Life tasks


David Brooks proposes in his book “How to know a person” a theory of “life tasks”, adapted from the psychologists Erikson and Kegan. These tasks are divided into Imperial (control and recognition), Interpersonal (relationships and belonging), Career Consolidation (find a vocation), Generative (serve the world) and the last Integrity vs. Despair (accept life in the face of death or fall into despair). Not everyone goes through the same tasks or at the same pace, but this model helps understand personal growth and encourages empathy towards others.

In his book “How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen” he develops a theory adapted from other developmental psychologists (Erik Erikson and Robert Kegan) about the “life tasks” that a person goes through in their life.

A life task can be for a baby to develop a bond with the person who feeds and cares for him.

Another would be to really understand how the environment around you works.

The theory developed by the author proposes 5 main tasks:

One caveat: not all people would go through the same tasks or stages in the same way. But they can be useful to recognize what tasks others are involved in. “These models also remind us that every person you meet is involved in a struggle.”


During the first we try to establish a sense of control in our lives, an ability to influence our own thoughts and behavior, and have faith in our ability to handle a wide range of tasks and situations.

For this we develop what Kegan (one of the two psychologists on whom the author of the book relied) calls an “imperial consciousness”.

During this task our desires and interests are the most important, primordial.

We seek to gain recognition and approval from others whether in sports, music or other activities and make our presence impressive in the world. According to Brooks, Trump and Putin could be examples of people who never went beyond this stage.


In the second task, the desire to be superior to others and stand out usually begins to be accompanied by intense desires to belong and fit in. Usually this happens in adolescence.

Someone with interpersonal awareness has a greater ability to experience another person’s experience.

During this task we can move to metaphysical planes (we not only see what we are but also what we could be in an ideal).

Separations can be devastating as we feel like we are losing our identity or part of it, as others are the source of our value and approval.

It is by noticing the limitations of this purely interpersonal awareness that we realize that while relationships are important and crucial in life, we cannot allow ourselves to be controlled by them or base our entire identity on them. We must find another task.

Career consolidation

At a certain point in our lives we have to find a career to pursue, whether it’s raising children, a job, volunteering or anything that allows us to feel like we’re making a difference in the world.

It is during this task that we achieve the consolidation of this career or experience “drift”.

We go through a necessary period of experimentation where we discover what we like and what we don’t. Until, ideally, we find something we are passionate about.

People in this task are carried away by a desire for mastery, the pleasure of being or becoming really good at something. As happens in other tasks, consciousness changes.

In this case, a more individualistic mentality develops. We become better at our self-control and emotional regulation. We develop a better ability to go against the masses. Sooner or later success in this career (which again, does not necessarily have to be something work-related but is the word chosen by the author) stops satisfying us.

According to Carl Jung “The achievements that society rewards come at the cost of a decrease in personality”. Eventually the costs become too high.

The person at the end of this task realizes that there is a spiritual hunger that has not been satisfied, a desire to selflessly serve some cause, to leave some legacy to others. We realize that we have differentiated ourselves too much from others and the world around us.

It’s time to “come in from the cold.”


In the penultimate task we seek to serve the world in some way. Be useful but for others.

According to Erikson we achieve generativity or fall into stagnation. Generativity in terms of the ability to raise and guide next generations.

This task can be taken twice in a lifetime. By becoming parents and then by becoming mentors.

Many adopt a generative mindset upon being promoted to or reaching a leadership position. For example, a professor moving to an administrative area, a journalist becoming an editor, or a scientific researcher dedicating more time to teaching (it is inevitably necessary to learn to delegate during this task).

During it we also learn that our lives are not created exclusively by us but are a product of the values promoted by the school we went to, our families, friends, mentors, organizations and others.

Integrity vs hopelessness

During the latter we develop the ability and capacity to accept life in the face of death (integrity) or we fall into hopelessness marked by regrets.

In the first case we achieve a feeling of peace that we use and are using our time in a good way. The second involves bitterness, rumination about the past, we feel unproductive, etc.

Also, throughout this task we have a strong desire to learn, we develop the wisdom to better see the connection between different things and we appreciate more the small activities in life such as sharing breakfast with loved ones or taking care of a garden.

Beyond the philosophical and psychological exploration itself, it seemed to me to be a good model to help us understand and not forget that each person we meet is at a point in all this growth. It is not necessarily wrong or right to be involved in a task at this or that age.

It can allow us to have more empathy with others (empathy which usually comes with an energy cost).

It can also be useful as a model for paying attention to our own lives and seeing where it fits into the pattern and where it doesn’t (what task we are on).

Recognize that precisely the transition periods between tasks are difficult. The passing from one consciousness to the other. As babies we believe that we are our parents, after a few years we realize that we are not our parents but that we have parents. A teenager thinks he is her friend and then understands that he is a person who has friends.

“We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of the morning of life, because what was great in the morning will be little in the afternoon, and what was true in the morning will have become a lie by evening.” Carl Jung