Comments on “The Cofounders”


Happy to give feedback on your "fluidity workbook!"

Hey David!

Love your work on Kegan’s stages (and think it’s quite important, actually). I’d be happy to help with your “fluidity workbook”. Also, I live in Boston and occasionally chat with Robert Kegan himself, so we might be able to loop him in.

Thanks again!

I’d be also very much

Balazs's picture

I’d be also very much interested in beta testing the fluidity workbook. Your writings have shaped my thinking in a great deal.

Would love to help with testing the fluidity workbook

Hi David,

Great post as always - I got a lot out of this and it strongly resonates both with my work and personally.

I am eager to help with testing the fluidity workbook you mentioned. As you mention, developing these skills more broadly is crucial to the future for all of us.

Thanks for everything you have shared on this topic over the years!

user testing & shareability

I would very much be interested beta testing a fluidity workbook. No matter how preliminary. :)

Really enjoyed the post. wonderfully grounding example.
I’m anticipating the ease of sharing this page with friends, as the cofounder relationship is down to earth and “sticks” in a way that other pages I’ve tried to share haven’t.

In the past I’ve used “why you may be miserable”: But I’d settled on “this is you”: also because the self page had me laughing at how well it compressed all these different self confusions.

fluid space v. process

jamie's picture

I can tell you put a lot of time into this and I really respect how perfect the write-up is. I want to read it again and I’m sure I’ll appreciate it even more.

One of the truly great things you pointed out was how people can confuse (or simply hope) that the by creating an “open space” for dialog/interaction they are in a fluid mode. But one thing I’ve noticed is that these people are actually holding on to a process-orientation, using/maintaining the open space as a thing that “is inherently the answer”. Basically fetishizing the space aspect of the dynamic. Type 5 people can often regress into mode as well.

One of the biggest hints that the pathological version is in play is the lack of action. True type 5 has a feeling of rhythm, never completely in open process and never completely lost in goal-oriented action, but a kind of vibrating space and action, a kind of self-adapting context that moves things along. Pathological process and pathological type 5 doesn’t have enough “rubber hitting the road” instead it’s all “where the rubber hits the clouds”.

Anyway, just my pet peeve.

Spam filter (now disabled)

Sorry about the trouble some people have had posting comments! (I appreciate all who persisted.)

I installed a new spam filter recently and it was rejecting many valid comments as spam. I have disabled it for now, and am following up with the service (CleanTalk). I hope they can figure out why it was going wrong.

Testing workbook

Brett's picture

I’ve been following your series on the 5 stages and would be very interested in testing your workbook. I think there are quite a few potential applications here, including coaching, consulting, business strategy, HR, psychotherapy, and general personal growth. This is important work!

Objection: no way for meta-systematizers to decide between

Order's picture

So, I think I have a few objections to the ideas you present here – but I’m new to the blog, and haven’t (yet) done much of the relevant background reading. Feel free to disregard all this if I’ve totally failed to understand what you’re trying to get at.

As I understand it, there are two necessary conditions for operating in the fluid mode : 1) You operate without being beholden to any particular system (ethical, management-al, meaningful, etc.), and yet 2) you continue to operate according to systems. The conjunction of these conditions enables you to, sort of, hold many systems within yourself and shift between them as called for by the situation at hand.

The rejection of any particular system is driven, it seems to me, by a recognition along the lines of “there is no absolute truth/no thing that is unconditionally true.” I get this from your characterizations of stage 4.5 here and in your vividness post:

…At some point you realize that all principles are somewhat arbitrary or relative. There is no ultimately true principle on which a correct system can be built. It’s not just that we don’t yet know what the absolute truth is; it is that there cannot be one. All systems come to seem inherently empty (from:…)


There is much that is right in 4.5 nihilism. It is a genuine growth step forward from 4.4 because its recognition of the limits of systems, and the defects of systematicity, are accurate. It’s true that “missions” are usually self-aggrandizing or cynical propaganda (although genuine purpose is possible). It’s true that ethical systems are all fallacious and sometimes harmful (although accurate ethical judgement is possible). (from this post)

The move all the way to 5, then, is driven by the recognition that the world is nebulous rather than full-fledged meaningless, and so systems kind of work but imperfectly, and so you have to maintain at least a few of them.

Here’s where I take issue: A person operating in the fluid mode needs, in a given situation, to decide which of a number of mutually contradictory systems of reasoning to apply. But, given that there is, in stage 5, no supreme principle, they have no (non-arbitrary) way to make this decision. In general, we act on reasons, and reasons are derivative of principles.

To use an example similar to yours: imagine a company faces a government that intends to regulate away 99% of their profits (let’s say their costs will skyrocket if they’re forced to stop polluting). If they are true meta-systematizers, then they must, here, decide which system to apply in reasoning about how to proceed. Primary (let’s imagine) among these are a selfish rational system and an altruistic rational system. That is, they could maintain that their un-overridable defining purpose is to generate revenue for investors, and fight the regulation tooth & nail. Or, they could acknowledge the damage that pollution does and allow the regulation to pass peacefully, or even encourage it.

Of course, no company - not even a meta-systematic one - would ever seriously consider following the altruistic system in this situation. This is because every company that is subject to the market operates under a certain set of constraints on its practical reasoning, no matter what stage of development it finds itself at. Chief among these is that it be driven by the principle: make money.

No company, then, is ever truly meta-systematic, in the way you’ve laid out the concept here. So either meta-systematic thinking must be re-described, or the point that “Management theory is the domain where meta-systematicity is most widely appreciated, discussed, and understood” is false.

(I’m simplifying radically, but I hope this has clarified my point. If you think I’m being too much of a hardliner about management reasoning, maybe a softer version will be more illustrative: Sure, companies can apply self-destructive management practices. But they’ll go out of business. Insofar as a management practice is bad if it drives companies that follow it out of business, some management practices are bad. This can only be true if there is some principle that transcends meta-systematicity. In business, this principle is : make money).

The case is even worse in ethics. In any given ethically fraught situation, a meta-systematizer must choose between a number of ethical systems in reasoning. But how are they to go about making this choice ? They can’t choose based on which one is true, because we’ve ruled out the possibility of any of them being true. They could choose based on which one is useful, except that standards of usefulness are just as much standards as ethical standards are, and we’ve ruled out there being any correct standards. They could also choose arbitrarily, but then why have a set of rules about rationality in the first place? I don’t see any other way for this choice to be made.

Above, I described (fairly, I hope) meta-systematicity as “hold[ing] many systems within yourself and shift[ing] between them as called for by the situation at hand.” The point I’ve tried to make here is that situations don’t natively “call for” systems to be applied. That’s what principles are for. The meta-systematic thinker must be using meta-principles that guide the choice between (ethical, managemental, etc.) systems.

Also, sorry for the intense effortpost, couldn’t stop myself. As I said, I’m a newcomer to the blog, and the blogosphere in general, and I’ll try to keep this kind of thing to a word minimum in the future. I would appreciate you letting me know if I’ve misapprehended your ideas. I really enjoyed the post, and look forward to reading similar things in the future!

fluidity workbook, relevant podcasts

Pat's picture

I’d love to help test the workbook. Would it be built along the lines of Kegan’s Subject-Object Interview or Loevinger’s Sentence Completion Test? (The manual for the latter is a fascinating read, actually.)

Relevant to many of the subjects here are two of Chris Hayes’s “Why is This Happening?” podcast. One with Kwame Anthony Appiah on identity and another with David Roberts on what he calls “tribal epistemology.” (I would have linked but I’m getting a javascript error. Appiah’s new book is “Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity”; Roberts has written a couple of pieces for Vox on epistemology in politics.

Thanks, and replies

Thank you very much to all who have offered to beta-test! I have added your names to the list.

Sorry that I’m several days behind on comment replies.

Alex T, thanks for these! (1) is the “sorites paradox,” which I’ll discuss in the Eggplant book. (2) I’ve read Systemantics and really enjoyed it, and yes it’s highly relevant. (3) I think you are right about Pluto.

Pat, thanks for the podcast suggestions!

I haven’t read Loevinger’s manual. I know about it only via other adult development writers. I definitely should learn more!

Order, thank you for the comment. I’ll try to reply here, but what I say may be too brief to be understandable.

you continue to operate according to systems

This is not the case; and that misunderstanding is probably the root of the rest of what you said. In the fluid mode, you don’t operate according to systems; you operate taking systems into account, but are not bound by them.

decide which of a number of mutually contradictory systems of reasoning to apply

That’s one of several things you might do; you might also choose to ignore all available systems, synthesize two or more, modify one as needed, and so on.

no (non-arbitrary) way to make this decision

There are lots of non-arbitrary, non-systematic ways to make decisions. The pre-systematic mode does that all the time. So does the meta-systematic mode.

In general, we act on reasons, and reasons are derivative of principles.

This is true only in the systematic mode; not in the pre-systematic and meta-systematic modes.

an example similar to yours

You’ve chosen an example in which (you say) the choice is effectively forced. There are, of course, many such situations. There are also many cases in which choices are not forced, and then they may be made pre-systematically, systematically, or meta-systematically.

I don’t see any other way for this choice to be made.

Yeah, until you understand meta-systematicity, you can’t understand meta-systematicity. Unfortunately there’s no way around that. I hope The Eggplant will go into enough detail (the current draft is ~400 pages) that it will help some people understand it. However, understanding primarily seems to depend on particular sorts of life experiences, or something, that aren’t entirely conceptual and can’t be communicated in text.


Ian Stewart's picture


I, too, am interested in testing out your workbook; please contact me at this email address when it’s ready. I may also be available for in person meet ups around the SF Bay Area. My current background is that I’ve read The Evolving Self, but I’m happy to take more reading recommendations!

Offering workbook help, and gratitude

joseph gl's picture

When you lose all faith in systematicity, but can see no workable replacement, you may fall into crippling dysfunction. I know people who, at this point, became completely non-functional for several years. Feeling that you have lost the capacity for confident, competent self-administration can render you practically catatonic.

Yikes. I see a lot of my current self in this.

After college, i moved to the Bay Area and spent a few years as a software engineer at a large (but rather zombie-like) tech company. My frustration with “the lie” of the company mission, managerial fiefdom-building, and lack of critical examination of the core ontology underlying the product, led to me abruptly leave with little idea of what to do next.

A fruitful period of intellectual exploration followed. I met a lot of like minded people, got my hands dirty with new technologies that interested me, and went for many many long walks.

But after jumping from a captainless ship and treading water alone for a while in a sea of meaningness, i began to slip underwater. I realized that i need to find some other ship to join, for my own personal sanity. But which one should i choose? Why? Or do i build my own? Can i build my own?

Over analysis (hmm, smells 4ish) has led to decision paralysis, and stagnation.

What matters are the dynamics of how she relates to it.

Perhaps i should worry less about which particular ship to choose, and more on how to compose myself on any given ship i find myself in. Or, on my relationship with my fellow crew, and on our relationship with our vessel.

Thank you, David, for your eloquent writings. They have left a large impact on me.

I’m very interesting in beta testing your upcoming workbook, please let me know how i can be of help.

Liberated spambot

Dan's picture

The filter kept telling me my entire email provider is non grata because it’s used exclusively by spambots. Who knew!

Sign me up for the workbook, too, please.

There may come a point, part way through this page, where it stops making sense and starts to sound abstract or implausible.

I was curious to find out where that point would be for me, but then it never happened! This is by far your best exposition of this stuff. Nevertheless, my usual thinking patterns resemble your descriptions around 4.4/4.5/4.6, and the later stuff sounds like obviously desirable things that I don’t know how to pull off or even how to learn.

truths vs tools

Nathan S Spears's picture

Prithi here expresses a core concern of meta-rationality, which understands relationships between representations and reality not as truths but as tools. This is meta-systematicity in its cognitive manifestation.

What other manifestations does meta-systematicity have?

With regard to truth evaluations: I assume that you think that the reason something works as a tool is because there is some correspondence between the tool and reality. Do you think that attempting to evaluate the degree of the correspondence of some toolset using a “truth metric” is less important than using reasonableness to move between toolsets as appropriate? Do you have any philosophical speculations about the relationship of a stage 5 individual to what philosophers have called truth or the search for truth? Does it become orthogonal to the way she lives and thinks, or is there still some reasonable way of seeking or experiencing truths that underlie all the systems she switches between?

Spam and truth

Sorry about the continuing spam filter problems. I’m going to try The Other Leading Brand when I next have time; this one doesn’t seem to be working out well.

What other manifestations does meta-systematicity have?

This page might be one good starting point.

Do you think that attempting to evaluate the degree of the correspondence of some toolset using a “truth metric”…

I’m not sure what you have in mind here? Generally, tools aren’t true or false; they are more or less useful in particular circumstances.

Does it become orthogonal to the way she lives and thinks, or is there still some reasonable way of seeking or experiencing truths that underlie all the systems she switches between?

Each stage fully includes the competence of the previous one. Stage 5 retains all the rational tools of stage 4. Truth is no less important, and meta-rationality should make you somewhat better at finding it. Analogously, relationships are no less important for stage 4 than they are for stage 3, and being able to deal with relationships systematically should make you somewhat better at navigating them.

Relationships aren’t the central new concern for stage 4, and truth isn’t the central new concern for stage 5.

trying out the workbook

Janet's picture

I’ve found lots of what you’ve written really helpful and I’d be delighted to help test the workbook


AndyC's picture

I’ve recently ended a year-long relationship with my therapist as I didn’t feel he understood my failure-point. After stumbling across this site and beginning to read “Immunity to Change,” I think this path may bear fruit.

Would love to use your workbook, either on my own or with the participation of a like-minded counselor/coach.

Blueprints for vessels to sail the seas of meaningness/Workbook

Dear Mr. Chapman,

I had wanted to make my first message a little more patterned but I fear in the end I have settled for something much more nebulous.

I have found your website and body of thought hugely insightful, helpful,… and am very excited to be able to contribute in someway. Please add me to the workbook list.

Thank you for this opportunity for a light-hearted, noble, intermittent continuance!


What is truth at stage 5?

Nathan S Spears's picture

truth isn’t the central new concern for stage 5

Perhaps I’m being obtuse, but what I’m trying to ask is, what becomes of the idea of the truth? If truth is relative to each system, if there’s no eternalist truth “behind” all systems, then what distinguishes the idea of truth from the idea of what works in each system?

Workbook and comments

Jay's picture

Hi David, great post and thanks for taking the time to write all that you have! I was waiting to encounter the point where my understanding would fail me but that didn’t happen. Not sure if that means I’m getting it or just Dunning-Krueger effect, lol.

I’d love to beta test a workbook and am looking forward to eggplant!

Thanks & truth

Thanks again to all who have offered to beta-test, and I’m glad you’ve found this useful!

Nathan: your question is exactly the right one (from a systematic perspective):

what distinguishes the idea of truth from the idea of what works in each system?

If meta-systematicity just meant switching between systems, and if we had crisp meta-criteria that said which system to use when, this would have a crisp answer. And that would be great! Because systematicity is great when it works. Unfortunately, we can’t do that in practice, in general. It’s mostly only when systematicity fails that we need meta-systematicity.

In a certain sense, the question is self-answering: truth is clearly not the same as “whatever works in each system.” In particular situations, we may be able to determine what “truth” means, and find out what the truth of the matter is. In others, we can’t. Sometimes, what “truth” means is correctly given by some particular system (which one? it’s circumstances-dependent); in others, it isn’t.

In most situations, it’s pretty obvious and unproblematic what “truth” means; in others, it’s difficult, but we can find an answer; in some, it has to be a “permanently open question” (but that doesn’t mean provisional answers are impossible).

In cases where “truth” is nebulous, meta-rationality comes into play. Is this good, because meta-rationality is somehow special? No. Is it bad? No, not that either. It’s just how it is. Reality supports systematicity only to a limited extent.

Since there is no general answer, how do we determine what “truth” means in a particular situation? There is also no general method. But that doesn’t imply that we have to rely on mystical intuition, or that it’s arbitrary or something. In most cases, we can give a cogent explanation. In others, not so much.

From a systematic point of view, this is highly unsatisfactory, because the systematic worldview says there must always exist a definite method for everything. It would be great if that were true, but it isn’t. If we accept the reality that it isn’t, we can ask: how do we proceed when there isn’t a guaranteed general method?

And, while this can’t have a definite answer—by definition—there is still quite a lot to say. (Which is what the Eggplant book tries to do.)

One thought I had on the

James's picture

One thought I had on the subject of truth is that from a systematic perspective, it ought to be possible in principle to resolve all ambiguities while a meta-systematic perspective admits this isn’t impossible or necessary.

For example, “The cat is on the mat,” may be true when Alice says it and false when Bob says it because they are talking about different cats, or are saying it at different times between which the cat has moved, or one has been taught that “mat” means television. Only by attending to the context can you determine whether the statement “The cat is on the mat,” is true or not.

We can resolve these ambiguities by adding more information to the sentence: “Alice’s orange tabby, Tuber, sat upon the straw mat in Alice’s living room at 5:46 pm on 13 May 2018.”

If the systematic perspective were correct, we should always be able to do this, to become evermore explicit until there are no more ambiguities… but we can’t. Every attempt to move information from the context to the text only adds words that themselves need context to be understood. The value of making the sentence more explicit is in reducing the implicit information to that which your audience already has, not in removing the need for any tacit knowledge in order to interpret the sentence.

At this point, it seems to me that the systematic approach has to posit something like an ideal Proposition behind the sentence, of which any sentence is at best an imperfect representation. One thing to note is that such Propositions, if they exist, have no other role than to patch up the systematic theory of meaning.

The meta-systematic approach then is that there is no problem here: statements are always ambiguous, in both meaning and thus truth, but usually this isn’t a problem because we all have a lot of implicit information to draw on for interpretation, and differences can usually be bridged by being just a little more explicit.


James's picture

Sorry, I meant to say that the meta-systematic perspective says that resolving all ambiguities isn’t possible not that it isn’t impossible.

Feline propositions

Yes, quite so. The Eggplant book has a chapter about rationalism’s failure to find anything that could be an actual proposition about the real world, and therefore absolutely true or false.

John Searle’s “Literal Meaning” pretends to attempt to find something in the vicinity of “the cat is on the mat” that could be absolutely true, working through some entertainingly ridiculous examples before concluding that it’s impossible.

Really enjoying this piece-

An's picture

Really enjoying this piece- all your writing seems insightful and important, but this especially so.

A small suggestion: I found the phrasing “you can say…” (in 4.5) very confusing, at first I thought Prithi was saying that this was what Carlos had said, but your later comment made me think Prithi was saying “Some might say X”. Since obviously this is a piece where correctly understanding the subtelties and relationships between perspectives is really important I thought I’d pass that along – if others had the same confusion perhaps it’s worth re-wording.

Great post!

Kenny's picture

Thanks again for another wonderful post!

I too would love to be a beta tester of your “fluidity workbook”.

One of my favorite ‘business novels’ is The Phoenix Project and, if I remember correctly, it even addresses meta-systematicity, if only briefly (and nebulously).

Beta-testing the workbook

Miika's picture

Hi David,

thanks for a great post! We have been thinking around these topics a lot with my colleagues lately and I would love to test the exercises.

Also Jennifer Garvey Berger

Steve Alexander's picture

Jennifer Garvey Berger’s “Changing on the job” has some good illustrative monologues showing what the transition from pre-systematic to systematic to meta-systematic can be like.…

She studied under Kegan. There’s also a description of Subject Object Interviews in her book that is perhaps more accessible than the one in the technical guide.

Jennifer also has her own take on developing a meta-systematic toolkit in Simple Habits for Complex Times.

I’m also on continuing journey of appreciating Edgar Schein’s work on how one might offer consulting-style help (as a consultant or an organisational leader) meta-systemically.

Please add me to the list for your workbook — I’d like to help however I can

I’ve been working on this

Robert Stonehill's picture

I’ve been working on this problem for years as well. I even tried to get into HGSE a few years ago to study with Kegan.

I think the allegory is the way to go.

You might not be aware, but recently there is interesting academic work on “wisdom” by Igor Grossman and others. I mostly say I study wisdom instead of saying metasystems. So far they don’t integrate spirituality ideas however…



I should also say keep in mind there is a huge trade-off between popularity and accuracy. :)

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This page is in the section ⚒ Fluid self in relationship,
      which is in ⚒ Sailing the seas of meaningness,
      which is in Meaningness and Time: past, present, future.

The next page in book-reading order is ⚒ Fluid society.

This page’s topics are Fluidity, Self, and Systems.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2019 David Chapman.