DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


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.

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  1. “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.

    While inner experience is certainly part of what constitutes personal development, I would say much of personal development aims to change outer experience–to get money and stuff, improve relationships, advance one’s career, become “location independent,” get a healthy and fit and good-looking body, start a business, etc. Therapy is often more concerned with inner than outer, but personal development is often explicit in its external aims.

    Arguably, human beings do basically everything they do with the goal of having some kind of inner experience.

    This is the common hedonist view. There are many competing versions of hedonism (“what kind of pleasure is good and what is bad?”) as well as several non-hedonist views of “The Good” or what drives human psychology. Simplistic hedonistic models are not very good either in terms of ethics or in terms of explanation of human behavior. Ethical models (what SHOULD be) must be clearly differentiated from psychological models (what IS) if we are to have clarity in our discussion.

    For instance, take addiction. The addict does something that feels good (uses a drug) then gets LOTS of pain immediately afterwards. Is an addict driven by pleasure and pain? If so, clearly there is much more pain than pleasure on par from using, so why don’t they stop? Most people would say it is good for the addict to stop, but it doesn’t feel good–at first stopping using is VERY painful. Intense pleasures themselves will diminish if an addict quits using. So now we have to say something like refined pleasures are better than intense pleasures and explain why, etc.

    And on and on…it’s a long discussion, but one worth having.

  2. I should add that most views of Buddhism I am familiar with are non-hedonist. Many teachers say that if you aiming at some state, you are missing the point entirely of meditation which is more about having an ongoing relationship to experience that involves “non-grasping.”

  3. Hi Duff — I agree that, as I think you’re saying, my phrase “work with our inner experience” is imprecise, because it seems to imply that all personal development is about “changing our state” — but, like you say, many traditions are about changing the way we relate to our inner experience (for instance, developing a relationship of non-attachment), rather than changing the experience itself. That’s certainly more in keeping with my own practice, and I think it’s helpful to be clear about that.

    You anticipated what I’ll talk about in the next post, which is personal growth techniques that are meant to achieve a certain “outer result,” such as more money, a better relationship, and so on. I think these still fall under the basic definition I’ve given here, because they consciously work with the inner experience (thoughts, emotions, etc.) in order to produce an outer result.

    A book that helps people become more self-loving with the goal of attracting a loving partner would be an example. By contrast, a book about how to dress to attract a mate wouldn’t be an example of this, because the style tips offered by such a book aren’t about working with our inner experience. The way I feel about myself is irrelevant for the purposes of the second book — if I dress in the way it recommends, I’ve done what it’s asking me to do.

    I also agree that it’s important to separate a descriptive definition of personal development from normative ideas about it — to separate the common understanding of what it is from what it ought to be. My definition here is solely meant to be descriptive, and I don’t mean to suggest that I would morally condone all behavior that falls within this definition. For instance, take people who sacrifice animals, as some do, to achieve an experience of spiritual communion — I think this would fall under the definition of personal development I’ve given, but I definitely wouldn’t say that therefore it’s morally okay.

  4. Well, I include exercise, diet, and personal finance as personal development. A book on weight lifting has a lot of information about behaviors, not just mindset. But I suppose this is debatable.

    And mostly agreed on all other comments.

  5. Hi Chris,

    Isn’t it crazy how much personal development content we have, yet there isn’t a clear definition of what personal development actually means?!

    I attempted to define personal development several times, but got overwhelmed by all the factors to consider, so I commend you for your effort. :)

    The reason why we’re in desperate need of a definition is to identify how all the pieces of the personal development puzzle fit together. How do the topics relate? What role does each topic serve? Are they all necessary? etc.

    To find a viable definition, it’s crucial for us to take a holistic approach to human nature, and how we relate to our environment.

    I personally see our “inner experience” as being a component of a good, healthy life, but not the primary goal.

    We exist on earth, and need to take appropriate actions to survive and thrive. Our inner experience can either help us to better relate to our environment – and take appropriate action – or they can deter us from carrying out the actions that move our lives forward.

    Frustration that leads us to right a wrong is a good thing. Happiness that leads to a passive state during an emergency is a bad thing.

    Our emotions should drive us to engage with our outer world in a way that best serves us and others. If they do not, then they’re unhealthy, no matter how pleasurable they are to experience.

    A major problem with personal development literature is that it focuses on the inner experience, but not in how that relates to our outer circumstances. It looks at emotions for the sake of emotions, without having a suitable benchmark to assess whether these emotions are good (in context), or not.

    Finally, the problem with commenting on the first part of a blog series is that I don’t know what will be covered in upcoming posts. :P

    But based on what you’ve shared in this post, I’d say that our inner experience is important, but must be judged in the context of our engagement with outer reality. And personal development is our means to better adjust to the world, through understanding and appropriate action, so that we progress in life in a way that serves our needs as human beings.

  6. Hi Haider — I’m glad you see the importance of defining our terms here — I predict that this will have a lot of practical relevance as the James Ray trial begins next month and “regulating self-help” becomes a topic of national discussion again, at least in the U.S.

    It sounds like you are saying that personal development should be geared toward helping people adjust to the world. I wouldn’t disagree with that on an abstract level, although I imagine we could all disagree endlessly about the specifics of what adjusting to the world entails. :)

    In this series, I don’t mean to take a position on what personal development’s goals ought to be, or what techniques it should use to reach those goals — I’m just trying to get clear on what the common understanding of personal development is. It sounds like you would agree that, as a descriptive matter, personal growth ideas tend to be focused on our inner experience, but you would like to see that focus shift a little.

  7. I’m OK with personal development literature focusing on the inner experience, provided they point out the need to carry out appropriate, life-affirming action to experience those states.

    Being “happy for no reason” or demonizing negative emotions aren’t healthy attitudes to life, and undermine the merits of personal development literature.

  8. Hi Haider — that’s an important observation, I think — as Duff said as well, there are personal development approaches that have us change the way we relate to our inner experience, as opposed to changing the experience itself — meditation (in many forms) being a good example. For these approaches, we don’t necessarily control the experiences we have, but we can control how resourcefully we handle them (allowing them to pass away on their own, for example, rather than playing FreeCell to distract ourselves from them).

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