Humanity’s Necessary “Growing Up”—the Concept of Cultural Maturity (Long Form)

I approach addressing the future differently than most futurists. The larger portion of people whose work addresses what may lie ahead focus on technological advancement, or perhaps on obstacles that might present themselves in our efforts to advance. The kind of perspective I find most useful is more “developmental.” It draws on ideas about how cultures change, and about how changes happening today are altering how we think and act.

Increasingly my attention has turned to an essential recognition: The most critical challenges ahead for the species will require not just fresh ideas, but a fundamentally greater sophistication in how we understand and relate. I see our times demanding what I call a new Cultural Maturity—put most simply, a critical “growing up” as a species. Today I devote the larger part of my life to making sense of this necessary growing up, and to training leaders in the new capacities it requires and makes possible.

The fact that I might think as I do comes in part from my background as a psychiatrist—we are trained to look at questions developmentally. It comes also from being a student of history. And most of all it comes from a deep fascination with understanding what makes us human. The concept of Cultural Maturity is a formal notion within Creative Systems Theory, a comprehensive theory of change, purpose, and interrelationship in human systems developed by myself and colleagues at the Institute for Creative Development (as Seattle-based think tank and center for advanced leadership training) over the last thirty-five years.

Cultural Maturity is not as easy a notion as the simple phrase “growing up” might suggest. But most of us appreciate—whether consciously or not—that something like what the concept of Cultural Maturity describes will be necessary. When we look at essential issues ahead for the species, we get that a sane and healthy future will require at the least that we be more intelligent in our choices. For example, we recognize that dealing with nuclear proliferation in an ever more technologically complex and globally interconnected world will be very difficult unless we can bring greater insight to how we humans relate. Similarly, people recognize that addressing the energy crisis, or other environmental concerns, will require that we be smarter in our engagement of hard realities. We also see a beginning appreciation of the need to be not just more intelligent, but more “grown up” in how we think. With growing frequency, people today respond with disgust—appropriately—at the common childishness of political debate, and at how rarely the media appeal to more than adolescent impulses.

Most of us also recognize something further. At some level, we get that it is essential, given the magnitude and the subtlety of the challenges we face and the potential consequences of our decisions, that our choices be not just more intelligent and adult, but more wise. Cultural Maturity is about realizing the greater nuance and depth of understanding—we could say wisdom—that human concerns of every sort today demand of us.

The concept of Cultural Maturity challenges the common assumption that Modern Age institutions and ways of thinking are end points and ideals—only needing further refinement. It describes how our future human well-being hinges on turning first pages in an essential next chapter in our human story. It also describes how, today, we are beginning to do so.

The observation that gives the concept its name provides a first glimpse of Cultural Maturity’s changes. Human culture in times past has functioned like a parent in the lives of individuals. It has provided us with our rules to live by—shared absolutes—and, in the process, a sense of identity and connectedness with others. These cultural absolutes have also protected us from life’s very real uncertainties and immense complexities. But in today’s increasingly multi-faceted world, unquestioned cultural guideposts serve us less and less well. They are also having diminishing influence.

The implications of this loss are Janus-faced. Certainly it can bring a disturbing sense of absence. Combined with how our world has become more risk-filled and complicated, this weakening of familiar rules can leave us dangerously overwhelmed and disoriented. But at the same time, these changes reveals possibilities that before now we could not have considered. Importantly, this is not just possibility in some postmodern, “anything-goes” sense. The concept of Cultural Maturity describes how the same change processes that generates today’s loss of past absolutes also create the potential for new, more mature ways of thinking and being in the world.

The concept of Cultural Maturity assists us in four ways that together provide essential direction for going forward:

First, the concept of Cultural Maturity helps us make sense of the easily confusing times in which we live. It puts the challenges and changes we face today in larger perspective.

Second, it provides a new guiding narrative. Having a new, more mature story to guide us becomes increasingly essential as the stories we’ve traditionally relied upon—from the American Dream to our various political and religious allegiances—cease to serve us.

Third, the concept helps clarify the new skills and capacities that we will need if we are to successfully address the challenge before us. In doing so, it also provides guidance for practicing those needed new abilities.

And fourth, the concept of Cultural Maturity points toward needed changes not just in what we think, but how we think. Culturally mature perspective does more that just provide greater clarity—it involves specific cognitive changes. These cognitive changes make possibility new, more dynamic and encompassing ways of understanding.

Some examples

We can get a good beginning feel for Cultural Maturity’s changes by looking briefly at places where they necessarily come into play. Each of the examples below touches on a key challenge of our time and also highlights new human capacities that will be needed if we are to address it effectively. With most of these capacities we are already taking beginning steps. Each example uses a brief quote from my book, Hope and the Future: An Introduction to the Concept of Cultural Maturity to help frame the challenge.

Stepping beyond our need for “evil empires:” A key theme in Cultural Maturity’s necessary “growing up” concerns our past tendency to see the world in us-versus-them terms. Getting beyond this historical proclivity will be essential if our future world is to be at all safe.

From Hope and the Future: “Since our species’ earliest beginnings, we humans have divided our worlds into ‘chosen people’ and ‘evil others.’ We’ve viewed people like ourselves as in some way special, and projected the less pleasant parts of ourselves onto our neighbors. If this ‘chosen people/evil other’ dynamic is biologically hardwired, it is difficult to be optimistic. Combine ‘chosen-people/evil-other’ thinking with today’s readily available weapons of mass destruction and our future does not look bright. We are saved by the fact that this dynamic is just as much psychological as it is biological.” I go on to describe how accomplishments like the fall of the Berlin Wall support the conclusion that we have already made important progress in getting beyond it.

This example is most obviously important because it suggests that what might otherwise seem a dead-end circumstance can be avoided. In addition, it provides some of the best evidence that Cultural Maturity’s changes are not just possible, but beginning to be realized. It also provides a key illustration of an essential more basic new capacity we see with Cultural Maturity’s changes—the ability to get beyond ideological thinking wherever we find it. (Creative Systems Theory defines “ideology” as any belief that takes one part of a larger systemic complexity and makes it the whole of truth. All ideologies in this sense—whether nationalistic, religious, political, or philosophical—in some way designate “chosen people.”)

Limits and climate change:  Another defining characteristic of Cultural Maturity’s changes is that they make us better able to accept the fact of real limits. Climate change presents a striking example of how culturally mature perspective helps us think in ways that better appreciate what is possible and what is not.

Again I quote from Hope and the Future: “When I meet people who use the observation that we can’t know for certain whether global warming is real to justify not responding to the climate change threat, I will often first agree that we can’t know for sure. Then I ask a couple of simple questions. I ask them what they think the odds are that, in fact, human-caused climate change is real. (I make them commit to a number.) I then ask how they feel about their children playing Russian roulette. Few people are willing to claim that the odds of global warming being real and significant are less than Russian roulette’s one in six. And those who claim that the odds are less than this have a very hard time escaping the conclusion that their beliefs have more to do with ideology than reasoned evaluation.”

I then continue on in the book to describe how the beliefs not just of climate-change deniers, but also of those who are most ready to accept that global warming is real, can get in the way of effective risk assessment. The challenge of climate change ultimately involves more than just environmental limits. It also highlights limits to the ability of ideological thinking of any sort to help us going forward.

Spiraling health care costs: Another key limits-related (and also, again, ideology-related) challenge concerns life’s ultimate limit—our mortality. The health care debate to this point ignores the hard fact on which the possibility of real cost containment depends: If we are not to spend an ever-increasing percentage of resources on health care, we must somehow restrict availability of care. Neither the political left nor the political right has faced up to this fact–and for a very understandable reason. We have not before been capable of the maturity in our relationship to death needed to do so.

Again from Hope and the Future: “Restricting care in this way puts before us a whole new order of ethical challenge. At the least, not providing care when we have effective care to offer calls into question modern medicine’s defeat-disease-at-any-cost heroic mythology. But the challenge is deeper. Restricting care demands that we confront an ultimate taboo. Medicine has always been about life-and-death decisions. But limiting care demands in effect the conscious choosing of death—at least in the sense of withholding care that might delay death’s arrival. Good long-term health care policy will require a maturity in our relationship with death not before necessary, nor, I would argue, within our human capacity to handle. Putting an end to spiraling costs will make other death-related hot-button issues like abortion and assisted suicide look like child’s play.”

The possibility of a new, more mature relationship to death has implications well beyond health care—many of that can surprise us. For example, in the long term, it should significantly impact both entertainment and what we consider to be news. Most television programing after 9:00 pm includes at at least one shooting, and most video games and many movies are about little else. And the larger portion of what we call news is of the “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” sort. When we better appreciate death as part of life, death-related imagery stops producing the same sort of knee-jerk attraction.

A new chapter in the story of love:  One of the most fascinating aspects of Cultural Maturity’s changes is how they produce a new chapter in relationships of all sorts. This evolution in how we as individuals relate also provides some of the clearest evidence for the concept of Cultural Maturity. It is increasingly reshaping our lives, whether we recognize it or not. Love makes a particularly striking example.

From Hope and the Future: “It is important to appreciate that the Modern Age’s Romeo and Juliet picture of love is not only not some final ideal, in fact it represents something quite difference than what we most often assume it is about. We tend to think of romantic love as love between individuals. Modern romantic love did take us an important step toward individual choice beyond the more traditional practice of having mates chosen by families or matchmakers. But in the sense of love between two whole people, romantic love is not about loving as individuals. It is two-halves-make-a-whole love. The bond is created through the projection of parts of ourselves. With romantic love, we mythologize the other, making that person our answer, our brave knight or fair lady, our completion (or, at less pleasant moments, the great cause of our suffering).” Cultural Maturity invites the possibility of more mature—more whole-person—human bonds.

This new chapter in human relating alters not just love, but relationships of every sort, from our friendships to how we think about and engage social institutions. For example, the effectiveness of authority relationships—whether those with presidents, physicians, or priests—has, in a similar way, always before depended on mythologized, two-halves-makes-a-whole dynamics, in this case on people handing over their authority for safe keeping.

Beyond partisan pettiness: A further challenge takes the topic of leadership and combines it with previous reflections on us-versus-them thinking. Too often, today, we witness a distinct lack of culturally mature leadership where we might appropriately most hope it would thrive: in the halls of government. We recognize that this is the case even if Cultural Maturity is not a familiar notion. It is hard to escape that partisan pettiness—a reflection of an absence of the kind of encompassing perspective Cultural Maturity makes possible—reflects something far short of mature behavior. While so far we see much less progress in this regard than we might hope, Cultural Maturity’s changes should help us get beyond political polarization.

From Hope and the Future: “Bringing greater maturity to the halls of government will be essential not just to good future decision-making, but to the effective future functioning of government. This is so for a simple reason—the important questions before us are all systemic in nature. We tend to the think of opposing political worldviews as rationally arrived-at differences of opinion. More accurately, they represent predictably opposed polarized positions within larger systemic realities. To address today’s critical questions—indeed simply to ask these questions in ultimately useful ways—we must come to think about them in more encompassing ways. Cultural Maturity’s changes make this possible.”

The concept of Cultural Maturity goes on to suggest a related, particularly provocative conclusion. It proposes that modern “government by the people” represents just one stage in governance’s ongoing evolution, not the last word we have tended to assume. The fact that what we see is not yet based on individual choice in the sense of whole-person determination is part of it. Government based on two-halves-make-a-whole authority relationships is not yet “government by the people” in any complete sense. In addition, there is how stage-specific values necessarily leave us short of what fully representative government requires. Modern culture’s materialist bottom line means that what we have today more accurately reflects one-dollar-one-vote than it does one-person-one-vote.

I know few more fascinating questions that what a next chapter in government—one that more authentically embodies “government by the people”—might look like. The concept of Cultural Maturity warns that we should not expect it to necessary bring greater agreement in debate—culturally mature perspective is comfortable with greater difference of opinion. But, with it, debate should produce more useful and creative outcomes.

Rethinking progress and our modern crisis of purpose: One more challenge brings all the others together. We can think of each of the various “crises” of our time—including those reflected in the challenges that I have noted—as aspects of a single, more encompassing crisis of purpose. We are having to rethink what matters to us, and with this, what advancement is ultimately about. The challenge of doing so brings us back to the question of story.

Once more from Hope and the Future: “The guiding stories we have known and lived by—whether nationalistic, religious, or simply a reflection of Modern Age pride—can still help us in limited ways. But most often they fall decidedly short. And the narratives put forward today to replace them rarely do more than just capture pieces of the larger picture. Do we think of our time as a dramatic new Information Age offering endless potential for the human species? As a time of aimlessness, decay of traditional institutions, and loss of basic cultural civility? Or, with the end of the Cold War, as a period of new hope for a peaceful and democratic world? Do we think of this moment as a time of profound environmental crises that might be beyond our power to solve? As a spiritual New Age? As a time of moral downfall, of impending Armageddon? Each of these candidates for a new guiding story addresses something we feel. At the very least, they reflect real hopes or fears. But none, by itself, quite explains what today we witness around us. And none succeeds at providing reliable and compelling guidance.”

At the heart of the concept of Cultural Maturity is the recognition that our times cry out for a fresh, more complete picture of what it means to go forward. The way todays new challenge require that we bring new capacities to how we think and act and be wiser in our choices is part of it. But Creative Systems Theory also makes the argument more concrete. What it calls the Dilemma of Trajectory describes how there is really not the option of continuing on the “onward and upward” course that has taken us to where we are. It would sever us from aspects of ourselves essential to our humanness—and ultimately be the end of us. With this recognition, Cultural Maturity, or something related, becomes, in effect, the only game in town.

Cultural Maturity and Creative Systems Theory

Cultural Maturity can be understood as a stand alone notion. But if we want to be detailed in our understanding, we need to appreciate it as a formal concept within Creative Systems Theory. One of Creative System Theory’s most essential contributions is that it helps us think rigorously about Cultural Maturity’s mechanisms and implications. It also supports making needed distinctions between Cultural Maturity and more limited views of the future that can get in the way of what the future requires.

Creative Systems Theory is significant not just for the practical usefulness of its ideas, but also for the fact that it represents the kind of conceptual framework that the concept of Cultural Maturity argues will be increasingly essential. I’ve described how culturally mature perspective results in ideas that are more encompassing. We could say more systemic. Creative Systems Theory provides a compact set of “pattern language” tools for thinking with the needed new systemic sophistication.

Creative Systems Theory is concerned with how human systems of all sorts —individuals, relationships, families, communities, nations—see themselves and act in different (and often odd and contradictory) ways at different times and places. Within the theory, the concept of Cultural Maturity describes a particular change point within culture as an evolving system and the kinds of thinking, acting and relating that that change point requires and makes possible.

The theory starts with a most basic question: What, most fundamentally, makes us human? It proposes that what ultimately most defines us is our striking tool-making, meaning-making—we could say simply “creative”—natures. It goes on to describes how human intelligence, with its different aspects, is structured specifically to support our audacious creative capacities.

For making sense of Cultural Maturity, the word “creative” at least provides a useful metaphor, a way of describing the way Cultural Maturity alters how our world looks and what it asks of us. Culturally mature understanding paints a more dynamic and generative picture of life, and, in particular, of human life. Creative Systems Theory goes further. It uses the recognition that human cognition organizes creatively to develop a highly detailed framework for making sense of the workings of human systems—how human systems evolve, how they relate to one another, and how they generate purposeful action.

Creative Systems Theory proposes that human understanding has always been creative. It also describes how the ability to think more explicitly in creative terms is wholly new—and predicted. The theory delineates how the truths of each chapter in culture’s story have drawn on particular aspects of our creative natures. It goes on to describe how the cognitive reordering that comes with Cultural Maturity makes it newly possible to step back from intelligence’s richly creative cognitive mechanisms and to apply multiple aspects in conscious and integrated ways.

It is important to appreciate how the changes that result are new in more than just a next-step sense—how they involve an essential leap. They alter not just beliefs, but how we think, and do so in a particularly fundamental way. Culturally mature perspective provides a dynamic fullness of perspective that has not before been an option.

To make sense of how this is so it helps to look at what becomes different from multiple directions. The developmental implications of Creative Systems Theory provide a start. The theory describes how human formative processes of all sorts—from simple creative acts, to individual human development, to how relationships grow, to the evolution of culture—progress in related ways. Of particular pertinence to making sense of our time in culture’s story and needed new ways of understanding, we find related shifts in perspective in the mature stages of human change processes wherever we find them.

Besides supporting the conclusion that new ways of understanding are developmentally predicted, this recognition provides important insight into the leap Cultural Maturity’s changes demand. The analogy with the word maturity in Cultural Maturity refers not to growing up in the sense of becoming adult, but to the more “mature maturity” that results from engaging second-half-of-life developmental tasks. Creative Systems theory describes how the mid-point of any formative process produces change of a particularly consequential sort.

The cognitive changes that produce what we see—what Creative Systems Theory calls Integrative Meta-perspective—help clarify this assertion. I’ve described how human intelligence is structured specifically to support our audacious tool-making capacities. Creative Systems Theory delineates how intelligence has multiple aspects—the intelligence of the body, that of imagination, emotional intelligence, and intelligence of the more familiar rational sort. It goes on to describe how these various aspects of intelligence work together in predictable ways over the course of any kind of human creative process. Integrative Meta-perspective allows us to step back from the whole of this richly creative cognitive complexity. It also make it possible to engage it with a new depth.

The implications are huge. The ability to draw consciously on more of our cognitive complexity makes possible more complete ways of understanding. By using the word “complete” I don’t mean finished, rather simply that we become able to think in ways that better reflect all of who we are. The ability to do so is becoming increasingly critical. The recognition that important questions are more and more often not just technical questions, but questions of value, provides a glimpse of this growing importance. Making good choices will increasingly require, for example, that we appreciate how having amazing new technologies and knowing how to use them wisely are not at all the same things. The intellect alone is great for questions that just require knowledge. Wise cultural decision-making requires Integrative Meta-perspective’s more complex kind of engagement and the more mature, “second-half” creative capacities it makes possible.

We gain further insight into what Cultural Maturity’s leap entails by looking more specifically at the kind of thought Integrative Meta-perspective produces. It is correct to say that Integrative Meta-perspective helps us think more systemically—more in terms of wholes. But it is also the case that the kind of systems thinking that results differs fundamentally from systemic thinking as we have known it. The kind of systems thinking used by good engineers was radical in its time and has served us well—we would not have safe bridges or the computer revolution without it. But we are not machines. And the critical questions ahead, rather than just engineering questions, are questions of purpose and living interrelationship—we could say simply, questions of life. Integrative Meta-perspective makes it possible to think in ways that better reflect that we are living beings—and more than this, that help us better appreciate the unique kind of life we are by virtue of being human.

The fact that Integrative Meta-perspective draws on multiple intelligences provides a simple way to make sense of how culturally mature systemic perspective is different from what we have known. Rationality alone is quite adequate for describing systems understanding of the engineering sort. But all of the various aspects of intelligence’s creative workings are needed if we are to think in more life-acknowledging ways—and certainly if our thinking is to effectively address human life. Creative Systems Theory describes how the more nuanced and sophisticated kind of systems thinking future questions will increasing demand requires that we draw consciously on all of intelligence’s creative aspects.

A couple of examples illustrate. Recognizing the fact that cultures evolve will be increasingly essential to effective global policy. Making sense of global terrorism, for example, is impossible without this recognition. Creative Systems Theory delineates how effectively understanding cultural change requires that we appreciate how the realities of different cultural periods draw preferentially on different aspects of intelligence. Tribal reality, with its emphasis on body intelligence (think of tribal songs and dances), is going to function according to very different principles than the more emotional intelligence–based realities of medieval times, or modern realities with their Age of Reason assumptions. (Creative Systems Theory “Patterning in Time” concepts delineate these evolving relationships.)

Better understanding human complexity in the hear and now—such as with temperament or personality style differences—can be just as important. Effectively educating our children or thinking psychologically with any sophistication becomes impossible without such understanding. Creative Systems Theory delineates how we can make sense of temperament differences only if we are able to appreciate how the realities of different individuals similarly draw preferentially on different aspects of intelligence. (The Creative Systems Personality Typology, an example of a creative “Patterning in Space” concept, illustrates how this is so.)

In recognizing the need to think systemically in new ways, it is important to appreciate that the mechanistic systems thinking of a good engineer—with its emphasis on difference—is not the only way in which ideas that purport to be systemic can leave us short. Our thinking can also miss the mark in an almost opposite way. For example, humanistic and philosophically romantic belief can use the language of wholeness in a way that identifies with the more subjective, interconnectedness-emphasizing aspects of experience. In the end, such thinking reduces to a siding with oneness. In contrast, wholeness in the dynamically encompassing sense Culturally Mature conception describes makes individuality and difference as important as interconnectedness. Difference and interconnectedness have equal importance in anything creative.

The larger portion of what people speak of as “new paradigm” thinking—certainly that of the more New Age sort—falls for a related kind of unity-identifying trap. Again what we see is not really new at all, and not anything that can ultimately helps us. We’ve witnessed promises of a new Golden Age repeatedly over the course of history. Such thinking simply places time-worn philosophically idealist or spiritual/mystical ideas in new packaging.

Besides helping us make sense of today’s world and maneuver in its complexities, Creative Systems Theory is also significant for its major contribution to the larger history of ideas. This may seem like an overly dramatic claim, but it is important to fully appreciating Cultural Maturity’s implications. Creative Systems Theory’s observation that human experience is ultimately “creative” is as radically important in our time as the insights of Descartes or Newton were in theirs (and arguably more so, for the simple reason that it helps us better understand Descartes and Newton). A creative frame provides a new fundamental organizing concept to replace Descartes’ notion that we can think of reality as a “great clockworks.” This new organizing concept allows us to develop new kinds of ideas better able to address our uniquely human living natures. It also helps us understand why Descartes or Newton thought as they did in their time. Assuming that life functions like a “great clockworks” is exactly what Creative Systems Theory would predict for their time in culture’s evolving story.

There are ways in which Cultural Maturity is a simple concept. In the sense that we can apply it to all sorts of questions across domains of culture, it is a single brushstroke notion. And, while historical and philosophical perspective helps, in the end Cultural Maturity doesn’t require extensive intellectual understanding. It is less about particular beliefs, than about the ability to get our arms around and tolerate a less certain, but ultimate more creative and complete kind of reality—to hold experience with a more mature fullness. All of Cultural Maturity’s conclusions follow from what the world look’s like from this more grown-up place. From there they become “common sense.”

But that said, the concept is not easy in what it asks of us. For most people, understanding requires surrendering assumptions (often favorite ones). It means stretching sufficiently that we can tolerate the more nuanced and complex world the culturally mature perspective reveals. And it means being open not just to fresh perspective, but also to thinking in unfamiliar ways. Cultural Maturity’s conclusions may be common sense, but this is a sophistication of common sense that we are only now becoming capable of.

Frequently Asked Questions

I ended my most recent book, Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future (with an Introduction to the Ideas of Creative Systems Theory) with with a FAQ summary that briefly addresses questions commonly asked about the concept of Culturally Maturity. Some are questions people who have never heard of the concept may put forward. Others are questions that commonly come up once people have started working with the notion. Some excerpts provide a useful summary of these introductory reflections.

What is Cultural Maturity?

The concept of Cultural Maturity describes changes reordering today’s world and further changes that will be necessary if we are to have a healthy and rewarding human future. The concept helps us make sense of why these changes are important, what they ask of us, and how further such changes might be more in the cards that we might imagine. Cultural Maturity is a specific concept within Creative Systems Theory’s more overarching picture of how human systems grow and change.

Can you briefly summarize the concept’s thesis?

The concept of Cultural Maturity proposes that our times challenge us to a critical next stage in our collective human development—to an essential and newly possible “growing up” as a species. This new cultural chapter takes us beyond what has always before been a parent/child relationship between culture and the individual. Cultural Maturity’s changes involve leaving behind the protective cultural absolutes of times past and assuming a new level of responsibility in all parts of our lives. They also involve engaging the more demanding and complex—but ultimately more rich and full—kinds of understanding and relating that doing so begins to make possible.

Why do we need such a notion?

Most immediately, the concept of Cultural Maturity offers perspective for making sense of what can easily be confusing and disturbing times. It also provides guidance for making good decision in all parts of our personal and collective lives. In addition, it offers a compelling picture of human possibility. Beyond this, the concept of Cultural Maturity brings important detail to our thinking about the future. It helps us delineate the new characteristics that effective thinking, acting, and relating in times ahead must have. And it helps us separate the wheat from the chaff in ideas we bring to addressing future challenges.

What evidence do we have that the concept of Cultural Maturity is correct?

Several different kinds. Some is empirical. If we list the most important challenges ahead for the species, we find that effectively addressing—or really even just adequately understanding—each of them requires the greater maturity of perspective that Cultural Maturity’s changes make possible. There is also the way many of the most defining advances of the last century have reflected at least first steps toward the shift in understanding that the concept of Cultural Maturity predicts.

Additional kinds of evidence are more conceptual and “developmental.”  We find that Cultural Maturity’s changes have direct parallels in the changes that produce mature perception and mature values in our individual lives—what see with the effective addressing of second-half-of-life developmental tasks. Creative Systems Theory goes further to describe how these changes are consistent with those that reorder experience with the second half of any human formative process. Creative Systems Theory also describes how we can understand the new capacities that come with Cultural Maturity in terms of developmentally predicted changes in how cognition functions.

Some of the most important evidence has to do with inescapable realities.  We find that something at least similar to what the concept describes will be essential to moving forward for deeper reasons than just the need to effectively address new challenges. Creative Systems Theory describes fundamental, structural reasons why continuing forward on history’s past “onward-and-upward” trajectory is not an option. If we are to proceed forward, we need new ways of thinking about what advancement should look like.

The notion that our times require us to question and get beyond past culturally-specific beliefs sounds a lot like the postmodern argument. Is Culturally Maturity just different language for the same observation?

The concept of Cultural Maturity fundamentally challenges—or at least fundamentally extends and stretches—the postmodern thesis. It proposes that the confronting of once-and-for-all truths that postmodern social theory describes represents an important first step. But the postmodern thesis leaves unanswered just why we should see this confrontation. It also fails to give us much of anything to replace what it quite accurately takes away. The concept of Cultural Maturity addresses why we should see the changes that we do. And it argues that the challenge ultimately is not just the surrendering of past sureties, but the ability to think, relate, and act in some fundamentally new—and newly demanding—ways.

Is Cultural Maturity just another way of talking about the transformations of the Information Age? There are links. But Cultural Maturity’s picture is more encompassing and warns that thinking in Information Age terms hold traps for the unwary.  The concept argues that very few of the important concerns before us can be resolved solely by technological means. It also challenges the common assumption that invention is the ultimate driver of cultural change—it argues that just as much culture shapes what we are able to  invent and how we use what we invent. And while much in the information revolution supports Cultural maturity’s changes, much also has the potential to fundamentally undermine culturally mature possibility. Miss these differences and we can end up pursuing ends that we ultimately would not at all want.

You propose that culturally mature perspective requires us to think about questions more systemically. But you also propose that we need to think systemically in new ways and emphasize that we must be wary of conceptual traps when using systems language. Could you clarify a bit?

Culturally mature perspective challenges us to think systemically in a specific new sense. The kind of systems thinking we are most used to is the mechanistic system thinking good engineers draw on. But we are not machines, and human questions are more than just engineering questions. Culturally mature systemic perspective challenges us to think about human systems in ways that reflect that we are alive—and human.

We can also miss the mark when we try to think systemically in an almost opposite way. Humanistic, philosophically romantic, and more spiritual beliefs often uses the language of wholeness in a way that in the end reduces to an identification with interconnectedness—with oneness. The result is as fundamentally different from mature systemic understanding as a mechanical gears-and-pulleys engineering picture.

I think I get your argument for a more dynamic and complete kind of systemic understanding. But trying to think about it makes my head swim. A simple definition would be helpful.

It is appropriate that initially it might make one’s head swim. We are talking not just about new ideas and new policies, but new, more mature ways of holding reality. We aren’t used to all this require of us. We are taking just first steps into Cultural Maturity’s new territory of experience.

It is also the case that making sense of it requires more than the rational kind of understanding that we are used to associating with definitions. Culturally mature systemic understanding requires that we bring to bear multiple aspects of knowing—more of our own systemic complexity. Because the intellect alone is not sufficient, definition in the usual sense necessarily fails us. But culturally mature perspective also helps us rethink what defining means in ways that make doing so more ultimately helpful.

Could we say Cultural Maturity is about being more interdisciplinary in our perspective and more relativistic in how we think?

Certainly Cultural Maturity affirms the importance of multidisciplinary inquiry. It argues that most all the important questions of our time require it. One of the reasons the academic world often provides much less leadership than we might hope when it comes to the future is how impenetrable the walls between disciplines can be. (Another reason is the common assumption in academia that rational understanding is sufficient.)

Culturally mature truth is relativistic in the sense that it is contextual. It recognizes that a great multiplicity of factors that come into play with any question that matters. But it is explicitly not relativistic in the different-strokes-for-different-folks, anything-goes sense. It is about bringing greater discernment to critical concerns, not less.

You emphasize the importance of better appreciating limits. Yet at the same time you say Cultural Maturity is about thinking more expansively. This seems like a contradiction.

Culturally Maturity is very much about a new relationship to limits—of all sorts. It is about better appreciating planetary limits. It is about new respect for limits inherent to the dynamics of relationship—whether between lovers or between nations. It is also about how thinking that stops short of fully mature systemic perspective necessarily fails us when it comes to framing or answering today’s defining questions.

At the same time, culturally mature perspective emphasizes that a maturely conceived relationship to limits makes us more not less. For example, with regard to environmental limits, it affirms that a new ethic of sustainability will be essential. But it also asserts that a mature understanding of sustainability is not (and cannot be) about doing with less. It must be about an ultimately fuller, and more fulfilling, understanding of “more.”

Culturally mature perspective is obviously pertinent to understanding human systems. What about the non-human, to understanding the inanimate, and nature?

It is certainly pertinent to understanding how and why we have understood the inanimate and nature in the odd and often contradictory ways we have through the course of the human story. It also invites more encompassing big-picture “whole ball of wax” reflections that helps us appreciate both how different kinds of existence are related and how they are different. (I address this topic in detail in my book Quick and Dirty Answers to the Biggest of Questions: Creative Systems Theory Answers What It is All About (Really).)

Do I need to understand Creative Systems Theory to make use of the concept of Cultural Maturity?

No. The concept of Cultural Maturity is a formal Creative Systems Theory notion, but there is no need to either understand or agree with the theory’s ideas to make powerful use of it. As simple metaphor or analogy, Cultural Maturity works fine as a stand-alone concept.

That said, there are important ways in which Creative Systems Theory adds to the basic concept. Creative Systems Theory helps make understandable why Cultural Maturity’s changes should be what we see and just what those changes ask of us. And while even the more nuanced aspects of these changes follow directly from Cultural Maturity as a concept (Creative Systems Theory is not required), Creative Systems Theory provides simple language for making many of the important distinctions. It can also assists us when applying the concept of Cultural Maturity by helping us think about systems at a level of detail that the concept of Cultural Maturity by itself does not provide. Creative Systems Theory is also significant with regard to the concept of Cultural Maturity because it models one successful effort at Culturally Mature theory (and one that can be applied in highly nuanced ways to a wide variety of questions).

Could you say more about how the concept of Cultural Maturity provides hope for the future?

The concept of Cultural Maturity articulates a story for the future that in potential brings an important kind of achievement and reward to the human endeavor. In doing so, it supports that there is very much reason to go on. In addition, it supports the conclusion that making the possibilities that story offers manifest need not be some idealist hope, or only something for our far off future. It describes how the potential for the kind of thinking, relating, and acting the future will require is in important ways “build into” us—Cultural Maturity is a developmental notion. And the fact that many of the most defining advances of the last hundred years reflect the beginnings of culturally mature sensibility supports the conclusion that we are already a good distance on our way—even if we have not had overarching perspective for understanding just what we have been up to.

Going Forward

We are often in denial about the magnitude of the challenges we face today. Or if we begin to step beyond denial, we become vulnerable to either hopeless and cynicism or naive wishful thinking, whether of the techno-utopian or spiritual easy answer sort. The concept of Cultural Maturity makes clear that effectively addressing today’s new challenges will stretch us profoundly. But it also offers both authentic hope and concrete guidance as we look to the future.

In the end, the concept of Cultural Maturity is about leadership, though this in a particular sense. Its concern is not just good leadership, but the specific kind of leadership the future will require. It also about leadership understood most expansively. It is about what the future demands of all of us—personally and in associations small and large. What it entails is pertinent to leading nations or organizations, but just as much it concerns making good choices as lovers, friends, or parents. Ultimately, it is about leadership in the choices we make as a species.

[The Cultural Maturity blog ( provides ongoing application of these notions to critical current issues. The main Institute for Creative Development website ( provides links to a variety of Creative Systems Theory sites for those who wish more in-depth understanding. And various of my books through the years have come at the tricky task of articulating what the future will require—in the end, what Cultural Maturity is about—from different angles.

The Creative Imperative (1984) approached the question developmentally and historically, by looking at how culture has evolved to this point and the unique evolutionary tasks our times present. Necessary Wisdom (1991) used a more applied approach. It took the observation that thought able to effectively address future questions “bridges” familiar polar juxtapositions (such as us-versus-them, mind versus body, ors masculine versus feminine) and examines the pertinence of this new capacity to various realms of understanding. My more recent books more specifically take on what Cultural Maturity’s challenge ask of us. Hope and the Future: An Introduction to the Concept of Cultural Maturity is a short work designed to provide an accessible starting point for people new to the concept. Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future (with an Introduction to the Ideas of Creative Systems Theory) is a lengthy effort written for change agents and leaders wanting to explore Cultural Maturity’s challenge in greater depth and detail. And Quick and Dirty Answers to the Biggest of Questions: Creative Systems Theory Answers What It is All About (Really) examines the proposal that many of humanity’s most elusive questions have remained quandaries not because they are inherently difficult, but because culturally mature perspective is needed to usefully address them.]


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