People often ask me, “What exactly is self-development, anyway?”
Personal-development. Spiritual-development. Self-help. Personal-growth. Leadership-development. What the heck are any of these terms pointing to or working towards?
Throughout human history, humans have been curious about the meaning and purpose of their lives. We’ve also felt subject to an inherent biological impulse to evolve and survive.
In our modern era, these two drives — for meaning and perpetuity — have generated an entire industry focused on the development of the individual, for worse and hopefully for better.
Let’s take a closer look.
Most of us would not deny our deep and abiding sense of selfhood. Those of us who’re willing to be radically honest would also admit to a nearly all-consuming self absorption. We actually can’t help it. It’s our nature to be self oriented and, depending on our upbringing, we each feel a particular version of significant, important, entitled, and/or special.
When humans lived in small tribes, the drive for personal fulfillment had to be sublimated to the needs of the tribe, otherwise the individual would die — along with any dreams they had for their personal fulfillment.
However, in the modern age, basically since the industrial revolution — possibly since the agricultural revolution — there has been more opportunity for the individual and their personal longings to be considered.
As individuals began to focus more on their selfish desires, there emerged new consequences for those around them and the tribe they were born in.
Some individuals had a hard time feeling justified in pursuing their own dreams, while others felt emboldened to charge after theirs with little consideration of impact.
Ever since it became easier to move from place to place (boats, cars, airplanes) and learn about other tribes and cultures (printing press, telephones, computers), **we have been compelled to figure out how to negotiate tending to the needs of the many as well as the desires of the individual.**
It’s a tricky negotiation for sure.
When we step back and look at the historical sequence and context of our personal and collective evolution, we can see that we are in a very precarious existential moment. **We are in the midst of sorting out how to incorporate this relentless personal drive with the health and well-being of our shared tribe — the entire human race — and more directly, all life on this planet. **
If we don’t get it right, we’re in serious trouble.
It’s true that we are not necessarily doing a great job at finding our way to a sustainable relationship between the one and the many, but our clumsiness is understandable. Seeing as we are young in navigating how to support the individual’s fulfillment of their personal dreams, it’s reasonable that we have not figured it all out yet. After all, we are each excited and hopeful about our one precious life and what we might do with it without necessarily knowing how to include everybody else’s dreams, too.
This keeps me wondering …
Is it even possible for there to be a generative dynamic between the individual and the tribe, or are we selfishly kidding ourselves?
Can the individual and the tribe’s well-being be mutually beneficial ultimately creating a virtuous cycle of support for the health of one another?
What would this take?
First off would be a recognition that both drives have value.
Next is to identify their respective values.
Then, all that is needed are strategies and tools for amplifying the respective values, trusting that when they are nourished the virtuous cycle happens automatically.
This exploration and examination is sometimes called an inquiry into the dialectic. In this case the investigation is between the individual and the collective. Once learned, this inquiry process can be applied to any polarity.
When we look at the industry of personal-growth or self-development, it helps to consider the context of how it does or does not feed the individual in the context of their community — rather than being an isolated silo. In which case, we must look more carefully at the specific orientation and content of any particular school, teacher, philosophy, and method of individual-development.
We cannot say all personal-growth is good. Because it is not. Not for the individual or the collective.
Same would be true if we were to examine social systems of governance and communal laws or agreements. Not all social structures are good for the group or the individuals that make up the group.
To navigate a healthy relationship between individuals and groups is complex territory for sure, but once we are willing to appreciate the interconnectedness between every individual and their community, then we can begin to wisely discern which personal-growth programs will add value to the world.
In Ken Wilber’s model of Integral Theory, he makes the claim that, in order for an individual to truly be whole and happy, they must develop along a number of lines of development that include, but are not limited to, their psychological health, spiritual maturity, and civic responsibility.
An integrative approach to personal-development is akin to a multi-generational and diverse approach to creating social structures that serve all life alongside the individual’s personal dreams.
To identify all of the threads that are important to include in such a society demands that the individuals be developed to inhabit this way of thinking and seeing.
An integrative approach to one’s personal growth in the way I am speaking of must be learned and takes effort. Biologically, we stop growing in our mid-twenties. Psychologically and spiritually, we can continue to learn and grow until we die. But in order to do so we must engage ourselves in a learning process; otherwise, we will simply continue to live out the patterns and ideas we’d been taught from birth to our mid-twenties.
Now that we have laid down a bit of history and context, if you ask me what is personal-development, I might say this:
Personal-development is a conscious decision to grow one’s self and one’s dreams in the context of serving all life. It includes growth in the realms of spiritual understanding, psychological well-being, physiological health, and civic responsibility. Such maturity takes effort and guidance, and the efficacy of any personal-development program will be directly reflected in the character of the students. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
How to sort through all of the teachers and methods out there?
Take your time.
Do your due diligence.
Consider your physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and relational needs as you seek healing and learning that resonates with you.**
Spend time with the students of the programs or teachers you are drawn to. Notice the integrity or lack thereof in the way they are living their lives.**
As you go remember …
Alongside your personal growth, consider the bigger picture of the family of humanity that you are a part of. Does your personal-development program include this view?
There’s a lot of talk right now in the mainstream about leadership and the lack thereof. There are leadership trainings in nearly every corner of the world. Though I sense that leadership is key to moving us forward in a good way as a species, it is clear that leadership is only as impactful as the integrity of the leader.
Thus, one could argue, personal-development is leadership.
So get on with it, my friend. Do not shrink from the complexity or the difficulty of your life or these times. Pay attention to your personal dreams and drives as you learn to orient them within a greater context. Seek out the tools and techniques that will support you in your development.
Ask yourself regularly if your self-absorption is making you a better person … kind, considerate, creative, and happy.
And please …
Always remember there is effort needed when it comes to growing oneself. There is no quick or easy path. It’s true that the *no pain no gain* axiom can be applied to your personal growth. But not all pain is equal.Efforts that seek solely to achieve fame or personal fortune will end up leaving you feeling empty in the end. The illusion of gain will be temporary.
However, effort, discipline, making hard choices, and overcoming internal and external obstacles will pay off — for you, for those you love, and for the entire web of life — when you can successfully integrate the value of your individual growth along with the value of community health.
When we begin to notice the entire world thriving in collaboration with our personal dreams we will have found our way.