We consider personal development largely ‘personal’; something we do for ourselves in order to grow and develop. At first sight, this seems pretty obvious. But what if the seemingly self-explanatory concept of personal development is misleading?

Let us look at some of the conventional definitions of personal development:

Wikipedia considers personal development as a process of gaining self-awareness, developing talent and aspiring towards a high quality life. The Oxford online dictionary suggests that self-development is “the process by which a person’s character or abilities are gradually developed”, and the Cambridge online dictionary explains personal development within a business context, seeing it as “the process of improving your skills and increasing the amount of experience that you have in your job”.

Ed Gregory/Pexels.com
Source: Ed Gregory/Pexels.com

The fact that these definitions vary shows that personal development is quite an elusive concept. However, one thing they all have in common is that they are essentially concerned with the investment in ourselves: As long as we focus on our own persona and keep nurturing our talents, we actively participate in the transformative process of personal development.

But here lies the fallacy: Although it is important to become self-aware, know who we are and get degreed in an area that suits our talents, these are only the first steps towards becoming the mature person we aim to be. The expression of personal development requires behavioral actions that go beyond the self-centered approach.

J. Finkelstein/Wikimedia Commons
Source: J. Finkelstein/Wikimedia Commons

In the 1940’s, the psychologist Abraham Maslow famously saw ‘self-actualization’ as the highest level of achievement in people’s lives (Maslow, 1943). He argued that self-actualization was a manifestation of the fully developed person. Those who achieved it had reached their full potential and were blessed to experience selfhood, enjoy peak experiences and live their dreams.

In the late 1960’s, however, Maslow began to doubt his theory (Maslow, 1969). He realized that the pursuit of self-actualization was only sustainable until it had been satisfied. After that, over-indulgence with the self could stretch the noble quest for personal growth, making us appear as self-aggrandizing individuals. People with a true interest in personal development, he reckoned, needed to shift their focus away from themselves and begin focusing on the world around them. Maslow called this process ‘self-transcendence’, which literally means ‘going beyond ourselves’.

Self-transcendence follows self-actualization. It is the stage where action follows complacency. Paradoxically, self-transcendence requires us to rid our identity and all concerns about ourselves, including our pride in the skills we possess and in the degrees that we so effortfully accumulated. Yet, self-transcendence is liberating, it frees us up to function for the purpose of the greater good (Maslow, 1969).

With this in mind, how can we redefine personal development?

Personal development can be summarized as a two-stage process: Stage one includes the conventional self-actualizing objectives, such as developing self-awareness and identity, gaining expert knowledge and nurturing our personal potential. Stage two then necessitates the critical transition to reach beyond ourselves (self-transcendence), to spread our enthusiasm with the wider community and to enrich the personal experiences of others. In this sense, personal development is far from personal.

How can you take your personal development to the next level?

1.Treat personal development as a life approach. We often ‘work on’ our personal development in our spare time: we attend inspiring seminars, read the success stories of others, or indulge in self-help literature. However, it is the day-to-day application of these passive, safe behaviours through which we nurture and experience our personal development. Going out there, offering our talents, sharing our skills and knowledge, and making a difference in the life of others are the essential action steps that make our personal development come to life.

2. Become the best human being you can possibly be. This bold statement requires our continuous motivation for generosity, integrity, and fairness, especially when our mood is low and competition is tough. Be honest. How often have you found yourself doing one or more of the following: hide ideas so that they don’t get pinched by others? Hold back on complimenting a colleague’s achievement because you wished it was your own? Or fail to pass on exciting opportunities in order to limit the success of others? These behaviours are signs of fear and envy. They are unnecessary, because ideas only come to life through communication and action. Likewise, compliments and encouragement not only create energy in others, but equally enhance your own visibility. Giving away those gifts and promoting others are acts of self-transcendence and will go a long way to enhancing your personal growth.  

3. Take actions that exceed expectations of others. Following the rules and standards are safe ways to approaching any task, job, or service that we do for others. They will help us to meet expectations. But they are also the safest ways to mediocrity and wasting talent. Make a conscious decision to put your heart and soul into everything you do and make it a habit to letting your work reflect your high self-worth. Exceeding expectations will let you perceive the efforts of your own personal development, whilst also making you indispensable.

4. Keep a service-oriented mind. This step is particularly important and may well be the most difficult one to accomplish. We tend to become self-satisfied with our achievements and gravitate towards retaining the status quo. However, societal needs and trends are continuously changing, requiring us to re-think solutions and stay innovative. Keeping a service-oriented mind demands flexibility. By asking ‘How can I be of service?’ we adapt to the needs of our ever-changing environment and overcome stagnation. This not only ensures the continuation of our own personal growth, but maintains its useful and timely application to real-life problems.    

References

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.

Maslow, A. H. (1969). The farther reaches of human nature. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology,1(1), 1–9.

About the Author

Gaby Pfeifer, Ph.D.

Gaby Pfeifer, Ph.D., is a research fellow in cognitive neuroscience at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, UK.   

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