Three Elements of Self-Authorship

By Magolda, Marcia B Baxter

This article describes three distinct yet interrelated elements of self-authorship: trusting the internal voice, building an internal foundation, and securing internal commitments. These elements, which emerged from longitudinal interviews with adults in their 30s, offer insights into the complexity and cyclical nature of self-authorship as well as provide guidance for how educators can assist college students in developing their internal voices to meet the challenges of adult life. Self-authorship, or the internal capacity to define one’s beliefs, identity, and social relations, has emerged in the past 15 years as a developmental capacity that helps meet the challenges of adult life. Robert Kegan (1994) articulated the developmental concept of self-authorship as a necessary foundation for adults to meet typical expectations they face at work, home, and school, such as the ability to be self- initiating, guided by their own visions, responsible for their experience, and able to develop interdependent relations with diverse others. My 21-year longitudinal study of young adults age 18 to 39 supports Kegan’s stance that complex epistemological, intrapersonal, and interpersonal development is necessary for adults to build complex belief systems, to form a coherent sense of identity, and to develop authentic, mature relations with diverse others (Baxter Magolda, 2001). In their work roles, my participants were required to analyze data, critique multiple perspectives, understand contexts, and negotiate competing interests to make wise decisions upon which to base their practice. These challenges required an internal belief system that allowed them to consider but not be overwhelmed by external influence, a coherent identity that yielded the confidence to act on wise choices, and mature relations to collaborate productively with colleagues. Similarly, personal life challenges of parenting, partnering, and managing daily life required obtaining and critiquing multiple perspectives, managing ambiguity, balancing competing interests, and making wise choices.

Today’s global society necessitates that adults engage in collaborative social relations with diverse others. These relations require intercultural maturity, which in turn requires epistemological, intrapersonal, and interpersonal complexity. For privileged adults, achieving intercultural maturity requires the ability to use multiple cultural frames (an epistemological capacity) and construct a nonracist, nonhomophobic, nonsexist identity (an intrapersonal capacity) to develop interdependent relations with diverse others (an interpersonal capacity; King & Baxter Magolda, 2005). For adults who experience oppression, the ability to deconstruct racist messages (an epistemological capacity) is crucial to denouncing those messages to create a positive racial or ethnic identity that in turn supports authentic relations with diverse others (Torres & Baxter Magolda, 2004; Torres & Hernandez, 2007). Similarly, the ability to deconstruct heterosexist messages and growth on all three developmental domains promotes sexual orientation identity development (Abes & Jones, 2004). These capacities are necessary for success in college and beyond.

Employers expect higher education to help college students achieve these capacities. In a 2006 national survey 76% of employers wanted colleges to place more emphasis on teamwork skills in diverse groups and intercultural competence and 64% advocated greater emphasis on complex problem solving (Association of American Colleges and Universities [AACU], 2007). Similarly, higher education reform reports emphasize personal and social responsibility, including intercultural competence, as essential college learning outcomes for 21st-century challenges (AACU). These learning outcomes are crucial for traditional 18-to-24 year-old students to be effective citizens on campus and to succeed in their future adult roles. These learning outcomes are equally crucial for nontraditional college students who already face many of these challenges. As the Spellings Commission noted (U.S. Department of Education, 2006), almost 40% of today’s college students are self- supporting adults 24 or older, more than a third of whom work full- time, and over a fourth of whom have children.

The pace of knowledge production in today’s society also requires forms of learning that in turn require self-authorship. Knowledge acquisition is no longer sufficient for adults to keep pace with rapid change. Educators, instead, call for transformational learning:

The process by which we transform our taken-for-granted frames of reference (meaning perspectives, habits of mind, mind-sets) to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and reflective so that they may generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action. (Mezirow, 2000, pp. 7-8)

Transformational learning involves “learn[ing] to negotiate and act on our own purposes, values, feelings, and meanings rather than those we have uncritically assimilated from others” (p. 8). The learning outcomes called for in national higher education reform reports (e.g., critical thinking, integrative learning) support the need for transformational learning (Baxter Magolda, 2004; Meszaros, 2007).

The potential of self-authorship to help adults meet the challenges of adult life effectively warrants a better understanding of the nature of self-authorship, how it evolves, and how it can be fostered among the diverse array of students who currently attend college. This article offers a theory of self-authorship based on tracing its evolution from age 18 to age 39 among a group of 30 adults.


Although many lines of research historically address the components of self-authorship, Kegan coined the term in describing a shift of meaning-making capacity from outside the self to inside the self. He explained that a person takes values, beliefs, convictions, generalizations, ideals, abstractions, interpersonal loyalties, and intrapersonal states:

as objects or elements of its system, rather than the system itself; it does not identify with them but views them as parts of a new whole. This new whole is an ideology, an internal identity, a self-authorship that can coordinate, integrate, act upon, or invent values, beliefs, convictions, generalizations, ideals, abstractions, interpersonal loyalties, and intrapersonal states. It is no longer authored by them, it authors them and thereby achieves a personal authority. (1994, p. 185, italics in original)

The shift he described is from uncritically accepting values, beliefs, interpersonal loyalties and intrapersonal states from external authorities to forming those elements internally. The person becomes the coordinator of defining her/his beliefs, identity and social relations while critically considering the perspectives of external others. Self-authorship is sometimes confused with egocentrism and a focus on the self rather than on relations with others, which is of particular concern when exploring the utility of the concept of self-authorship for persons who belong to cultures that emphasize family and connection to the community. Yet Kegan emphasized that self-authorship involves each person determining for himself or herself how to construct mutually beneficial relationships. Thus, self-authoring individuals do not separate from others but rather reconstruct their relationships to be more authentic. Kegan’s (1982) most significant contribution to the evolution of self-authorship lay in his advancing the constructive- developmental tradition to integrate Piagetian cognitive psychology with psychoanalytic psychology. This constructive-developmental tradition surfaces the interconnectivity of how we view the world (the epistemological dimension), how we view ourselves (the intrapersonal dimension), and how we view social relations (the interpersonal dimension). Understanding the integration of these three dimensions provided a richer portrayal of adult development.

Self-authorship evolves when the challenge to become self- authoring is present and is accompanied by sufficient support to help an individual make the shift to internal meaning making (Baxter Magolda, 2001; Kegan, 1994). My longitudinal participants encountered the challenge to become self-authoring in their mid-20s in their work and personal contexts. Their stories of their 20s revealed a path out of following external formulas to a crossroads in which external influences and their initial internal voices conflicted. Most reported that negotiating this crossroads occupied their 20s (Baxter Magolda, 2001). The participants’ stories of their 30s are focused on how they came to trust their internal voices to effectively coordinate their beliefs, identities, and social relations. Increasing trust led them to build internal foundations based on their commitments and use these foundations to guide their lives. These commitments became increasingly secure and second nature as self-authorship evolved.

Research evidence suggests that adults who experience oppression and marginalization develop self-authorship prior to or during their 20s. Some Latino/a college students in Torres’s longitudinal study became self-authoring by trusting their internal voices to ground their negotiation of cultures and Latino/a identity; a few built internal foundations that enabled them to maintain their internalized identities across diverse contexts (Torres & Hernandez, 2007). A few lesbian college students in Abes’s longitudinal study also became self-authoring as they trusted their voices to mediate the heterosexist messages they received from their external environments (Abes & Jones, 2004). Pizzolato (2003) found evidence of selfauthorship among entering high-risk college students based primarily on the challenges they had encountered in striving to become college students. Their ability to maintain selfauthorship in the face of continued marginalization in college depended on their coping skills (Pizzolato, 2004). These studies suggest that self- authorship is possible in the late teens and early 20s if the challenge and appropriate support are available to enable it. Integrated developmental models are emerging to articulate the complexities of self-authorship development (Abes, Jones, & McEwen, 2007; Baxter Magolda, Abes & Torres, in press). A more comprehensive understanding of the elements of self-authorship can help educators provide the challenge and support for college students to shift to internal coordination of their beliefs, identities, and social relations. I have used the word elements to convey that there are certain components, or building blocks, that comprise what Kegan called the self-authored system; the term system stems from Kegan’s notion that self-authorship is “the mental making of an ideology or explicit system of belief” (1994, p. 91). This system does not emerge in a wholesale fashion but rather in an incremental, cyclical fashion. In this article I have offered one portrayal of three elements of self-authorship based on longitudinal interviews with adults in their 30s.


The self-authorship theory advanced here emerged from my 21-year longitudinal study of young adults from the age of 18 to 39 (Baxter Magolda, 1992; 2001). I originally designed this constructivist study to explore gender differences based on the work of Perry (1970) and Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986). Continuing the constructivist approach into the postcollege phase enabled the intrapersonal and interpersonal dimensions of development to emerge and thus shifted the nature of the study to a more holistic view of self-authorship in young adult life.


I interviewed 101 traditional-age students (51 women and 50 men) when they began college in 1986 at a Midwestern public university. Seventy percent of the entering class of which the participants were a part ranked in the top 20% of their high school class. Their majors included all six divisions within the institution (i.e., arts and sciences, education, fine arts, interdisciplinary studies, business, engineering and applied sciences), and cocurricular involvement in college was high. Of the 70 participants continuing in the postcollege phase of the study, 21 pursued additional academic preparation after college graduation, including law school, seminary, medical school, and various graduate degrees. Their occupations included business, education, social service, ministry, and government work. Attrition over the past 15 years resulted in 30 participants, all of whom are Caucasian, by Year 20. Of these 30, 2 were single, 1 was in a committed relationship, 26 were married, and 2 were divorced (one of whom remarried). Of these 18 women and 11 men, 22 had children. Seventeen had been or were pursuing advanced education: 12 had received master’s degrees in education, psychology, social work, business administration, and economics. One had completed seminary, 2 received law degrees, 1 completed medical school, and 1 completed a doctorate. The most prevalent occupations of these 30 participants were business (16) and education (9). Areas within business included sales in varied industries, financial work, public services, real estate, and marketing. Educators were primarily secondary school teachers and administrators; one was a college professor. The remaining participants were in social work, law, homemaking, and Christian ministry.


The annual interview began with a summary of the focus of the project, which was to continue to explore how participants learn and come to know. The participant was then asked to think about important learning experiences that took place since the previous interview. The participant volunteered those experiences, described them, and described their impact on her or his thinking. I asked questions to pursue why these experiences were important, factors that influenced the experiences, and how the learner was affected. The interview became increasingly unstructured (Fontana & Frey, 2000) as the study progressed and addressed what life had been like for participants since we talked last. These conversations included discussion of the dimensions of life they felt were most relevant, the demands of adult life they were experiencing, how they made meaning of these dimensions and demands, their sense of themselves, and how they decided what to believe. Inherent in these dimensions was their sense of themselves in relation to others and their involvement in significant relationships. Interviews were conducted in person during college and by telephone after college; each interview ranged from 60 to 90 minutes.

My constructivist approach to this project and the partnership developed over the course of the study with participants both mediate data interpretation. My constructivist approach led to using grounded theory methodology (Charmaz, 2003, 2006) to analyze interview responses. Each year I reviewed transcriptions of the taped interviews and divided them into units. I then sorted the units into categories to allow themes and patterns to emerge from the data. I also reread data for each participant across years to develop successively evolving interpretations and further develop patterns. Credibility of the themes and patterns is enhanced through prolonged engagement to build trust and understanding and member checking to assure accuracy of interpretations. Two research partners joined me to reread and analyze a portion of the postcollege data. Each of us prepared summaries of themes individually followed by meetings in which we discussed and synthesized our perceptions. This use of multiple analysts helped mediate our subjectivities and increase the adequacy of our interpretations. I have negotiated interpretations with study participants as well. Full involvement with participants has yielded rapport and understanding. Yet Clandinin and Connelly emphasized that researchers “must also step back and see their own stories in the inquiry, the stories of the participants, as well as the larger landscape on which they all live” (2000, p. 81). Thus I bring my perspective to the interpretation yet simultaneously work to be true to participants’ narratives, and from the two, construct a theoretical perspective.


The theoretical perspective offered here is one possible portrait of the evolution of selfauthorship. Because it is based on constructivist interviews with one group of participants it cannot automatically be generalized to others. Clearly my participants encountered the demand for self-authorship at a different time in their lives than participants in Torres’s, Abes’s, and Pizzolato’s studies. Personal characteristics and environmental context both mediate the evolution of self-authorship. Thus the theoretical perspective offered here grows out of the particular personal characteristics and environmental contexts of the participants.

Longitudinal in-depth narratives of young adults’ meaning making enable constructing a nuanced theory of self-authorship that captures the complexities of personal characteristics, environmental contexts, and the interaction of the two in becoming selfauthoring. Tracing the evolution of meaning making in these narratives also reveals the varied role that dimensions of development play and how developmental cycles might occur. Because very few in-depth narratives of self-authoring persons appear in the literature, exploring such a narrative reveals the nuances of three elements of self-authorship. Understanding these nuances refines educators’ abilities to conceptualize how to support young adults in becoming self-authoring. I chose Dawn’s in-depth narrative here because Dawn’s ability to articulate her innermost thoughts offers a clear view of the process of self-authorship.

Dawn entered college with a proclivity for self-exploration. She found an outlet for exploring herself in theater, noting that, “To bring out the truth in a character, I think you have to have an immense understanding of all the little truths within yourself” (Baxter Magolda, 2001, p. 151). She also looked for these little truths by traveling solo to Australia for 3 months, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, and wrestling with career plans. Her explorations during her 20s were focused on finding and listening to her internal voice, gaining confidence in expressing it, and letting go of external noise in her life. Listening to her voice enabled her to self-identify as gay, explore her spiritual core, and gain clarity about what she wanted in life. She enjoyed the support of her parents, grandmother, friends, and theater colleagues in this exploration.

Dawn was challenged to further cultivate her internal voice when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 33. The diagnosis accelerated her quest for self-discovery as she reported in our 16th interview just 2 weeks after her diagnosis:

There is so much processing going on, what I do on a daily basis, trying to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. I think I’m definitely at a point where I am really defining a lot about my life. Not that it is discovering new things-I’m sure I am-but bringing everything that I’ve ever thought and believed into a much clearer focus for myself. I’m in very deep thought about evaluating what is important, what is not so important, what gives me comfort, emotionally, mentally, discovering these things. Specifying these things that accomplish these things for me. . . . If you are very specific in your frame of mind in how you approach and handle things, that makes it much simpler. The whole thought process of just taking stock of where you are in your life. It’s like putting your life through a sieve, getting the big awkward chunks out of your life, getting the nice finely sifted residue-it is kind of sorting it all out. What is the essence of you and what isn’t? What is important to the essence of you and what isn’t? . . . You have to decide what it is that you want and don’t want. Little by little, things take a much more specific shape. (Baxter Magolda, 2004c, pp. 18-19) Dawn’s processing reflected a shift from listening to her internal voice to cultivating it to make decisions about the essence of her identity. Using all that she previously thought and believed, she sorted and sifted to get to the essence of who she wanted to be.

Self-Authorship: Trusting the Internal Voice

Continual work on sorting out her essence increased Dawn’s confidence in her internal voice and led her to feel spiritually centered and “more malleable around obstacles.” She explained, “Obstacles are not a hard blockade, but rather you can shift and move with that energy around them, and they solve themselves.” She called this the “art of controlling without controlling”:

Finding the balance between [going with the flow] and me saying I have control over myself, not letting this condition get the best of me. Knowing how to make things happen and let things happen. When you find the balance between those things, life is spectacular. That is kind of a trust thing-trusting that you know yourself enough to dance that line. Know when to make something happen and when to let it happen. Trusting yourself that you know that space. I don’t quite know myself enough to trust that yet. I’m working on it. I’m getting close. That deepest self-knowledge to know you can stay there at that middle point and have that balance. That is a constant process for me. To be able to say this is my life and it’s on my terms; I love that. (Baxter Magolda, 2004b, pp. xx-xxi)

Trusting her internal voice meant knowing herself deeply enough to determine when to make things happen versus when to let them happen to live life on her own terms. She could not control having MS or the restrictions it placed on her physical capacity. Yet she viewed it as a gift and noted that learning you cannot do something opens another door to what you can do. Dawn actively searched for what she could do rather than framing MS as an obstacle. Developing this trust was an ongoing quest.

Dawn clarified, however, that the quest was not one of straightforward, steady progress. She noted that she was not always spiritually centered:

I went through this phase where I questioned everything. I questioned what I believed; I questioned every spiritual principle that I’d ever thought was true; I felt very lost. . . . I always felt like I was fighting to get back on track and I just couldn’t, and that lasted for a couple of months where I just felt like I was just tumbling around in space with no sense of direction or anything to cling to, and I was just out there lost. And I don’t know if I can pull it to one defining moment where everything came right back together for me. Now I feel like I’m at the complete opposite end of the spectrum because I know, I have such a clarity over what I think, what I believe, spiritual purpose, which is kind of an interesting journey. You don’t stay in the light all the time. There are times when you go to the shadow lands and I don’t know if that was teaching me something? I haven’t really sat down and put the pieces together, but it has led me to this point where I feel so grounded and so connected with myself and the world in which I live, and it has brought clarity to me about my health, about who I am, where I want to go.

This period of questioning suggests that coming to trust one’s internal voice requires cultivating it, questioning it, and refining it.

Three years later Dawn reported that she had lost sight of her internal voice in a relationship. Her frustration about this was compounded by the fact that the same thing had happened to her in her 20s. This time, focusing on the relationship drew her attention away from bringing her internal voice to it. The breakup of the relationship reminded Dawn of the need to be vigilant about keeping her internal voice in the foreground:

I wasn’t taking care of myself, my balance wasn’t good and I was running into stuff and falling down. And I noticed that that was happening, but I really wasn’t taking any steps to correct it. It was really frustrating me, making me angry, and some of that came out in our relationship. It wasn’t necessarily directed at her, but I would just be really frustrated, and I didn’t really know why. I stopped approaching myself as someone with a disease or condition [who needs] to take care of [herself]. Out of the breakup has just come a lot of self-awareness. It happened before, during, and after the break-up that this whole turnaround has happened. OK, I have this problem. Is that just because I have this problem with my health, or is it because of the MS and, it’s just kind of coming back to myself? That’s just been a huge thing. I totally lost it in this relationship and that was a big reason too why it didn’t work. You got to be yourself. You got to bring yourself to the relationship, and I just kind of stopped doing that, and I’m not really exactly sure why. I’m still working that one out.

Dawn was determined to figure out why she lost her internal voice in significant relationships. She continued to make use of every challenge she faced to analyze herself and move closer to trusting her internal voice in all dimensions of her life.

Self-Authorship: Building an Internal Foundation

Trusting her internal voice enabled Dawn to acknowledge and accept her personal talents as a building block for focusing on her purpose. She had always loved theater but was acknowledging her giftedness in cooking, a role she had assumed over the years to support herself financially. She began to think more long-term than she had in the past, and turned her focus toward creating both an internal and physical foundation for her life:

I started to look at what I’m good at and how to take those things, and particularly with the cooking, it’s like, “I am tired of working for somebody else’s vision.” I have my own ideas. I have my creativity. I have my own style in the kitchen. Why can’t I start working for my own vision and make that a success, and make a living off of that? In the past year is when I really focused in on the long term and settling down a little bit ’cause, we’ve talked since I was a freshman in college basically, [and] you’ve gotten a pretty good idea over the last, say, 5 to 10 years of what kind of a gypsy I’ve been. . . . Just kind of going and doing whatever, wherever, however. In the past year I’ve really started to bring the focus of my life into a more specific area and having a place to call my own. I love the flexibility that I have now because I don’t work every day and now I’m focusing in on getting my own place to call home, and building this whole network and infrastructure for myself. So then I use that to kind of launch myself into all these directions that I want to go and things I want to do, but when I come back, I know I have this framework in which to exist, and that’s made a big difference. And I don’t know if part of that is because of the MS or not. I think it is because of the precarious nature of my health, I think I need a framework or some stability there just so I know that I’ve got a solid place to be no matter what happens in my life.

Dawn’s focus on her internal identity had routinely overshadowed any concern about a physical infrastructure such as a home or stable job to support her life. Yet her deepening understanding of her MS and the connection between her health and internal identity provided her with the confidence necessary to structure her external environment in a way that best fits her needs and interests. Shifting from her gypsy past to a more stable future, she now used her own voice and vision to create a framework for her life. Whereas the structure others created for her had been confining, her own self-made structure is freeing. Beginning to feel both internally and physically grounded, Dawn moved closer to her core as she accepted and celebrated her talents and started to incorporate them into her identity:

I work magic in the kitchen, and my therapist would be so happy to hear me speaking in such really incredible terms about myself. Now I’m realizing too that what I’ve held onto all along is that it is very much a creative and artistic outlet for me, which is why I started cooking professionally in the first place, because my theater work wasn’t making me a lot of money and I had to support myself. I started cooking, and it’s just like a huge opening to all of the wonderful things in life that I am. Also, opening to myself, being a wonderful person, and enough of this downplaying it. Life is short. You’ve got to celebrate every moment that you have. Part of that also has been acceptance, even 3 years into it, of the whole MS thing. I’m sure I denied it a little bit, but just accepting that it is a part of me. It will not rule my life. I just feel such a complete sense of settling into myself and everything about me. This is the most peaceful I have felt in a very, very long time, if ever, you know? Accepting these parts of herself enabled Dawn to actively construct an internal foundation to use as a framework for her life. She described it as “opening the door” to using her talents in her professional and personal life. Her newfound ability to appreciate the full extent of her talents was a crucial part of this:

It had to be my willingness to change that, to stop the downplaying, to really embrace myself for all the amazing things that I can do. Even celebrating the little things that may not be necessarily categorized by some people as amazing, like the fact that I get up every morning and ride 15 miles on my bike. That’s pretty amazing in its own right. So there’s been a big shift in that approach to myself and my life.

Dawn’s construction of her internal foundation by embracing her talents, her MS, and the things she could do fueled her quest for her spiritual core. Dawn’s conscious quest for more meaning helped her continually build her internal foundation. By opening herself to that something more, by going to get it, she developed strength even through painful explorations. Each journey to the shadow lands made her stronger because she emerged each time with a stronger understanding of her spiritual core.

Self-Authorship: Securing Internal Commitments

As Dawn’s internal foundation strengthened, the commitments she made to how she saw the world, herself, and relationships became second nature to her. The multiple strands of Dawn’s previous introspection came together as she implemented decisions about her career, health and relationships to secure these internal commitments, as she explained in our 19th interview:

I feel like I’m in this situation where I’m learning a whole new side of me that I suspected might have existed before, but I never had the opportunity to get to know it or put it into practice: how resourceful, strong, resilient, and smart I am and just all these new facets of me that are starting to come to light. I’m very much enjoying the whole process of getting to know that. It’s almost another level. It’s not to say that I didn’t see those things before. It’s just maybe a deepening of all of that, a maturing of all of that.

Asked to elaborate, Dawn explained what she called a transformation from knowledge to wisdom:

It’s starting to feel-more like wisdom than knowledge. To me knowledge is an awareness of when you know things. You know them as facts; they are there in front of you. When you possess the wisdom, you’ve lived those facts, that information so fully that it takes on a whole different aspect than just knowing. It is like you absorbed that information into your entire being. Not just that you know things. It is something deeper. Knowledge is brain -wisdom comes from a different place, I feel like. Something deeper connecting with your brain so that you have something different to draw from. A point where knowing you are going to do something-the knowledge has a deeper level-internal, intuitive, centered in entire being, the essential part of you that just-makes the basic knowledge pale by comparison. (Baxter Magolda, 2007, p. 71)

Dawn’s description suggests that wisdom emerges when knowledge merges with sense of self as a result of living the facts. She offered two examples in which she relied on this internal, intuitive wisdom. She reported that her cooking was second-nature such that she often thought about other things while she cooked, rarely used recipes, and knew how ingredients would taste together even in dishes that she did not personally like. She explained, “There is just a sense there that these elements will all go together-I know it.” The second example was riding in the MS 150 in the summer heat. She knew instinctively that she was able to ride 150 miles despite the physical challenge it entailed. She never doubted her ability to finish the journey.

Dawn’s will, her wisdom and confidence in herself, and her feeling of completeness initiated a shift in her spiritual perspective:

I would say this is very spiritual but not necessarily in the ways that I thought it would have been, say, a year ago. Can I explain that? I don’t know. It’s just um . . . I guess because it feels much more freeform, not as concrete as I guess I would have maybe said some things were spiritually in the past. This feels much more amoeba-like and not as well defined, but yet comfortable and very much a part of me. I think that’s the best way I can say it. I mean . . . OK, so now do I get to the point in my life where like everything becomes undefined and not really vague, but indefinable? It just becomes something that you know, but you can’t really describe it? I mean what’s that about? You start to shift over into information or feelings or intuitions or senses that aren’t necessarily tangible, but you almost pick them up by osmosis. When it starts to become that sort of a thing, that to me is crossing over into wisdom.

Dawn seemed to be communicating that the deeper her knowledge of herself becomes (or as it becomes second nature), the more intangible, flexible and free her core sense herself becomes. She knows more firmly, yet in less concrete ways. This wisdom led simultaneously to a greater sense of freedom and a greater sense of certainty. She described feeling “much more grounded and much more solid and, in some ways much more powerful.” Asked to explain what “more powerful” meant, Dawn said:

Well, it kind of goes back to that whole superhero thing I was telling you about, . . . it’s in that confidence. Not that I wasn’t confident because I think you have to be confident to take off to Australia for 3 months by yourself. But it’s different. Where that might have been a little more powerful in a youthful, whimsical sort of way, this is just . . . there’s certainty. That was, “I am throwing myself into the great beyond and I don’t know what I’m going to come up against. I am just putting my faith in the fact that everything’s going to be fine because I’m not really entertaining any other ideas.” This is just a certainty . . . as certain as I was when I got on my bike to ride 150 miles. I absolutely know this to be true and while we don’t know what each day’s going to bring for us . . . and I think that’s where the spirituality ties in again . . . there’s a connectedness, and it’s just not so much casting yourself into the great beyond and whatever happens, happens. Now it’s more engaged and, “OK, now I’m going to do this, and I’m going to watch what happens.” That’s a very conscious way of expressing it, but it does become more unconscious when you’re actually proceeding through each day.

Dawn’s greater sense of certainty stems from the internal wisdom that prompts her to know she can do what she sets her mind to and adjust to unknowns that the next day brings. These external uncertainties do not shake her internal certainty. This grounded, more solid, and more powerful internal core yields a different form of freedom that is more substantive than the physical freedom to travel spontaneously. This well-developed internal foundation allows her the freedom to act, watch what happens, and be confident that she can make something positive take place. She is living the commitments she has developed. Dawn uses this internal foundation- what she calls wisdom-as a source of freedom.

Dawn worked to secure these internal commitments by making choices to acquire the kind of significant relationship she desired, manage her health, and launch her own cooking business. In doing so, she intentionally opened herself to emotional risks. She said, “Once you decide to move the boulder, it’s going to start rolling; that’s the choice you made. You took the risk, you pushed it, . . . everything that comes along with it, you just have to be there for.” Earlier she had uncovered her tendency to approach her MS as a “brave warrior” who would conquer all challenges. She was trying to let go of this default reaction to challenges in her life. At this point, her inner strength allowed her more flexibility to acknowledge the requirements of managing MS and also to accept help from others (e.g., her neurologist, therapist) in doing so. She described this as trying to be more human:

I’m on a mission to bring back the humanity to myself, [telling myself], “You know what? You are human. You don’t have to be Hercules about the issues that come up in your world and how well you can handle them and how much weight you can carry on your shoulders. You can be-” Huh. Interesting. I was just going to say, “You can be normal.” Well, because that’s an issue that’s come up. I think a lot of the things that I have done regarding myself physically is to prove to myself and everybody else that I am normal. I don’t have this thing that . . . or yes, I have it but it’s not-you know, it’s still normal; it’s still functioning. Rather . . . the normalcy in it all is that, there are going to be good days and there are going to be bad days, and you are a person with all of this going on, and it’s OK if you’re not having your A-game today.

Dawn was still trying to set aside the warrior, which masked or at least skewed certain parts of herself. Accepting a new normal for herself was all part of the ongoing quest to know herself more deeply. Her story reveals that evolution continues even after the internal voice is firmly established.


Dawn’s story conveys the complexities of the evolution of internal voice. Developing one’s internal voice requires moving the source of one’s beliefs, identity, and social relations “inside” oneself. Thus the internal voice must be built in all three dimensions to construct a self-authored system. This system becomes the mechanism through which individuals frame their experience and construct their reactions to the external world. Three elements of building a self-authored system emerged from participants’ stories: learning to trust their internal voices, building an internal foundation, and securing internal commitments. This article focuses on the three elements of selfauthorship; discussion of how participants moved from authority dependence to the threshold of self-authorship can be found in Making Their Own Way (Baxter Magolda, 2001). Three Elements of Building a Self-Authored System

Trusting the Internal Voice. Participants’ key insight in this phase was a distinction between reality and one’s reaction to it. They recognized that reality, or what happened in the world and their lives, was beyond their control, but their reactions to what happened was within their control. Trusting their internal voices heightened their ability to take ownership of how they made meaning of external events. They recognized that they could create their own emotions and happiness by choosing how to react to reality. This led to a better sense of when to make something happen versus when to let something happen. This way of making meaning enabled them to be more flexible and move around-rather than try to change-obstacles they encountered. Dawn called this the “art of controlling without controlling” and was using this approach to work with her MS. As participants developed confidence in their internal voices, they came to have faith in them and to trust them and the internal commitments they were making based on these voices.

Within the element of trusting the internal voice, participants moved from awareness of to confidence in their internal voices multiple times as they worked to trust their internal voices in each developmental dimension (i.e., epistemological, intrapersonal, and interpersonal) and in multiple contexts (e.g., work, personal relationships, parenting). Awareness often prompted exploration, which sometimes led to what Dawn called the shadow lands. These were times of confusion, ambiguity, fear, and even despair as individuals struggled to analyze and reconstruct some aspect of their beliefs, identity, or relationships in various contexts. As Dawn noted, it was not possible to be “in the light” all the time. By reflecting on these challenging experiences, participants emerged from the shadow lands with a clearer vision of themselves and greater confidence in their ability to internally author their lives. Their personal reflection skills and the extent to which they had good support systems mediated the intensity and duration of excursions into the shadow lands. Once they had sufficient confidence to trust their internal voices in multiple dimensions and contexts, participants were able to begin building an enduring internal foundation.

Building an Internal Foundation. Trusting their internal voices, participants consciously set about creating a philosophy or framework -an internal foundation-to guide their reactions to reality. They worked to refine their personal, internal authority in determining their beliefs, identity, and relationships. They reflected on how they had organized themselves and their lives and rearranged as necessary to align arenas of their lives with their internal voices. This often meant accepting personal components of themselves and incorporating these into their identities as Dawn did with her gift for cooking. They made additional choices using their internal voices as guides. Their ability to explain how and why they made particular choices gave individuals in this process assurance that they could use their personally created identity, decision, or relationship even amid uncertainty. Synthesizing their epistemological, intrapersonal, and interpersonal development into one internal foundation yielded what Dawn called the “core of one’s being.” This phrase reflects the enduring nature that the internal foundation acquires when all of the dimensions of one’s development become integrated into one cohesive entity.

Participants acted according to their internal foundations as they were building them. This often yielded feedback that they used in refining their internal foundations. As they constructed some parts of the internal foundation, they found that they needed to recycle through trusting their internal voices to gain additional confidence. Similar to a physical construction project, it is often necessary to return for additional materials or to revise a blueprint to address an unanticipated twist. Visits to the shadow lands occurred in this process as well, again mediated by participants’ reflection capacities and the quality of available support. Their increased confidence overall helped them process painful experiences and use the conclusions they reached to strengthen the internal foundation. However, participants pointed out that initially the beliefs and perspectives they were forming were in their heads rather than in their hearts. Some described this as admiring a set of convictions one has constructed versus living them. While they were building the internal foundation, they perceived that they were living their convictions. In retrospect, many could identify the transition from admiring to living their convictions that led them to securing internal commitments.

Securing Internal Commitments. Participants’ identified this third element of building a self-authored system as “crossing over” from understanding their internal commitments to living them. Dawn called it crossing over into wisdom. When the internal foundation became the enduring core of their being, participants felt that living their convictions was as natural and as necessary as breathing. This element was a time of living the internal foundation and securing internal commitments.

Many participants described inner wisdom as the blurring of their knowledge and their sense of self. Dawn described it as living the facts and absorbing that information into her entire being, which led her to “know” as second nature. This merger of knowledge and sense of self seems to reflect not only the bringing inside of personal authority but making personal authority one’s very core. In this element, participants integrated their internal foundations and infrastructure with their external personal realities. Dawn portrayed this as acting and watching what happens with the confidence that she could create something positive. Participants’ increased certainty that things would work out stemmed from knowing becoming second nature. This allowed them to move forward with faith and trust in their internal foundations even when on the surface it would be legitimate to question a course of action. Dawn’s riding in the MS 150 in the summer heat is a good example of participants moving forward with faith and trust.

The certainty that came with living their internal foundations also yielded a greater sense of freedom for participants. They were no longer constrained by fear of things they could not control and trusted that they could make the most of what they could control. They were open to learning about and developing new parts of their self-authored systems, often recognizing contexts in which they needed to refine or develop some aspect of themselves. In these instances, they returned to building that portion of the foundation or, in some cases, recycled back to gaining confidence in that area. In the securing internal commitments element, the internal foundation became increasingly open to being reconstructed because participants had an internal security to see reconstruction as positive and exciting. They accepted new versions of normal and enjoyed the dynamic process of living their internally authored systems. They were adept at rolling with whatever came their way.

Trusting the Internal Voice, Building an Internal Foundation, and Securing Internal Commitments appear to be three elements of the meaning-making structure of self-authorship. Each element reflects a distinct focus yet all three are based on the same underlying organizing principle-internally determining one’s beliefs, identity and social relations. The initial element involves developing the internal voice to use in these decisions. The intermediate element involves using the internal voice actively to build one’s internal belief system and solidifying that internal system. The advanced element involves refining and strengthening the internal system as it becomes the core of one’s existence. These constitute increments in increasing complexity within the same meaning-making structure. The solidification of this structure yields the security to explore more freely and continue personal evolution.

Clarification of Misconceptions of Self-Authorship

Participants’ stories clarify two common misconceptions about self-authorship. First, the cyclical nature of the evolution of self- authorship just described suggests that self-authorship is more complex and nuanced than a simple linear trajectory. Although all the participants moved toward increasing self-authorship, they took numerous paths in this journey based on their personal characteristics, experiences, challenges they encountered, and support available to them. Personal characteristics such as participants’ socialization based on their gender, sexual orientation, faith orientation, race, or ethnicity predisposed participants to seek particular experiences (e.g., jobs, relationships, travel). For example, Dawn’s sense of spirituality fueled the self-exploration she engaged in through theater and travel. Her coming out in her 20s was a salient experience that enabled her to cast off external expectations to listen to her own voice. Personal characteristics mediated how participants engaged experiences they sought and experiences that happened to them either at a personal level (e.g., relationship struggles, work challenges, health problems) or societal level (e.g., 9/11, the Iraq War). Their meaning making at any given point mediated how they approached experiences and how they interpreted those experiences, as did their particular combination of the epistemological, intrapersonal, and interpersonal dimensions of development. For Dawn, MS, relationship struggles, and trying to support herself via theater work versus finding another career presented major challenges in her 30s. Her capacity to self-reflect (an intrapersonal strength) and her appreciation of multiple perspectives (an epistemological strength) predisposed her to seek out experiences to explore herself and helped her process challenges she encountered. Participants’ work, family, and personal environments offered a range of challenges and support systems to face life’s challenges. The support of Dawn’s family, friends, and medical community combined to help her listen to and trust her internal voice. Trusting her own voice, her spirituality, her willingness to continue digging deeper, and her ongoing support from others enabled her to build her internal foundation and return from the shadow lands with greater strength. One participant referred to all these dynamics as a “personal set of realities.” Particular sets of personal realities yielded a complex set of dynamics that mediate developing self-authorship. Second, self-authorship enhances, rather than constrains, relationships. The longitudinal stories demonstrate that self-authorship refers to shifting the source of one’s beliefs, identity, and social relations from the external world to the internal voice and foundation. Doing so initiates a reframing of relationships that become more authentic because they honor one’s internal commitments. Connections based on these internal commitments result in interdependence in which parties to the relationship act authentically and support each other in doing so. Thus, self-authorship strengthens relationships and enduring ties with the external world. Dawn’s work on her internal foundation enabled her to enter an authentic relationship in her late 30s because she was finally able to bring her internal voice to the relationship.


For Dawn and her peers, developing selfauthorship occurred after college as they also juggled adult commitments. Their stories offer insight into how educators might authentically engage young adults in developing their internal voices and foundations during their college experience. Because self-authorship can develop before (Pizzolato, 2003) or during (Abes & Jones, 2004; Torres & Hernandez, 2007) college, and because self-authorship is a capacity that allows young adults to better meet the challenges of adult life, enabling this capacity should be a key focus of a college education.

For those students who are struggling to listen to and cultivate their internal voices, educators can help reduce external noise, which can take such forms as peer, family, or social pressure, and draw out students’ internal voices. Once students move into building self-authored systems, educators can encourage acting on the internal voice to trust it and align beliefs with action. They can also help students process the building of their internal foundations through interactive reflection and discussion activities and assignments (see below). The same set of basic principles can be used to support students in both these circumstances.

Longitudinal participants were supported in cultivating and trusting their internal voices when others engaged them in learning partnerships. Their partners validated their capacity to use their internal voices, situated learning in their experience, and invited them to construct meaning of their experiences (Baxter Magolda, 2004a). Simultaneously, their participation in these partnerships, which occurred in academic, work, and personal arenas, challenged young adults to bring their internal voices to the complex challenges of adult life. When supervisors or mentors engaged young adults in complex experiences, guided them to intentionally reflect on and make sense of these experiences, and mutually constructed meaning of these experiences with them, young adults grew to trust their internal voices. Educators have used these principles effectively in both curricular (e.g., writing, core curriculum, diversity courses) and cocurricular (e.g., leadership, service- learning, residence life, cultural immersion) settings to draw out and cultivate students’ internal voices (Baxter Magolda & King, 2004; Meszaros, 2007; Pizzolato, 2006).

Reflective conversations in all arenas of the college experience can also draw out and support students’ internal voices. A Reflective Conversation Guide constructed from the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education interview offers a structure to conduct these conversations (Baxter Magolda & King, 2008). The guide focuses on engaging students in talking about their most significant experiences; exploring how they have been affected by those experiences; and making sense of the effects for their view of the world, themselves, and their relationships. Reflective conversations with academic and career advisors about interests and strengths could help students frame academic and career choices. Reflective conversations with faculty could focus on making connections between new concepts and personal experiences or making meaning of how members of a group project interact. Student affairs professionals could use these conversations to engage students in bringing their internal voices to negotiating living arrangements with roommates and putting their beliefs into action. Supervisors of student leaders or employees could engage students in reflecting on how these roles relate to their goals and aspirations. Diversity educators could use these reflective conversations to help students deconstruct racism, heterosexism, sexism, classism, and White privilege. Intergroup dialogues that have been effective to help students gain intercultural maturity contain these same basic principles of cultivating students’ internal voices (e.g., Zuniga, 2003). All of these reflective conversations would help students making meaning of curricular and cocurricular experiences to refine their learning, professional, and personal goals.

Learning partnerships rely on the intersection of the voices of both partners. Thus they cultivate learners’ internal voices and allow educators to frame their participation in the context of the learner’s voice. This avoids using a standard practice that does not acknowledge difference among learners. Because practice is constructed with the learner, in the service of strengthening the learner’s internal voice, nuances of the learners development journey come to the foreground in the relationship. Giving learners responsibility for refining their internal voices using their own set of personal realities and supporting that process is our central challenge.


Abes, E. S., & Jones, S. R. (2004). Meaning-making capacity and the dynamics of lesbian college students’ multiple dimensions of identity. Journal of College Student Development, 45, 612-632.

Abes, E. S., Jones, S. R., & McEwen, M. K. (2007). Reconceptualizing the Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity: The role of meaning-making capacity in the construction of multiple identities. Journal of College Student Development, 48, 1-22.

Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2007). College learning for the new global century. Washington, DC: Author.

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (1992). Knowing and reasoning in college: Gender-related patterns in students’ intellectual development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2001). Making their own way: Narratives for transforming higher education to promote self-development. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2004a). Learning Partnerships Model: A framework for promoting self-authorship. In M. B. Baxter Magolda & P. M. King (Eds.), Learning partnerships: Theory and models of practice to educate for self-authorship (pp. 37-62). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2004b). Preface. In M. B. Baxter Magolda & P. M. King (Eds.), Learning Partnerships: Theory and models of practice to educate for self-authorship (pp. xvii-xxvi). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2004c). Self-authorship as the common goal of 21st century education. In M. B. Baxter Magolda & P. M. King (Eds.), Learning partnerships: Theory and models of practice to educate for self-authorship (pp. 1-35). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2007). Self-Authorship: The foundation for twenty-first century education. In P. S. Meszaros (Ed.), Self- Authorship: Advancing students’ intellectual growth, New Directions for Teaching and Learning (Vol. 109, pp. 69-83). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Baxter Magolda, M. B., Abes, E., & Torres, V. (in press). Epistemological, intrapersonal, and interpersonal development in the college years and young adulthood. In M. C. Smith & T. Reio (Eds.), Handbook of research on adult learning and development. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Baxter Magolda, M. B., & King, P. M. (2008). Toward reflective conversations: An advising approach that promotes selfauthorship. Peer Review 10(1), 8-11.

Baxter Magolda, M. B., & King, P. M. (Eds.). (2004). Learning partnerships: Theory & models of practice to educate for self- authorship. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Belenky, M., Clinchy, B. M., Goldberger, N., & Tarule, J. (1986). Women’s ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: Basic Books.

Charmaz, K. (2003). Qualitative interviewing and grounded theory analysis. In J. A. Holstein & J. F. Gubrium (Eds.), Inside interviewing: New lenses, new concerns (pp. 311-330). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Charmaz, K. C. (2006). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco: Jossey- Bass. Fontana, A., & Frey, J. H. (2000). The interview: From structured questions to negotiated text. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research, second edition (pp. 645-672). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

King, P. M., & Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2005). A developmental model of intercultural maturity. Journal of College Student Development, 46, 571-592.

Meszaros, P. S. (Ed.). (2007). Self-Authorship: Advancing students’ intellectual growth (New Directions for Teaching and Learning No. 109). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (Ed.). (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Perry, W. G. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. Troy, MO: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Pizzolato, J. E. (2003). Developing self-authorship: Exploring the experiences of high-risk college students. Journal of College Student Development, 44, 797-812.

Pizzolato, J. E. (2004). Coping with conflict: Self-authorship, coping, and adaptation to college in first-year, high-risk students. Journal of College Student Development, 45, 425-442.

Pizzolato, J. E. (2006). Complex partnerships: Self-authorship and provocative academic advising practices. NACADA Journal, 26(1), 32-45.

Torres, V., & Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2004). Reconstructing Latino identity: The influence of cognitive development on the ethnic identity process of Latino students. Journal of College Student Development, 45, 333-347.

Torres, V., & Hernandez, E. (2007). The influence of ethnic identity development on self-authorship: A longitudinal study of Latino/a college students. Journal of College Student Development, 48, 558-573.

U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education. (2006). A test of leadership: Charting the future of U.S. higher education. Washington, DC: Author.

Zuniga, X. (2003). Bridging differences through dialogue. About Campus, 7(6), 8-16.

Marcia B. Baxter Magolda is Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership at Miami University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Marcia B. Baxter Magolda, 300D McGuffey Hall, Oxford, OH 45056; [email protected]

Copyright American College Personnel Association Jul/Aug 2008

(c) 2008 Journal of College Student Development. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.