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Coaching to a Las Vegas State of Mind

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The Protean Man

Both Turkle and developmental psychologist James Fowler reference the work of Robert Jay Lifton, a student of Erik Erickson’s, as they consider the malleability of adolescents today.  Lifton diverged from Erikson in his view about the nature of the mature self.  While Erikson saw a fairly stable self in maturity, Lifton saw a mature self that was instead, protean.  Lifton pulled the term out of Greek mythology.  Proteus, was a minor god who was able to change shape with ease.  Lifton said, “But what he did find difficult and what he would not do unless seized and chained, was to commit himself to a single form, a form most his own” (Lifton, 1971, p.319).  In this view of maturity, the self is “fluid and many-sided, can embrace and modify ideas and ideologies.  It flourishes when presented with things diverse, disconnected, and global” (Turkle, p.179).

Much as Kegan suggests in his metaphor regarding the multiple (yet ultimately single) source of lumination, Lifton promotes and remains optimistic about the capacity to hold and integrate multiple sources of information. Lifton’s Protean Man thrives in Las Vegas.  In alignment with Kegan, Fowler sees Lifton’s protean self as a useful model for understanding the developing self in a sea of environmental flux and complexity.  He ties the need for such a theory to the unprecedented change in physical mobility, electronic telecommunications, and the internet:

The internet offers an extraordinary variety of niches in cyberspace where one can create virtual personas, shape virtual games and ventures, and bring to vivid life the most sublime, ambitious, or destructive imaginations of the heart….Making these created spaces accessible…can reshape consciousness and reframe patterns of ordinariness” (Fowler, 2000, p. 4).

However, as Turkle points out, even from the grave Erikson disagrees that the protean self is a reasonable conception of maturity:

Publicly, Erikson’s expressed approval of Lifton’s work, but after Erikson’s death in 1994, Lifton asked the Erikson family if he might have the books he had personally inscribed and presented to his teacher.  The family agreed; the books were returned.  In his personal copy of Lifton’s The Protean Self, Erikson had written extensive marginal notes.  When he came to the phrase, “protean man,” Erikson had scrawled “protean boy?”  Erikson could not accept that successful maturation would not result in something solid.  By Erikson’s standards, the selves formed in cacophony of online spaces are not protean but juvenile (Turkle, 2011, p. 179).

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