DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Guest Post At Mindful Construct: “3 Things The Personal Development Critics Got Wrong”

I've published a guest post at Melissa Karnaze's blog Mindful Construct called "3 Things The Personal Development Critics Got Wrong."  It mainly deals with critics' arguments against personal development's ethic of taking responsibility for your circumstances, including the claims that this ethic encourages selfishness and self-blame.

I think this article will be a useful summary for people who have recently discovered my work at this blog.  I think you'll also appreciate Melissa's articles, which take an approach to personal development that's rooted in cognitive science and psychology.  Enjoy!


Do Thoughts Create Things?, Part 1: Yes, Unless You’re A Robot

It will probably be obvious, to anyone who follows debates about personal development, that a central question in these debates is whether our inner experience can affect reality.  In other words, can changes in our thoughts and feelings cause changes in the world around us?

It's tempting to respond the way some critics do, and treat the answer as plain -- and, perhaps, the question itself as dumb.  Clearly, the answer is no -- thinking about a BMW won't cause one to appear in my driveway, my bad moods don't cause inclement weather, and so on.  Only a fluff-headed, New-Agey navel-gazer could think otherwise.

But that response, as we'll see, caricatures and oversimplifies the question.  In fact, this question raises profound, and hotly debated, philosophical and scientific issues.  To illustrate, let's look at a few (and by no means all) of the ways we might answer this question.

Reductive Materialism

From one perspective, it's impossible for our thoughts and feelings to affect reality.  What we perceive as "thoughts" and "feelings" are merely our subjective experiences, or "epiphenomena," of biochemical processes in our brains.  Our experience of those processes plainly cannot cause or influence those processes.

Here's a crude analogy -- the chemical reactions in my brain are like a movie, and "I" am like a person watching that movie.  Clearly, my experience of the film can't alter the film itself. The fact that I like some character in the film, for instance, won't cause the movie's plot to change so that the character lives rather than dying.

One result of this view is that human beings don't have free will. This is because the very concept of "I" -- an individual who chooses, wants, makes plans, and so on -- is itself just a subjective experience of chemical reactions in the brain.  "I," being merely an illusion created by neurological activity, can't influence anything that happens in the physical world.

If you buy this view, you're free to claim that our thoughts and feelings don't affect reality at all.  But if you don't accept it, I think, you have to believe -- on some level -- that they do.

Emotions As Reasons

You may recall that, in an earlier post, I observed that we do most, or all, of the things we do in life because we want to experience certain feelings.  For example, as I pointed out, most people don't make money just to own little colored pieces of paper -- they do it to create feelings of security, power, joy, or something else.

If this is so, there is clearly a sense in which our inner experience -- our thoughts, feelings and sensations -- affects our reality.

Take the example of making money.  The feelings we desire (security, power, etc.) influence the actions we take in the world (starting a business, getting a job, and so on) -- and when we act, of course, we alter the physical world in some way.  This is just another way to put the point that we make money because we want those feelings.

Thus, on some level, I think most people would agree that our inner experience does affect reality.  The real question is the way in which, and perhaps the extent to which, it does so.  We'll get into that question more deeply in the next post.


What Is Personal Development?, Part 3: Progressive and Lasting Change

Last time, we talked about the first part of my working definition of personal development -- namely, that, to amount to personal growth, an idea or technique must be consciously intended to work with our "inner experience," meaning our thoughts, emotions and sensations.

I'll now talk about the second criterion an approach must meet, under my definition, to be personal development:  it must be intended to produce progressive and lasting change.  (Yes, I added the "progressive" part upon further reflection after my last post. :) )

By "progressive" change, I mean that, each time the user does the activity, they make progress -- however gradual -- toward their ultimate goal, whether that goal is happiness, a better job, a Buddhist-style attitude of non-attachment to their experience, or something else.

By "lasting" change, I mean the benefits of the activity must persist even when the user isn't doing the activity.  In other words, the user must take those benefits with them into the "real world."

Why Therapy Isn't Like Candy

If I see a psychotherapist, for instance, I will probably do so expecting progressive and lasting benefits to my mental and emotional health.  I'll desire progressive change in the sense that, each week that I visit my therapist, I want to feel more at peace with myself than I did during the last.

What's more, I'll probably want those benefits to last in between therapy sessions.  I won't want the self-acceptance I feel to suddenly disappear the moment I walk out of the therapist's office.  In all likelihood, I'll also want that peace to persist even when I'm no longer in therapy -- I won't want it to fade away after the therapeutic relationship ends.  Thus, generally speaking, psychotherapy is a personal growth activity under my definition.

By contrast, suppose I eat a piece of candy because I want to create a particular inner experience -- in this case, a taste sensation.  I probably won't do this expecting lasting changes in my experience.  In all likelihood, I'll get a brief moment of pleasure, and after a little while the feeling will pass.

A few minutes later, I'll be "back to square one," emotionally speaking -- as far as my inner experience is concerned, it'll be as if I never ate the candy at all.  Thus, eating candy will not produce progressive change in my experience either.  (Duff raised the similar example of taking drugs in response to an earlier post in this series.)

It's About Expectations, Not Results

Finally, note that I said the activity must be intended to produce progressive and lasting change.  The activity need not actually create that type of change to amount to self-development under my definition.

For example, if a person goes to an energy healer expecting to grow more relaxed and focused over time, but in fact each session only creates a fleeting "high" like the candy I mentioned earlier, the energy healing would nonetheless be "personal growth" as I use the term.

I offer this caveat to avoid defining personal growth to include only techniques and perspectives that "work," because that would exclude the possibility of meaningful debate about the merits of specific approaches.

As a result, even if you believe that no form of personal development is effective and it's all a fraud, you can still accept my definition.  Like I said in response to previous comments, my definition is purely descriptive -- it's simply meant to capture the conventional view of what self-development is, and not to judge whether certain techniques are helpful or moral.


What Is Personal Development?, Part 2: Growth Vs. Advice

In my last post, I offered a working definition of personal development that goes like this:  "Personal development" perspectives and techniques are (1) consciously intended to work with our "inner experience," meaning our thoughts, emotions and sensations, and (2) meant to produce a lasting result.

As Duff pointed out in response to my last post, I've yet to discuss how one particular area of self-development fits into this framework.  I'm talking about approaches that try to harness our thoughts, emotions and sensations to create a specific result in the outside world.

Popular examples include visualizing something you want in order to bring it into your life -- whether it's business success, an intimate relationship, or something else; and energy healing intended to improve the client's health.

Such a technique is a form of personal growth, under my definition, if it seeks to achieve the outer result by transforming the user's inner experience, or the way the user relates to that experience.

To illustrate, as I said earlier, a book that teaches us ways to become more loving toward ourselves, on the theory that this will help us attract a partner, would amount to personal growth because it seeks to create an outer result by working with our thoughts and emotions.

While it uses the transformation of our inner experience as a tool to change our outer circumstances, this book nonetheless qualifies as personal growth because it involves consciously focusing on our inner experience.

Tire-Changing Isn't Self-Development

On the other hand, a book that teaches us how to dress to attract a mate is not a form of personal development under my definition, because it doesn't focus on transforming or relating to our inner experience.

For this book's purposes, the way we feel about ourselves is irrelevant.  Its goal is to get others -- namely, potential partners -- to approve of our appearance.  I may follow all of the book's advice and still feel miserable about myself, but the book has nonetheless fulfilled its purpose if potential mates like my style.

This caveat is important because it keeps the definition of personal growth from encompassing every possible type of advice, and every product and seminar out there that seeks to teach us how to do something.

I imagine most of us wouldn't think of books on changing a tire, investing in municipal bonds, or mastering Portuguese cooking as being about personal growth, and this observation explains why -- the techniques in those books don't focus on transforming your inner experience.  Those books, we could say, are about advice, but not growth.

The Consequences For Critics

One result is that, under my view, some ideas targeted by personal development's critics actually have nothing to do with personal development.  In SHAM, for example, Steve Salerno treats magazines like Cosmopolitan, which teach women "how to paint themselves, primp themselves, and acquire enough sexual know-how to keep a man satisfied and at home," as examples of "self-help and actualization" (a.k.a. "SHAM") literature.

However, from my perspective, advice about putting on makeup that doesn't focus on transforming your inner experience is not "personal growth" advice.  To say otherwise, I think, would likely expand the concept of personal growth so far as to render it meaningless.  After all, if makeup tips amount to personal development, why not tire-changing tips as well?

Next time, we'll talk about the second element in my definition:  the intent to produce lasting change.


What Is Personal Development?, Part 1: It’s All In The Intention

It just occurred to me that, in the "About" page of this blog, I promised you a working definition of personal development.  It feels a bit odd for me to keep talking about personal development without giving you that definition.

So, here goes:  "Personal development" perspectives and techniques are (1) consciously intended to work with our "inner experience," meaning our thoughts, emotions and sensations; and (2) meant to produce a lasting result.

We're In It For The Feelings

Arguably, human beings do basically everything they do with the goal of having some kind of inner experience.  Whether we're meditating, giving to charity, getting an education, drinking alcohol, or something else, we're doing it because of the way we think that activity will have us feel.

To use a common example, we don't make money just for the sake of having a bunch of colored pieces of paper.  We do it because of the feelings we think having and spending money will bring us.  Perhaps we want the feeling of security that comes with knowing we'll have enough to eat, a sense of accomplishment, the thrill of knowing we can buy a flashy motorcycle, or something else.  But in any case, what we're after is some inner experience.

Some might object that they make money to take care of others (their children or elderly parents, for example), not because it helps them feel a certain way.  However, you wouldn't have any interest in taking care of others if doing so didn't give you a certain inner experience -- maybe a feeling of happiness, righteousness, or something else.  In other words, if you were emotionally indifferent to whether someone else lived or died, stagnated or thrived, you probably wouldn't be helping them.

Where The "Conscious" Part Comes In

While it's true that we do most of what we do with the goal of having an inner experience, we aren't always consciously seeking an experience.  In everyday existence, I think, most of us don't consciously contemplate how the things we do will have us feel.

We don't ask ourselves, for example, whether we'll feel better if we go to work or stay home, or whether listening to the car radio will make the commute smoother.  Usually, we're just going through our daily motions.

By contrast, personal growth activities, to my mind, are things we do with the specific goal of transforming our inner experience.  We do them consciously intending to create a specific mental or emotional state.  As a simple example, I may say the affirmation "I am lovable" to develop more self-appreciation.  Or, perhaps I'll do some yoga to get a sense of openness in my body.

By my definition, the specifics of an activity don't determine whether it amounts to personal growth.  For instance, suppose (somewhat implausibly) that I'm in the habit of meditating every day simply because my parents told me to.  I'm not doing it because I think it will bring me inner peace, happiness, or some other feeling.

In this example, meditation is not a "personal growth" activity for me, regardless of how others might use it, because I don't do it with the conscious goal of feeling a certain way.  The intent is what's important, not the specifics.

In the next post, we'll talk about how approaches that work on our inner experience with the goal of producing a particular outer result -- for instance, visualization techniques that have us imagine business success to help us create it in the world -- fit into this discussion.