What is Personal Development? (And why It’s Important)

What is is that I want? What do any of us want? What am I working for or towards? If anything?

Such doubt often builds in my mind and reflect the modern age.

With religion not a factor in many peoples lives were are now trying to live a life a happy successful life by finding it it for ourselves.

The result is self help industry. Book, blogs, webinars. It’s a multi-million pound industry which uses words like Personal Development, Productivity, Self Help and more. It a space I have occupied for at least fifteen years.

Yet despite all my soul searching and reading I’m still unclear what is it that I’m trying to do? Has it all been a waste of time?

I have changed a lot since I started, all for the better I think.

But what it is that describes these changes that have taken place? What word would I use, so I can write about it?


Starting with the language. Self Help, Happiness, Perfection, self improvement, what does it all mean?

Is it all just a load of crap and that people like me have been hoodwinked by a collection of vague ideas and empty promises?

I’d like to point out some of the problems I have with so many of these words.

First up the end result?

Is there an aim a purpose to all of this? I have a problem with the idea that there has to be an end result I’m working towards (a teleological notion).

Perfection? I truly hate this concept. Undesirable traits, feelings, behaviours have to be expunged. It’s an impossible goal that causes us to feel we can never measure up. So we often feel ashamed and unworthy of love. Also what does perfection look like? How do we know of were getting closer to it.

Is it just survival? It seems to be a good answer, yet it can’t explain all our behaviour. To simply exist is rather easy, our lives are not in any great danger, yet that is not enough.

What about Power, pleasure, or happiness? Happiness would seem the obvious answer, yet what does happiness mean for me? I don’t have an answer yet.

Freud though it was pleasure, or away from pain as the basis for what we do. Yet this is insufficient. We sometimes choose suffer greatly for some things. because of the reward at the end.

This is getting tedious.

For Nietzsche power was the aim. It’s a compulsion to become greater than what we are now. All organisms seek to grow. A strengthening, enhancement. This is getting better, closer I think to an answer, but power has negative connotations.

Well being, The Good Life? Well-being, a vague term that don’t know if I’m getting closer to it or not. It also seems closer to health, but it’s not just health we want.

The good life. Yes I want a good life. But I don’t know what that looks like either. Also once I had found it, chances are I would move onto other desires. (The so called Hedonic Treadmill.)

Other words bandied around are personal excellence, self discovery and others.

Now I feel like thesaurus.

How about Self improvement? Another over used word. This word often gets over used. We want to improve everything. But is improvement taking place?

Does a sapling dream of becoming a better sapling? No it’s purpose is to become a tree. That a different state.

Self-actualisation then? In the Hierarchy of Needs by Abraham Maslow this one was at the top. It means that once basic needs are met we turn towards growth as a motivation.

The problem is that the word itself is not often used and therefore not known.

It’s all seem like new age jargon. Vague, uncertain, and I feel more than a little ridiculous using these terms. Some terms describe a process, others describe the end result.

It seem like our quick fix, market driven culture has co-opted our desire to live better lives and turned it into a consumer product. It comes across as vain, superficial, and ego driven.

Not just to live, but to thrive

My favourite term is to Thrive or Flourish. Abraham Maslow I think came closest, because his ideas implied growth. Looking back I see my unhappiness coexisted with stagnation.

We can recognise growth by looking at the organisms around us. A seed, become a sapling, then a tree.

Growth is about development, with milestones to pass. Tests to overcome. Struggles to endure. It fits in with what we recognise from the natural world. Also I would add from the human world too.

We look up to certain people. Celebrities, businessmen, artists, past and present, and tell ourselves we want what they have. But we conveniently ignore all the struggle these role-models had to go through to get it.

What we really want is to be able to grow and thrive just like they did. To have the skills, the courage and the insight to do well in our lives.

It’s why I like the Hero’s Journey. Created by Joseph Campbell, it’s used as a template to explain stories and myths.

The journey describes the transformation of a hero through various stages. Who goes on an adventure, suffers a crisis and wins victory, to then return home a changed individual.

Why is Personal Development Important?

The Process is the Aim

What’s important about this aim of growth is that it doesn’t detail an end result. But instead the process is the goal. We can often so caught up in our goals, and getting to the finish line. We seem to be racing towards death as fast as possible.

We can forget that it’s not not how we die that matters as much as how we live.

‘It is better to travel well than to arrive’ – Buddha

To thrive means to focus more on how we growing.

To me it also means being able to look back on my death bed and realise that I did well, I turned out alright. That my memories are of things I’m proud of, of times I enjoyed, and more.

Personal Development is a benchmark for other forms of growth

‘Your level of success will seldom exceed your level of personal development.’ – Jim Rohn

Some people seem to be into growth and others don’t. Looking at many of my peers I’m puzzled that they don’t seem to do much to improve their lot their happiness.

Yet I have to remember that for much of my life I was the same. The alternative is stagnation. A term that I would use to characterise my youth.

Fear does that to you. It makes you timid, small, and cut off from others. It paralyses you into inaction, or addiction.

Which in turn gives you no confidence or motivation to overcome the fear that keeps you that way.

Fear and paralysis feed on each other in a vicious circle. Growth is the answer.

Indeed growth and change is what we all do seek it seems to be the prerequisite for everything else we want. Success, happiness, achievement, legacy.

We want to become more than what we are. The best expression of ourselves. This growth doesn’t come by itself. That was one of my mistakes. Thinking it would all work out in the end.

Now I’m a very different person. Just as scared, but no longer bound by those fears.

Forget everything I have just said

Have I gone of the deep end?

Am I thinking too much on this? This whole post seem to involve a lot of semantics and conjecture. Perhaps I’m over obsessing this problem. Placing far too much emphasis on knowing rather than doing.

It becomes a sort of head trip, an obsessive compulsive desire to have all the answers before I start the risky part of taking action.

The things that have changed my life and me the most are not the thoughts in my head, but the actions I have taken.

So as a final lesson consider this.

Life is not just about contemplation or definitions. It’s not about trying to find clear absolute answers to ambiguity.

It’s about acting in spite of fear, confusion, and doubt.

I think in this information overloaded world we can get far to obsessed with knowing, instead of doing. Caught up in the distraction that is books, blog posts and the internet, even our own tormented minds, we become stuck.

Perhaps the true lesson from above is stop using the excuse of not having all the answers as a reason to postpone your own development and thriving. (This is probably the biggest mistake I made in my life).

The answers will come in their own good time. They can’t be rushed. Just get out there, try new things, stumble, fall, get back up, and the answers you seek will find you.

Closing Thoughts

We really don’t know what we are looking for do we? So many ideas and terms float around that we have become confused about how to define what we want.

It shows just how life is a jumbled mess of all our desires and hopes.

Here I put forward the idea that thriving is ultimately what we seek. Just like the acorn becomes a tree, we want to be all that we can be.

Personal development or whatever you choose to call is of immense value.

The lesson here is that whilst we can’t be sure what it is that makes us happy. As long as we are dedicated to growth and change we stand a better chance of finding it.

It will take you to some amazing places, meet amazing people. Along the way you might find your purpose, your partner, and become the person you have always wanted to be.


At the end I’m supposed to offer a call to action.

But this is not a call-to-action for this post. It’s a call-to-action for your life.

It’s time to take a leap.

Start that business, begin creating that art, start that relationship because your own journey is still in front of you.

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