The first stage is mimicry. We are born helpless. We can’t walk, can’t talk, can’t feed ourselves, can’t even do our own d--- taxes.
As children, the way we’re wired to learn is by watching and mimicking others. First we learn to do physical skills like walk and talk. Then we develop social skills by watching and mimicking our peers around us. Then, finally, in late childhood, we learn to adapt to our culture by observing the rules and norms around us and trying to behave in such a way that is generally considered acceptable by society.
The goal of stage one is to teach us how to function within society so that we can be autonomous, self-sufficient adults. The idea is that the adults in the community around us help us to reach this point through supporting our ability to make decisions and take action ourselves.
This is stage one. The mimicry. The constant search for approval and validation. The absence of independent thought and personal values.
The second stage is self-discovery. In stage one, we learn to fit in with the people and culture around us. Stage two is about learning what makes us different from the people and culture around us. Stage two requires us to begin making decisions for ourselves, to test ourselves, and to understand ourselves and what makes us unique. Stage two involves a lot of trial-and-error and experimentation. We experiment with living in new places, hanging out with new people, imbibing new substances, and playing with new people’s orifices.
Stage two is a process of self-discovery. We try things. Some of them go well. Some of them don’t. The goal is to stick with the ones that go well and move on. There are some people who never allow themselves to feel limitations — either because they refuse to admit their failures, or because they delude themselves into believing that their limitations don’t exist. These people get stuck in stage two.
At some point we all must admit the inevitable: life is short, not all of our dreams can come true, so we should carefully pick and choose what we have the best shot at and commit to it.
The third one is commitment. Once you’ve pushed your own boundaries and either found your limitations (i.e., athletics, the culinary arts) or found the diminishing returns of certain activities (i.e., partying, video games) then you are left with what’s both a) actually important to you, and b) what you’re not terrible at. Now it’s time to make your dent in the world.
Stage three is the great consolidation of one’s life. Out go the friends who are draining you and holding you back. Out go the activities and hobbies that are a mindless waste of time. Out go the old dreams that are clearly not coming true anytime soon.
Stage three is all about maximizing your own potential in this life. It’s all about building your legacy. What will you leave behind when you’re gone? What will people remember you by? Whether that’s a breakthrough study or an amazing new product or an adoring family, stage three is about leaving the world a little bit different than the way you found it.
The final stage is legacy. People arrive into stage four having spent somewhere around half a century investing themselves in what they believed was meaningful and important. They did great things, worked hard, earned everything they have, maybe started a family or a charity or a political or cultural revolution or two, and now they’re done. They’ve reached the age where their energy and circumstances no longer allow them to pursue their purpose any further.
Stage four is important psychologically because it makes the ever-growing reality of one’s own mortality more bearable. As humans, we have a deep need to feel as though our lives mean something. This meaning we constantly search for is literally our only psychological defense against the incomprehensibility of this life and the inevitability of our own death. To lose that meaning, or to watch it slip away, or to slowly feel as though the world has left you behind, is to stare oblivion in the face and let it consume you willingly.