The Four Stages of Life

daughter leaning on mum's chest

How would you answer when someone asks about your current life stage? 

Most of us think that we only go through childhood and adulthood. But can you sum up your entire life in two basic categories? 

We experience significant milestones and immense changes throughout our lifetimes. Right from birth, we constantly grow, learn, and develop into the complex beings we are. 

Many development psychology theories can help us better understand our cognitive and intellectual development. But while they guide our goals at different parts of our lives, their views on the number of life’s phases vary.

Thus, it can be challenging to summarize the distinct stages of human development. 

Fortunately, this guide will take you through the vital life stages every human must pass through and their significance to our attitudes and decisions.  

What Are Life Stages?

Essentially, these are the phases every human being passes through in their lifetime. Many people will exhibit common behaviors, actions, and interests at each stage. 

When talking about the stages of life, we mainly refer to infancy, adulthood, and old age.

We also consider a dramatic lifestyle change to be a life-stage transition, like moving out of our homes, graduating, having kids, or retiring.

But the human cycle has a greater degree of nuance, and that’s why there are varying opinions regarding human life stages. 

But despite the vast theories, you must remember that we’re all unique, and the life-stage framework only serves as a lens through which we view our lives. 

An Overview of the Four Key Stages of Life

We use different millstones to measure our progress in life. However, the average human being must go through these four critical stages of life:

First Stage: Mimicry

We begin as helpless beings who can’t talk, walk, or file our own damn tax returns. Learning is only by watching and mimicking the people around us. We later adapt to our culture by observing generally accepted norms and rules.

Stage One comprises a constant search for validation and approval because we lack personal values and independent thought.

First steps of a child with his father’s help. Both barefoot on hardwood floor. What a joy…..

It equips us with the knowledge to make decisions and function as self-sufficient, autonomous adults. Typically, it shouldn’t go beyond adolescence and early adulthood.

But some community members we’re supposed to learn from don’t support our choices and punish our independence.

So we fail to develop autonomy into adulthood and stick to the first stage, always mimicking others and trying to please everyone around us.

We should be aware of the expectations and standards of those around us. But it’s also important to be strong enough and act despite the thresholds whenever necessary.

Generally, you should be able to act by yourself and for yourself.  

Second Stage: Self-Discovery

After learning to fit in with our culture and people, you’ll proceed to Stage Two, where we discover what sets us apart.

This stage involves a lot of self-experimentation and trial and error to improve our decision-making and determine our unique aspects.

self-discovery is an important part of one’s life

We hang out with new people, live in new places, explore new people’s orifices, and imbibe new substances.

In the self-discovery process, some things go well while others don’t. The objective is to remain with those that work for you and move on.

This stage lasts until we start to encounter our own limitations. No matter our efforts, we’ll find some things we are bad at. It doesn’t sit well with many, but the earlier you discover your limitations, the better.

Knowing your limitations helps you realize that you have limited time on this planet, so you should focus on your priorities.

Otherwise, you’ll be stuck in the Second Stage, like that 39-year-old “serial entrepreneur” still living at mom’s or “budding actor” expecting tables to turn yet hasn’t set foot in an audition for three years.

Typically, this stage starts in mid to late adolescence and can span into someone’s mid-20s to mid-30s.

Those stuck at Stage Two are considered to have the “Peter Pan Syndrome” or “eternal adolescence,” where you discover yourself yet find nothing.

Third Stage: Commitment

After the self-discovery stage, you’ll know what’s important to you and discover what you’re good at. With this knowledge, it’ll be time to leave a mark on the world.

Consider Stage Three your life’s greatest consolidation. Out go the activities and friends who drain you and hold you back. Out go your childhood dreams with no apparent signs of coming true.

You’ll now be able to double down on your strengths and what’s best for you, like your essential relationships or mission. This is where you get it done.

This level entails maximizing your potential, building your legacy, and leaving the world slightly better than you found it.

It concludes when you feel there’s nothing new to accomplish, and you’re aged and tired and would rather fill out crossword puzzles while sipping a Martini all day. 

The constant desire for more and the inability to let go of one’s ambition could have them lodged in the commitment stage.

This inability to release the influence or power they crave counters time’s natural calming effect, and such individuals remain hungry and driven even beyond their 70s.

Fourth Stage: Legacy

Stage Four comes after about half a century of investing in essential and meaningful stuff. Those in this stage have worked hard, done great things, earned all they own, and now they’re done.

At this age, their circumstances, and age don’t allow the further pursuit of purpose. Thus, they’re left to create a legacy beyond their deaths.

Grandmother and grandfather with grandkids at home

Many people struggle to transition to Stage Four after retiring from decades-long professions that made their lives purposeful. Now the years ahead seem to lack meaning.

But this stage is psychologically crucial as it makes it easy to bear the ever-growing reality of mortality.

We have a natural tendency to find meaning in life; our only defense against life’s incomprehensibility and death’s inevitability. Watching that meaning slip away is like staring oblivion in the face and allowing it to consume you willingly.

So What’s the Point?

Complete development through each phase gives us more control over our well-being and happiness.

During Mimicry, other people’s approval and actions will determine your happiness, which is quite horrible because some people are unpredictable. You’ll become more self-reliant at Stage Two, but external success also matters. While these are relatively controllable, they can be unreliable in the long run.

At Stage Three, you’ll rely on more reliable endeavors and relationships that have proven to be worthwhile and resilient.

The final stage entails holding on to the things we’ve accomplished for the longest time possible.

You’ll notice that at each stage of life, happiness primarily results from controllable internal values rather than the externalities of the dynamic outside world.

Each level also represents a priorities reshuffle. That’s why you’ll likely lose some friends when transitioning.

The Value of Trauma

Contrary to common belief, self-development isn’t a rosy progression from dumbness to enlightenment. Rather, transitioning between the stages is mainly triggered by a highly adverse event.

Trauma makes us step back and re-examine our decisions and deepest motivations. After the experience, you’ll determine whether your approaches to happiness are practical.  

Don’t Get Stuck!

People get stuck due to a sense of personal inadequacy.

Someone stuck at Stage One always feels somewhat different or flawed, so they try to conform to the approval of those around them.

The solution is to accept that you can’t be perfect for everyone, so decide for yourself.

One may stick at Stage Two because they feel the constant urge to do more, try new and exciting things, and improve at something. You’ll only progress by accepting that you can’t accomplish all your dreams and desires and committing to what matters most.

Those who feel like they’ve not influenced the world meaningfully or haven’t impacted their areas of commitment are likely to get stuck at Stage Three. If this is you, realize that your energy and time are limited, and you can only make it by helping others take over your meaningful projects.

Finally, it’s possible to stick at Stage Four because you feel like your legacy won’t significantly impact future generations. But you don’t have to cling to it with every last breath.

Instead, accept the inevitability of change and the fact that it’ll eventually disintegrate, no matter how great a person’s influence is.

And life will go on.