By Mary Fridley
Whenever I tell people I’m a developmentalist, they most often look at me with a polite but blank stare. I understand their confusion – after all, the word development is used in many different ways – so let me say what I don’t mean by development. Traditional psychology views development as an individualistic phenomenon that takes place from the “inside out” (perhaps you’ve heard of Piaget’s “stages of development”). It can also mean fundraising, a housing complex, or improving life in many non-Western countries.
At the East Side Institute, where I lead the workshop and conversation series, The Joy of Dementia (You Gotta Be Kidding!), development is the capacity we have as human beings to collectively create something new out of what exists – even the “crap” of life. For us, development is always relational and social, meaning it takes place in an environment with others, and people create development together. Everyone can develop, regardless of age, life circumstances, or cognitive/physical limitations. Thus, a “developmentalist” is someone who works with people to create environments by creating developmental environments – and I think we’d all agree our world needs many more of them.
Fortunately, the world has a developmentalist extraordinaire to work with and learn from. Her name is Institute director Lois Holzman (her other accomplishments are too many to list so I hope you’ll check her out). For the purposes of this column, I am introducing her as the author of The Developmentalist, a column I urge you to read…and then keep reading. Lois has devoted much of her adult life to helping ordinary people across the world create, in her words, “…new responses to existing situations. These new responses can be feelings, ways of thinking and understanding, ways of seeing and talking, and doing your relationships. Ways of responding to the scariness of the world…”
Lois invites people to write her letters that she responds to in ways that support the writer to playfully challenge the assumptions embedded in our language and how we learn how to navigate life. Just think of her as the “Dear Abby of development.” As you will see, her “advice” is equally philosophical and practical, something I urge us all to do more of in our lives.
To whet your appetite, I’m sharing one of the letters she received and her response.
JD, Rhode Island: Recently I signed up for a drawing class at the Rhode Island School of Design. Though I currently make drawings when I need to, I do not have a drawing practice where I am drawing every day and developing my skills. Now that I have a minute – I thought – “Hey, take a drawing class! That will get you going!” I am sure that there is a lot of potential for this class to set me on a course to be drawing daily. The only trouble is – I know myself, I am the consummate “know it all.” Knowing really gets in my way of discovering what is possible and learning new things. My main goal for this class is not to be a “know it all.” I know you know a lot about knowing and not knowing, and I thought you could give me some performance coaching on how to actually execute my plan of “not knowing” when every fiber of my being says: “Hey – I already know that.”
Lois: Congratulations on taking this step! There’s nothing like doing something socially, with others—whether or not you already know how to do it—to get you going! Taking the drawing class can open-up all kinds of possibilities for developing your discipline, your skill and your talent. First off, doing what you already know how to do, but in a new context, isn’t doing the same thing. It’s doing a different thing. Drawing in a drawing class will be a new drawing practice for you, if you let it. Think of it as relational, not solitary. You and the instructor (and other students if it is a group class) are doing drawing together. Try to see and experience that—the social-cultural activity, if you will—rather than seeing and experiencing yourself doing some specific things with pencil that you already know how to do. If you let the newness of the activity and relationality of this situation drive your performance, the “know-it-all you” might be relegated to a minor role in the scenes you’re creating (on-paper and off). And remember, JD, have fun!
I hope this example gives you a better sense of what a developmentalist is and how that perspective can open up new horizons for you. If you or others in your life want to grow in some new ways, I hope you’ll drop a line or two to Lois – I know she’d love to hear from you!
Mary Fridley is on the faculty at the East Side Institute in NYC, co-creator and leader of The Joy of Dementia (You Gotta Be Kidding!), and coordinator of Reimagining Dementia: A Creative Coalition for Justice. An accomplished teacher and workshop leader, Mary practiced social therapy for 12 years and uses the social therapeutic approach as a teacher and workshop leader. She is the author or co-author of several articles and chapters on the Joy of Dementia, including a chapter that appears in The Applied Improvisation Mindset published in August 2021. Additionally, Mary is a guest blogger for agebuzz and a playwright and theater director. She makes her living as a non-profit fundraising consultant. She can be contacted at email@example.com.