There have been a couple of times in my life where I’ve heard something so powerful I instinctively knew it was going to be a Game Changer. When I use that phrase, I generally mean “Holy crap, this going to change everything for me.”

The first time I heard a break-down of the Graves Model, I had one of those moments.

I was at an Eben Pagan/Wyatt Woodsmall conference on leadership (in 2009) when Eben just casually started talking about this model for seeing progress. It was peppered in among the rest of the content and the room lit up so much that he realized there was enough interest for an entire event around the topic, which they immediately began planning. I clearly wasn’t the only person impacted by it.

Since that time I’ve been a covert evangelist for the Graves Model. It’s possibly one of the most powerful tools I have in my arsenal, and I can totally envision how a global understanding of this model could literally save lives, as well as increase the quality of those lives.

First, let me explain how it fits in with the rest of typology.

There are two types of models: horizontal and vertical.

graves-model-x-y-axis_personalityhackerHorizontal models assume that people are at roughly the same level of development, and so study how we’re the same and/or different in our wiring all other things being equal.

Vertical models specifically look at how people are at varying levels of development, and study the progress we make as individuals and as societies.

Myers-Briggs is a horizontal model. It compares/contrasts how people think, make decisions and behave, but it doesn’t really take into account their perspectives of reality. If you’re a 15 year old ISTP or a 45 year old ISTP, the profile will read the same.

Enneagram is a hybrid of the two. A 15 year old Enneagram 1 will have the same profile as a 45 year old Enneagram 1, but their specific level of development within the type may vary greatly. The Enneagram is primarily about awareness and transcending the fixations of your type, and age will sometimes be a help in this (but not always!).

The Graves Model, however, is fully vertical. Its primary interest is in your worldview and just how expanded your awareness about life in general has become.

Most people change quite a bit between the ages of 15 to 45 as their experiences allow them to take in more ‘territory’. So, the profile for an ISTP Ennneagram 1 may read the same for a 15 year old as a 45 year old, but their Graves Model profile will look very different.

The fascinating thing about the Graves Model is that it has implications for both individuals and for societies, as a whole.

Individual people mirror societies, and societies mirror individuals. You can think of them as the “micro” and the “macro” for how people behave.

Since individual people are more nimble than whole societies (think: the difference between a tugboat and a barge), individual people have the capacity to outpace the culture or society they live in with their growth. They then become an example of where the society, itself, is headed.

To say it in an easier way, if you can chart the path that people at the highest levels are at, you can predict where people as a whole are headed.

That’s pretty huge. Anytime you know where things are headed, the ability to plan and guide the journey exponentially increases.

The other cool thing about the Graves Model is its diagnostic abilities.

Let’s pretend you have two generations of people – say, a father and a son – who cannot see eye-to-eye. Everyone says they’re carbon copies of each other and they think identically – in fact, they’re “too much alike,” the assumed cause of misunderstandings.
Father and son shouting

However, seen through the lens of the Graves Model if they are at two different developmental levels, when one points something out, the other one will not be able to see it. It’s simply not in their visual range. If one is exploring territory that the other doesn’t even know exists, their ability to see ‘eye-to-eye’ becomes impossible: for the one, the territory is obvious, and for the other it’s inaccessible.

It’s not that they’re necessarily disagreeing, it’s that they’re not having the same conversation and they don’t even know that.

Now, we don’t know what we don’t know, and when someone is trying to point something out that is beyond our current level of understanding, it’s the rare bird that will calmly and reflectively think, “I guess I just need to do a little more development to see their perspective.” Most people when they can’t see what you’re pointing out will say, “You’re an idiot” (if not out loud, at least to themselves) because you may as well be talking about purple elephants wearing feather boas.

When you take that same analogy and apply it to whole societies and cultures, you can see why we as humans are so convinced of our empirical rightness and, sometimes, hell bent on destroying each other. You’re WRONG (because I can’t see what you’re seeing), and I’m RIGHT (because what I’m seeing should be as obvious to you as it is to me).

To parse all of that down, the Graves Model:

1) Gives us a road map for where we’re heading, as both individual people and as whole societies.
2) Helps us understand why people clash, even if they’re similar in all other ways.

It does other stuff, too, but we’ll get to that in a later article. First, the model.

The Graves Model, aka “Spiral Dynamics”

Be sure to listen to the Personality Hacker podcast on the Graves Model for more information.

Spiral Dynamics is arranged hierarchically from 1 – 8. (There are more levels after 8, we’re just not there yet as a species.) It starts from the bottom and goes up.

Here’s a brief description of each level, including their micro (individual) and macro (societal) manifestations:

  1. Beige – Survival Level. Everything is about the individual and their personal survival. Examples – birth to 4 years old, people who are homeless and have little sensitivity to other people, feral children.
  2. Purple Tribal Level. The focus is now on the ‘tribe’ instead of just the individual. On a “micro” level, this is where a toddler starts to see themselves as part of a family/group. On a “macro” level, this is when tribes start to form. Identity becomes about ones place in the tribe, and it’s vital not to be kicked out. Survival depends upon it. Spiritual development can be observed (how gods impact us as humans, magical thinking).
  3. Red – Warlord Level. When one or two people stand out from the rest of the level 2 tribe, they begin to get a lot of attention and are regarded as leaders. They then move up to level 3, which goes back to a more ‘me-centric’ focus. On a “micro” level, this is when a teenager enters their rebellious years. While it may seem a cavalier or aggressive time period in life, it’s where individuals learn how to stand-up for themselves and their needs.
  4. Blue – Civilization Level. When 3’s start to run into each other and realize there are others not so easily dominated, they begin to create territory lines to indicate domain. Law and rule are created, and warlords become more ‘civilized’. On a “micro” level, this is when we learn to identify with an institution or paradigm “bigger than us.” We’re less ‘me-centric’ and go back to being ‘we-centric’. On a “macro” level, civilizations create armies and better ways to enforce law.
  5. Orange – Achievement Level. Similar to ‘stand out’ 2’s becoming 3’s, ‘stand out’ 4’s become 5. 5 leaders see resources as limitless, something they can manipulate and master. On a “macro” level, this is the birth of capitalism. On a “micro” level, the individual goes back to a ‘me-centric’ focus. They discover there’s no reason to limit themselves. Many people keep themselves from going to this level fearing it will make them ‘money-hungry’ or unethical. Science and technology become very important.
  6. Green – Ecological Level. Just like when 3’s bump into each other they start forming 4, when 5’s form groups they often graduate to 6.These are individuals who have met their goals.They have a more ecological perspective and start to think in terms that are ‘we-centric’ again: community and how they can give back to the world. They’re more concerned about the impact on a holistic manner. They learn how to give back. The idea of tolerance is introduced. Individuals in this level find it very challenging to accomplish their mission because they’re busy listening to everyone’s perspectives.
  7. Yellow – Flex-Flow Level – Stand out 6’s often graduate to 7. Don Beck calls this level “Flex-Flow”, and indicates there’s a graduated level of systemic thinking, but with nodes encompassing much longer timelines. Though it goes back to an ego-centric focus, ego includes all of humanity. Goals are made and calibrated toward that are unlikely to be experienced in the 7’s lifetime. Having already traversed the First Tier, they are able to communicate with individuals in different levels in order to get what they want in a faster and more productive way.

There is speculation on what level 8 looks like, and some individuals that claim to be level 8. I’d reference the related work of Spiral Dynamics to get a better view of 8. I, personally, have only met a very few number of 7’s, and no 8’s. Of course, I’m not an 8, myself, so I may completely have missed one if they came into my orbit. Since I have no personal experience with 8’s, I just use a lot of question marks when referring to them.

This is how the model visually looks:


Implications of Spiral Dynamics

Conceptually, there are limitless levels, but as a species we’ve only really gotten to about 7. That is, there are a couple of people here or there that have reached 7, so we ‘kind of’ know what it could possibly look like.

At this time period in history, though, the average level for the human species is 4.

Within highly developed countries there are some highly developed groups that are 6, and they tend to be leaders in most industries. They are also the minority, though their numbers are growing fast in the United States, Europe, Australia, etc. Even in these countries, 6 is not the norm. They’re just becoming the new standard.

To give you more context, in the United States it seems that levels 4/5 make up roughly 70-80% of the population. Level 6 comes out around 10% (and growing fast), and everyone else is either level 3 or lower. Level 3’s are usually teenagers, and if they’re older than teenagers they’re often gang members, or that construction worker friend of a friend who seems like a douchebag.

I’m not saying that construction workers are all Graves 3 and douchebags. However, 3’s often work in manual labor careers and – as they are in the ‘warlord’ level – to other levels often appear to be douchebags. There are some adult level 2’s (as most in this country are children) peppered around trailer courts, Section 8 housing and in mountain communities here and there, and there is a minute number of level 1’s (the level generally represented by infants) that are serially homeless.

If that sounds really condescending, I want to clarity that it’s not because lower levels are intrinsically ‘less than’ or worse.

In Spiral Dynamics the numbers have been replaced with colors for just this reason: to remove the prejudice we have about ‘higher and lower’ equating with ‘better and worse’.

We generally can’t choose our current level, there are just too many influences: culture, time period in history, family background, personal experiences, etc. The only time we have a “quasi-conscious” choice is when we’re on the cusp of going to the next level and we start to resist it. Otherwise, unless we have the luxury of actively choosing a personal development path, our Graves level is somewhat arbitrary.

For example, tribes in Papua New Guinea are generally at Graves 2 or 3 (Beige/Red in Spiral Dynamics), whereas most people in developed countries are 4 or 5 (Blue/Orange). This has nothing to do with personal intelligence, capabilities or otherwise. It has to do with opportunity and how the cultures have evolved over time.
graves-model_PersonalityHacker.com_guns-germs-steelThere’s a spectacular book called “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond which discusses the reasons some cultures explode into technological growth, while others feel like anachronisms from thousands of years ago. Geography, land resources and the ability to cross-pollinate ideas with other cultures are major influencers, whereas superiority of race or culture aren’t.

So, are Graves levels 4/5 superior to 2/3? In terms of generating opportunities, absolutely. But the people who occupy those levels as individuals are not superior or ‘better’.

What do Graves 6’s look like in comparison? Though a small percentage of the general population, they are powerfully influential. They’re at the forefront of eating higher quality foods for both personal health and to increase the quality of the the lives of animals. They are the forefront of alternative energy sources, recycling projects and holistic or alternative medicine. They’re what we call the “creative class,” and are counterculture in a way that sees a bigger picture. They think in ecology, so systems are very important to them.

Since they’ve already been through Graves 5, they know how to accomplish, achieve and gain resource. Graves 6 is where most of the population is headed, should they choose to keep developing in their lifetime.

Knowing your Graves level is one of the highest leverage pieces of information you can have. It not only helps you understand where you’re currently at in your worldview, but it gives you a sneak peak into where you’re headed. It also helps us understand that not everyone is seeing the same terrain we are, and is yet another tool for reconciling differences between people.

Where do you think you’re at on the Graves Model?


podcasts on Spiral Dynamics for more info. – Antonia>

p.s. To really understand this model and its implications in your life, check out the program Your Personality: The Owner’s Manual where we dig deep into this model and how it relates to your personal path.

Want to learn more?

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  • Sean
    • Sean
    • December 13, 2020 at 10:45 pm

    I think, if there was ever a chance we have a level 8 on this planet, it might be Elon Musk.

    I think he may fit the bill for a worldview of “our global”, with top-tier vision AND execution. He’s really aiming to advance humanity as a species.

    Functional aspect: He’s able to create companies toward tangible changes in this world that will influence the direction of humanity, such as Tesla and SpaceX. His vision is to accelerate humanity toward sustainable energy with Tesla, and SpaceX is a “backup plan” to reduce the risk of humanity being confined to one planet (all your eggs in one basket).


    - Sean

  • Boniface Muggli
    • Boniface Muggli
    • March 26, 2020 at 7:25 pm

    I keep returning to this, because it seems important, but I’m just not holding it as a whole system, somehow. Or I’m sensing there’s more? Anyway, at first glance, I’m a 4—a monk, belonging to an institution, with Rule and mutual responsibilities. On the other hand, there are certainly elements of 6 (giving back, awareness of the wider community), 7 (problem solving and communication) and 8 (systems and holistic thought). So, I’m still not sure where I fall. (Nor does it matter that much. ;)

  • Kathryn Wylde
    • Kathryn Wylde
    • February 2, 2020 at 5:28 am

    I’m very curious to know how one would go about assessing their graves level.

    I have a complicated trauma history and numerous psychological impacts including a variation of DID where I have a pervasive sense of self who is always lucid ‘directing’ my fragments.

    I made it into my 40s with some parts at a 5 or 6 approaching 7 and others still at a 1.
    I have done a lot of healing work over the past few years and leveled up a few times.

    I am mindful of your comment that we often believe ourselves to be 2 levels higher than we are but….. I think I’m up there.
    How would I be sure?

    • December 15, 2019 at 4:02 pm

    Antonia, I really like you approach to spiral dynamics – and really appreciate that you are doubtful about level 8. My feeling, and after working with other people who use SD, is that there are not many 7/ yellows around at all, but I believe I have met one or two (and they are fascinating). I am very interested in what to give people to read about SD that goes beyond the original Graves/ Wilber work, for instance to look at examples, and how people develop and move (love your 3s to 4, 5s to 6 idea). I work a lot with engineers who are generally very blue/4, and that’s an issue for them and for decisions about physical assets. .Thinking about how to find common cause between them and green (eg that they do care about what they are building); or how to get them to think more orange, away from rules and more to focusing on what they are trying to achieve…

  • Alberto
    • Alberto
    • December 15, 2018 at 11:46 am

    Oh my… you seem so INTP. Me too!! ? I loved your interpretation about SJW. It makes so much sense to me.

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