DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


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.

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  1. I like the inclusion of intention for the reasons you give.

    I’m not sure about progressive – I’m wondering about conversion experiences that come out of the blue. (Perhaps on closer attention there has been a step-by-step process leading to the moment?)

  2. Hi Evan — I agree that spontaneous experiences of conversion or enlightenment, or similar epiphanies, are not “personal development” under my definition. People don’t go into these experiences with the intent to produce progressive and lasting change — in fact, they don’t go into these experiences with any “intent” at all, because these experiences come as a total surprise and these people have made no effort to produce them.

    How do I justify this? I think the common understanding of personal development sees it as a body of perspectives and techniques, such as meditation, visualization, therapy, and so on, that people can practice to change their lives. By definition, a person who has the kind of spontaneous epiphany I think you’re talking about hasn’t relied on any ideas or techniques to get there. (Take Paul on the road to Damascus — he didn’t do anything to prepare for or produce his conversion experience — it just happened out of nowhere.)

    By contrast, a monk who meditates for thirty years with the goal of realizing his true nature as eternal consciousness, is doing personal development as I define it. He’s consciously working toward that goal and intends to make progressive and lasting steps toward it. If he reaches that goal, I think, the moment of realization would count as part of a step-by-step process, as you call it.

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