights

Progressing across multiple careers in a lifetime means that old dogs have to learn new tricks or get left behind. Dan White, the director of Ezra's Impact Lab, discusses the need for organizations to encourage a lifelong learning culture and the popular misconceptions about the plasticity of the adult mind when it comes to embracing new ideas.

Old dogs and new tricks….

We all know the saying. But is it true? 

In the context of people having multiple careers, longer working lives, longer lives full-stop and the increasing need to retrain and redeploy people into evolving areas of specialism – the ability of old, and not-so-old, dogs to learn new tricks is rather important.

In their book Immunity to Change Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey examine precisely that. What they see is that, just as I learned two decades ago as a spotty psychology undergraduate, children learn new concepts more easily than adults. Learning things like languages is easier as a child. This is undeniably true. However, this is all too often extended into an untrue position which is that it is hard to learn new things as an adult. 

Kegan and Lahey find that adults retain significant mental plasticity, i.e. the ability to reshape and relearn their way of thinking. Indeed, it is often only as an adult that we learn to address a complexity of thought needed to tackle the things adult life throws at us.

Kegan and Lahey talk about three stages of mental development:

  1. The socialized mind – self identifies in relation to the social context within which we find ourselves – we seek to fit in with others

  2. The self-authoring mind – self identifies according to an internal set of principles developed by oneself

  3. The self-transforming mind – self identifies according to an ability to examine those principles, exploring new frameworks when old ones no longer serve

It appears adults, with support and encouragement, are very good at learning to step back from the sense of reality they have created, to reframe, to re-contextualize and to gain new insight. Not all of us will have this ability, some of us may never need it – but it is within us to attain this level of complexity of thought.

So back to our opening analogy, not only is it possible for old dogs to learn new tricks, but to challenge the notions of “trick”, “old”, and “new”, to question not only their understanding of what is involved but to see their efforts to do so in novel contexts and meanings. 

For employers, this is very important. We need to be careful not to pigeonhole people as one thing or another. Humans of any age have an astonishing capacity to learn and grow. As an example, I remember working with a quite brilliant software programmer. They took up the piano in their 40s, practiced hard and became so good that they were paid to perform solo. Granted, this is not common, and one could probably even draw a link behind their talents in coding with the demands of reading and playing music – but that it is even possible should alert us to the dangers of writing people off at any stage in their career.

That said it isn’t easy to make these adjustments. It wasn’t easy to learn to spell when we were eight years old either, it only feels that way because we’ve forgotten what it was like. Organizations have a really important role to play in supporting their people achieve these feats of plasticity and career re-imagining.

Richard Seel writes compellingly (2006, “Emergence in Organisations”) about supporting organizations to become “change ready”. I believe his thinking is just as relatable to individuals. He describes our challenge as not to drive change (he is talking after all about emergence rather than directed change) but to create a set of conditions where change is more likely.

If we can create conditions that make change more likely for people, i.e. we tilt the playing field, then we can guarantee that more useful change will happen. Seel describes the following conditions:

  1. Connectivity – plugging people into lots of other people

  2. Diversity – during the plugging in phase of connectivity it is useful if those other people are very


  3. Rate of information flow – a connection could be a one-off event never again repeated – this isn’t a strong rate of information flow – connections need to be meaningful with a high flow of information between people

  4. Anxiety containment – getting just the right amount of pressure – not so much that people feel overwhelmed, but not so little that there is no stimulus – the perfect balance of challenge within a solid base of psychological safety

  5. Proportionate power – ensuring people are not cowed or constrained by power imbalances is important if people are going to make significant changes to their approach

  6. Identity maintenance – holding on to the core, reminding people that what lies at the heart of them, the organization etc. is important and valuable

  7. Good boundaries – a clear idea of what cannot change, deadlines, expectations, rules etc. These are ideally minimal but clear, allowing the field of possibility to be as open and uncluttered as possible

  8. Intentionality – a clear sense of positive intention supports people to take risks 

  9. Positive emotional space – an imbalance of positive emotional input to negative – lots of encouragement

  10. Watchful anticipation – not encouraging people to do things for doing things sake – doing only the important things and otherwise watching and learning

I have simplified the above to fit in this article and I encourage you to read Richard’s longer article, it is very thought-provoking.

In a world of lifelong learning the responsibility of organizations is twofold:

  1. To believe in people: to believe in their infinite capacity to reinvent themselves and the world around them, to believe in the richness and fertility of human potential

  2. To create the conditions for that potential to flourish in the knowledge that most, and graceful acceptance that not all, of that flourishing, will be highly beneficial to the health of the whole organization

I believe organizations that do this will create truly engaging, energized and productive workplaces. And I don’t know about you, but that’s the sort of place I’d like to work.

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