This is an excerpt from the book, Boots: A thousand Miles on Foot and on Life, which will be published in the fall. In the book, I’m getting ready to board a plane to Geneva, Switzerland to hike around the base of Mont Blanc. The topic of Spiral Dynamics became more meaningful for me during the ten days of hard hiking in the Alps.
The slightest shift in how we filter information can greatly change our lives’ outcomes and, over time, alter human history. This is something I think about.
What filter do we use to decide to have a baby or not to have a baby? Open a restaurant or become a teacher? Keep a long-held tradition or let it go in favor of something different? Move to a new town or stay in a known and familiar place? Worry about having a bed or not having a bed? Become intimately familiar with the world or be pleasantly content with provincial pleasures? Risk upset and speak out or stay safely tucked along the sidelines?
As a younger woman, I answered these questions, and a lot of other ones, most often without realizing the other choices I could have made. Now, as a matriarch, I look back and see the values and the fears that automated answering big decisions in my life.
There’s a psychological framework, called Spiral Dynamics, that I use now to help me understand choices. The decisions we make often depend on where we land most heavily in an ever-developing spiral. I’ve used the theory of Spiral Dynamics as a filter in my life for the last decade to think about where I want to get to, even though I’m not always sure I can see clearly where I am. I also use it to help better understand how people around me think.
Professor Clare Graves did the research for the Spiral over several decades in the mid-1900s. He discovered that adults develop in a pattern that forms an ever-broadening, looping, dancing spiral that starts small at the bottom and continually expands as individuals, and cultures move through the different levels. Each stage is reached by solving a problem from the stage before.
A few forerunners, thinkers ahead of their era, catch a glimpse of and articulate a new perspective not yet imagined before, and as they speak and write about a new way of seeing, more and more people can see it until eventually, it’s obvious to many people. When enough people can see a new meme, a new way of seeing, the collective Spiral grows a little taller and a bit wider. Adding a new level to the spiral can take decades or centuries.
Often the people proposing the ideas don’t live to see the change. The concept of cities once didn’t exist and now cities are all over the planet. For hundreds of years, the Divine Right of Kings went unchallenged and now millions of people demand their right to live in a democracy. Slavery, once normal, is now considered immoral in most of the world. Once only white males voted in the United States, now women and people of color vote. The hierarchy of races within cultures is being challenged, and now in many countries, children are being educated to recognize even subtle prejudices.
Once domination by some groups over others was customary and often went unchallenged, but now domination is slowly being pointed out and replaced by mutual partnership. The changes happen not linearly across the planet but in pockets of culture. It’s not perfect, but it allows for positive growth and change. Women are no longer the property of men and men can choose to be stay-at-home dads. Countries are meeting together in summits to draw up accords on human rights. The health of the planet is at the forefront of discussions, challenging decades of heavy consumerism, and lack of reverence.
The top of the Spiral is always open ready for a few forerunners. I often wonder what else might be a revolutionary thought a decade or two from now?
Most people don’t see the world through all of the existing levels of the Spiral. We see the world primarily through the values, desires, and conditioning of just one level in the spiral at a time, but people often move around through the stages they’ve already moved through.
Seeing the World Through the Levels of Spiral Dynamics
Clare Graves never published a book on his theory, and a variety of scholars who came after him picked up his work and published it after contributing to his ideas. Every loop in the spiral got assigned a color to more easily reference the stage of development a person or culture is in. The color schemes I reference come from an older work of Don Beck and Christophe Cowen, Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change.
The first level, the bottom of the spiral, is BEIGE. BEIGE represents a concern for basic survival. How do I eat, sleep, and find safety? As a middle-class woman alone on the Camino that’s what I thought a lot about.
PURPLE, the next level up, presents a person’s tribe, the family who taught a person what was true. PURPLE is often spiritual and connects with the basic desire and conditioning of being part of a clan. My PURPLE value system was formed by two opposing forces: the spiritual rituals and emphasis on stability taught by the Mormon Church and the other, a restless Dad who modeled almost no attachment to things or places.
PURPLE moves to RED when challenging their tribe’s beliefs. RED is rebellious, people caring mostly for themselves. RED is seen in teenagers questioning authority, tribal warlords in unstable African countries, or white supremacists in northern Idaho who don’t want to be told how to live or what to believe. Most people with a RED value system move on to BLUE after a short period of rebellion, but some don’t.
The BLUE value system has a strong presence in stable, developed countries. BLUE is safe and stable. Parents wait, wringing their hands, for their teenage and young adult children to move from RED to BLUE. People with BLUE values pay their taxes, show up to work on time, are kind to strangers, and raise their babies to become responsible contributing adults. Those with BLUE values stabilize society by following the rules and respecting other people. BLUE allows people in large cities to exist in relative peace because they respect authority. This segment of the Spiral is often symbolized by a hierarchy because rules come from the top-down leadership of government agencies, corporations, and churches. BLUE is essential for cultures and large communities to exist.
When people with BLUE values start to want more freedom in how they think and how they spend their time, they usually still follow the basic rules of BLUE but move to ORANGE. The ORANGE loop on the spiral is again a little wider. It requires giving up the economic safety of BLUE and taking risks to live life more outside the conventional box.
People with ORANGE values start businesses or take on leadership positions in their field to influence new directions in the hope of increased freedom or influence knowing they might fail. Over the last ten years, the number of new small businesses opening in the United States has increased every year. In my coaching practice, I work with people interested in expanding how they think and building more meaning in their relationships, almost every one of my clients has strong strokes of Orange.
Having gained confidence in thinking beyond current conventional thought, those with ORANGE may transition up to the sixth level on the Spiral to a GREEN. People who operate with strong GREEN work to solve social issues by becoming active on a non-profit board, raising money, or advocating for a particular cause related to people, animals, or the environment.
In my conservative hometown, I see the impact of GREEN values. In the 1800 and into the 1900s, the extraction of minerals happened in the United States without much consideration for death or injury to the miners or environmental destruction, but that isn’t true anymore. In Elko, the mining industry is exceptionally vigilant to meet both safety and environmental national standards advocated for by people with GREEN values. It’s the only way they are allowed to mine. And, where I can remember fifteen years ago alternative lifestyle choice around sexuality was met with eye-rolling, today hardly any I know even bats an eye at it. Neither of these things is true all over the planet, but change happens in pockets, and it is happening.
The Second Tier
In theory, after these six stages, there is a leap in consciousness in what a person sees and thinks about. It’s thought that six more stages will emerge. In this ever-widening second-tier, fear and ego drop away. People who have moved into the second tier are comfortable in the world and in the universe. They tend to have an overarching awareness of how actions in one place affect the planet and humanity.
Only the first few levels of the second tier have a color assigned. The first is YELLOW. A YELLOW lens values interdependence and systems that honor the other value structures below. People with YELLOW values have little use for guilt, shame, and judgment. They see the interconnectedness of things and are conscious of living in a paradoxical world. Their inclusiveness engages the heart and minds of others, and their dismissiveness of rules and status based on wealth and artificial hierarchies can be a conundrum. When I’m walking in other countries, I hope, I am growing more YELLOW.
After YELLOW comes TURQUOISE, then CORAL, neither of these value structures are filled in. In theory, people pass through the Spiral from bottom to top, one stage at a time. When they master one level they can choose to move to the next, or not. Spiral Dynamics is complex and imperfect. Some people seem to pass through levels more quickly than the theory thinks they will and others appear to skip levels altogether. I’ve seen people, particularly women, bypass Orange and go right to Green to solve a social issue. I’m seeing young people skip some of the pieces of conventional Blue and jump to Orange building businesses using social media platforms and hearing parents discussing supporting their children to start a business instead of going to college or finding a job.
My Movement Through the Spiral
I don’t fully understand Spiral Dynamics, but I understand it well enough to have a mental image that reminds me there is always someplace to grow toward, that concepts are coming that I can’t yet fathom, and conventional thought could soon be discarded. It helps me remember that we are a species who doesn’t even know what we are capable of and that we never arrive at an endpoint. It reminds me that I’m a daughter of a man who at eighty-five still had the rebellion of RED, the entrepreneurship of ORANGE, and barely enough BLUE to get him through. And, toward the end of his life, more than anything else, his tribal PURPLE became the most important.
I spent a lot of my adult life trying to figure out BLUE. I had seen plenty of PURPLE, RED, and ORANGE. But BLUE, respectable, middle class, and healthy BLUE, I worked to imitate. So, I taught high school, earned degrees and certificates, and minimized the number of different houses I lived in. Once I understood it, I found BLUE too competitive and too hierarchical.
Even before walking across Spain, BLUE had become scratchy. I wouldn’t have walked the Camino without Sue, or across England without Julie. How these walks changed me couldn’t be measured in a certificate or a degree. They were organic, done in partnership, a value not easily captured in the rules of BLUE.
I’ve learned to give myself permission to move around on the spiral.
I serve on a GREEN non-profit board and have a business (ORANGE) with GREEN and YELLOW tinges. Like my Dad, I find that more and more I dislike rules and authority. I notice RED rebellion burn inside me whenever I’m told what to do. My husband often tells me, “Jamie, you’re unemployable!” I choose to take it as a compliment. And, I still go home to the people of my childhood and its web of PURPLE-ness. For me, PURPLE is the most difficult. It runs deep, through generations and places. It anchors where I came from, creating tensions when understanding who I’m becoming.
Every stage of the theory switches back and forth between being independent and being concerned about a group. BEIGE is about self-preservation, PURPLE about the tribal group, RED about separating from the group, BLUE about the stability and structured systems, ORANGE about the ability of the self, and GREEN about the welfare of a particular group or cause. I feel both, a strong desire to be in partnerships with others and at the same time unwilling to be confined by unnecessary restrictions.
Embracing Matriarchy Through the Spiral
Walking and coming home, again and again, left me standing on a vague edge. I felt a bit like the upper edges of the Spiral, undefined and not sure what form I wanted to take. So, I felt around for partnerships where there weren’t pre-written rules but offered support to help define and challenge my thinking. I helped create a small group that became known as our Sistermind. I launched it with two other women, both bright, creative, and had a desire to birth new ideas into the world. One of them is a microbiologist who envisions reforming how science is taught in public schools, the other is a published author who supports writing projects for people who have something to say but aren’t necessarily a writer. The three of us are thinking partners for independent projects.
We meet twice a month to share where we are on our projects, speak directly about what flaws we see, and celebrate each other’s successes. And, even though we are focused on creating in the upper stages of the Spiral, I sometimes cry and share heartbreaking pieces of my tribal Purple. There aren’t rules in our Sistermind. It’s a safe place to flirt with possibilities. Instead of climbing the academic pyramid, or transformation using the masculine stages of the hero’s journey, I discovered how to step into the more feminine, creative dance of a collaborative circle.
The more I visit with my Sistermind, coach women, and walk the world, I see the archetype of the Matriarch being restored and strengthened. I like to think that she’ll help define the upper Spiral. She once represented wisdom and held a broad, provincial umbrella of influence that both protected and serve several generations and the planet. Then she lost her influence. But now she has a voice again. She’s educated, can own property, vote, and own a business.
The world is available to her to explore at a time where communication is instantly available to almost everywhere. She can put together pieces of information to understand things older women before her weren’t able to. She has the time, energy and longevity to be involved in her family and community in ways that have never been available before. She can define for herself what the love of a PURPLE matriarch looks like. Maybe it is without outdated rules and conditions, and allows for growth and change more readily within the tribal PURPLE.
Finally, she is allowed to rebel and make a fuss like a brilliant RED. If she chooses, she can model being a beautiful respectful BLUE. As an ORANGE, she can build a business based on wisdom and knowledge, and as a Green she can help solve social issues by accessing what she has learned over decades of living, combining it with new knowledge and her wisdom.
Because of the Spiral, I think the most, not about the Spiral, but about the matriarch.