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What is Spiral Dynamics Stage Yellow?

What is it like to live Spiral Dynamics Yellow from the inside? I reached out to fellow Spiral Dynamics enthusiasts to find out.

Let’s look at the first 2nd-tier stage in the Spiral Dynamics model: stage Yellow.

Clare Graves documented the many stunning characteristics that individuals at this stage possessed, like a remarkably low level of fear and compulsion, a notable capacity for solving complex problems, and their disposition towards contributing to the world rather than leeching off it.

He summed up this stage, called A’N’ in his original model, as: “Express self for what self desires, but never at the expense of others and in a manner that all life, not just my life, will profit.”

So this is a self-oriented stage. Our desires and motivations are self-generated, but they’re now tempered with the lessons from Green, and revolve around creating, finding solutions, giving and expressing.

This is a flexible, integrative, knowledge-based stage. The Spiral Dynamics literature calls it “FlexFlow”, which means we can move among different value systems according to the context. This is the hallmark of 2nd-tier stages and beyond. At 1st tier, we’re essentially stuck in one value system and are unable to grasp the importance of other ones.

I particularly like the term “multiperspectivalness” to describe “FlexFlow”. Becoming multiperspectival is an enormous jump in consciousness, as you’ll see.

Not only are you attuned to the pros and cons of all the major value systems that have awakened to date, you sense the conditions or circumstances where these awaken, as well as the evolutionary inevitability and necessity of those systems. This opens you to a level of openness and understanding that most people are simply unable to contact.

Table of Contents

    When Does Yellow Emerge?

    So when does Yellow come online on the individual level and the collective level?

    According to the theory, Yellow emerges in circumstances where “life is at risk of chaotic collapse”. In these circumstances, we face complex problems affecting millions of human beings, and their resolution is key to the continuance of human life. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

    On an individual, psychological level, Yellow surges when the limitations of Green are revealed. The sociocentric ideals, the caring and warmth, the victim focus and the gospels of tolerance look puny in comparison to the human problems we perceive. These characteristically Green dispositions stifle hard-hitting action and pragmatism.

    A table of the Spiral Dynamics vMEMEs

    The excessive group focus at Green also becomes suffocating, and our psychological pendulum swings back to the individual. There is a burst of individual power and a newfound drive to act alone.

    An evolutionary view replaces the idealism, egalitarianism and relativism of Green. The person moving into Yellow “sees too much, from too many new angles to accept simplicity that is not here”.

    The Green-to-Yellow transition is, as Graves called it, “a momentous leap”.

    Spiral Dynamics Yellow: Worldview

    with his energies free for cognitive activation, man focuses upon his self and his world. The picture revealed is not pleasant. Illuminated in devastating detail is man’s failure to be what he might be and his misuse of the world, to focus upon the truly salient aspects of life.

    Clare w. Graves

    The worldview accompanying stage Yellow is one of its crucial components. Perhaps its most defining feature is its evolutionary view of humankind.

    Yellow is the first stage that enables us to see the entire human spiral – the levels of psychological and cultural development active in humans. These are visible not only in each of our individual life histories, but in the history of the entire species.

    While we may not be perfectly free of judgement at this level, we can (at least on a good day) appreciate the necessity and legitimacy of these levels while being free of them. There comes a sense that the 1st-tier systems are jeopardising the health and validity of the human race. As the Spiral Dynamics theory says: “The landscape is now strewn with the wreckage and glories of the first six human systems.”

    Seeing Evolution At Play

    Beyond seeing these systems, we’re aware that they form a sequence of increasing complexity. While each claims to offer the one-and-only, universal solution to human problems, they’re simply steps in an evolutionary chain. That’s not to say all humans will inevitably move through them. Nor does it mean that all individuals and cultures have journeyed the same distance – quite the opposite. Regardless, the fundamental steps – the fundamental levels of complexity – remain.

    Other areas of our worldview also get an upgrade. We are aware of the natural hierarchies, systems and flows governing life. We integrate the parts and look for commonalities, forming connected, big-picture views.

    Unsurprisingly, given its focus on identifying and solving large-scale problems, Yellow perceives systems, along with their contributions and their failings. With the ideological slant of 1st tier now history, Yellow is aware that systemic issues underlie human problems. It will be fascinating to see this in action if and when Yellow comes to have a significant effect on politics, the economy, business and other areas.


    It’s crucial to remember that this belongs to the family of inner-directed, individualistic stages. Our personal growth centres on re-owning subpersonalities and building an integrated self – Ken Wilber called this stage the Centaur. Our self-chosen moral and ethical principles, built from both information and personal experience, guide the way.

    Think of it this way. We’re individualistic and want to be competent. We filter life through our own lenses. But our goal isn’t to get a one up on everyone else. Here, we’re deliberately responsible as a self. This is very different to the parasitical individualism characteristic of Orange and Red.

    Competition, ostentation and gamesmanship don’t motivate us. As Graves says: “People who operate at this level have ambition but are not ambitious.” There’s detachment. There’s awareness of how little we are in the grand scheme of things. We might say it’s tempered, detached, realistic individualism.

    Graves also observed a dropping away of dogma and guilt, along with a marked reduction in fear and compulsion. Yellow is a 2nd-tier stage, so it brings abundance motivation. So you get a taste of how profound the leap to Yellow is, Graves called it “the beginning of human life all over again on a new and different basis”.

    Key Feature: Cognitive Complexity

    This stage brings cognitive complexity unlike anything present in the previous stages, including systemic thinking. Paradox and uncertainty are built in to this multilevel, multiperspectival cognition. Attuned to the long-term evolution of humankind, we expect change and chaos.

    This cognition allows us to look at the world through many lenses, cross-compare them, evaluate them, and extract the goodies from each. 1st-tier worldviews, values and behaviours are on the shelf waiting to be used whenever necessary, but we aren’t stuck in any of them. When it comes to 1st tier, Yellow can “cooperate without signing along”.

    The theory also holds that our learning capacities peak at this stage. Perceiving just how much there is to learn about life, we’re open to learning at all times and from any source.

    Spiral Dynamics Yellow: Values

    Knowing about the worldview accompanying Yellow will help us understand this stage’s characteristic values.

    Seeing the chaos 1st tier causes, Yellow wants to act for the good of humanity. For the first time, we sense our deep interdependence with the world. We value creating a better world for all, honouring the many layers of human existence as we do.

    Though this is an individualistic stage, don’t equate this individualism with Orange’s consumerist, materialistic, winner-takes-all values or Red’s domination drives. At Yellow we appreciate the importance of those, but our core identity is free of them.

    First and foremost, the greatness of life is what informs our values, and it takes precedence over having and doing. This means we explore ourselves, aiming to contribute what we can in our own way, but never to the detriment of the world. We value freedom bound by guiding principles.

    And with this new attunement to the entire Spiral, we value keeping it healthy and preventing damage to living systems and humanity at large. We’re devoted to the long-term good of the world rather than petty, short-term interests.

    Here we value competence over rank and status, along with flexible adaption to the chaotic world that we perceive.

    Spiral Dynamics Yellow: Behaviour

    And finally, let’s look at the typical behaviour of Yellow – how do individuals and groups operating from this stage act?

    It’s crucial to remember that this stage brings with it an emphasis on competency and knowledge. In fact, Graves observed that groups of Yellow-centred people operate in a special way.

    When facing a task, the members of the group compete for leadership based on their relevant expertise and competency. It’s not about status or power or contacts. It’s not about who wants to have most control. When they prove to be incompetent, they lose their leadership position. Furthermore, when the knowledge requirements change, the leader also changes. There’s revolving leadership.

    This kind of leadership is rare. Donald Trump certainly wasn’t the most competent leader, but he did have a tonne of money, and contacts in just the right circles.

    There’s a certain humbleness too. Graves often found Yellow people on the fringes of organisations. It’s not about acclaim, status or image. It’s about doing what needs to be done. And Yellow will often stand alone, just using knowledge and experience to complete the task.

    Work For Benefit of All

    Individual and group action is directed to finding win-win-win solutions. It’s not just about win-win – the benefit goes beyond just the two parties immediately involved in the project. We look for the third win – the benefit to all of humankind and the health of the Spiral. At Yellow we deliberately macromanage the other human systems and create flexible, open, integrated solutions that allow others to roam up and down the human Spiral.

    As the theory has it, we have a knack for solving complex problems. Graves observed that groups of Yellow individuals come up with solutions of a much higher quality than those of other groups.

    Unlike at Green, where conventionality is often a threat to our identity, at Yellow we integrate the conventional and store it away in our knowledge bank for when we need it. We use anything that helps us to make a positive impact on systems. We’re action-oriented, practical and left-brained.

    Check out this video on Spiral Dynamics to take your knowledge a step further.

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