Personal Growth: The Most Important (and Elusive) Life Mission of All
Personal growth is an enigma, something everyone wants, but at the same time nobody can quite define it. It’s one of those questions that often ends up setting the stage for still more questions than answers. At the root of the issue, however, is a clear definition of what personal growth is. Or more to the point, why personal growth?
Part of the problem most people have with personal growth is that they believe that personal growth and development is something they must implement on their way to a goal, whatever that desired result might be. They reason that in order to achieve success, again, whatever that might be, they need to put themselves on a personal growth plan or some other course of action. Nothing could be further from the truth.
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Personal Growth Definition
Perhaps a definition is in order at this point. The truth be told that there are probably as many definitions of personal growth as there are those who are trying to define it. Just a Google search for “Personal Growth Definition” returns almost 24 million results. Perhaps the best one, at least in the writer’s opinion is “the progressive realization of a worthy goal or ideal.” It’s simple to be sure, but also puts the focus on the right place: Progressive.
For example, if a writer set out on his career with the goal of becoming a best-selling novelist, and despite spending a long career slavishly devoting himself to his goal, he fails to become what he set out to accomplish, would he be considered a failure? The common thinking is that, perhaps, yes. After all, he didn’t accomplish what he set out to do. But is he really a failure, despite never being able to even approach anything more than maybe just seeking out a bare existence with his writing?
Those raised in today’s materialist culture would probably have trouble defining the above example as a success since he never reached his goal. Unfortunately, those such as the novelist Franz Kafka or the painter Vincent VanGough, neither of whom ever accomplished virtually any financial rewards for their works during their lifetimes, are now considered great successes in terms of their contributions to their respective crafts. But how did they accomplish their great works?
The answer to this question comes in the form of what they achieved on the way to success, personal development. It rarely occurs to anyone that in the pursuit of a goal personal development of their craft must be achieved before they could have ever accomplished their goal, and not the other way around. Wouldn’t this be a case of placing the proverbial cart before the horse?
Another problem with treating “personal development” in these terms is that the effort to this end becomes compartmentalized. For example, the realtor who goes to church faithfully with his family every Sunday because he will be perceived as a “good family man,” which is good for business. Where is the personal development in this scenario? Is is the goal or is it the growth that is the result of our realtor’s faithful church attendance?
Man: A Self-Development Oriented Creature
It has been well documented for many years that man is naturally a growth oriented creature. Whatever you choose to call it, whether it be personal growth, personal development, self-actualization, or self-transcendence, humans by nature seek self-improvement. Whatever it is called does not matter. What matters most is that we become the fullest human being we are capable of becoming, or as Mark Twain put it, “There are only two dates in everyone’s lives that matter, the date you were born, and the date you figure out why.”
As a result of this approach we learn that personal development is not a tool that we can use to attain a higher goal. Instead, being everything we can be is the most noble and grandest goal that anyone can aspire to.
The How of Personal Growth
In the past few decades, an entire industry has grown to support the idea of personal development. A search of Amazon’s offerings for personal development returns more than 63,000 hits for books alone. This does not include tapes or any number of other gimmicks and gizmos that supposedly help someone along their quest for personal growth. There’s even a newer idea called “quantified life” that is built around the idea of using the various technologies available today to help us get even more specific in our search for growth. A good example of this is the new FitBit product, which measures in quantifiable terms various aspects of life such as the number of steps we take in a day, our sleep quality, calories consumed, and more. The idea of this being that when we set, for example, a weight loss goal, these devices break our goals down into quantifiable daily results that if we stick with them will result in a desired outcome. It’s anal-retentive, but true, and in the opinion of some experts, a good idea.
Many others use such devices as a personalized growth chart that might not be as meticulous but can be as effective as the high technology version of growth measurement methods. Generally, speaking, it’s similar to the method of Benjamin Franklin’s personal growth chart outlined in his autobiography, which identified 13 virtues to which he aspired. Franklin created this list of virtues with the assistance of a Quaker friend, and gave him, at the age of 20, this lofty goal:
“It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into.”
It is also worthy of note that when Franklin created this list in 1726, he determined that instead of trying to tackle all of the virtues at once, he would seek to perfect each one for one week in order to maximize his chances for success. And although it is good to note that by Franklin’s estimate he was not successful in his quest, he also notes that his method led him to far greater success than if he had never attempted this program at all.
Balance versus Personal Best
A goal that is often discussed at length in the human potential movement is work/life balance, a term that most of the more progressive thinkers don’t use because they consider the traits of personal development to be subsets of the overall goal of becoming the best possible human being they are capable of being.
So, we find ourselves back to our original question: how do we achieve personal growth? On one hand we don’t need to do anything to achieve it. On the other hand, however, most of us build virtually our entire lives around it. For an even greater number, however, personal development is something they do automatically to the point that they don’t even need to think about it, but everything they do passes through the screen of discernment which makes becoming a better person the natural result of living life.