What is personal development?
Personal development is a broad term which is often used to describe a specific programme of self improvement in the context of career or financial success, or in other areas such as health or relationships. A familiar example would be the company training in team leadership or effective sales techniques; another might be a parenting or assertiveness class, martial arts training, or a spiritual retreat. More properly speaking, however, the term ‘personal development’ refers to a holistic programme involving goal-setting in several different areas in our life.
The driving force behind the thriving personal development industry is the assumption, deeply rooted in most of us, that there is always room for improvement: we can do things better; we can be better. Self-improvement tends to lead to our fulfilment, and therefore our greater happiness (thus also impacting the society we live in). It is important to note, though, that this happiness arises from the process, not from a successful outcome. We generally feel better about ourselves the very instant we commit to a goal!
How to make the most of personal development
First, a word of warning: a programme of personal development is only truly effective when it is approached holistically, as described above. Developing one area of our life while neglecting other areas usually leads to dissatisfaction, as in the cliché of the successful businessman who works long shifts and rarely sees his children. (Conversely, meditating all day – unless that happens to be your vocation – will not bring happiness if you neglect the work you know deep down you really should be getting on with). The best teachers generally suggest four or more areas of life – health, mind, family, society, and money, for example – in which we should work by setting small, achievable goals.
Of the bewildering quantity of personal development materials currently available on the market, I would recommend those of the late business philosopher Jim Rohn, and leadership guru and author Dr Stephen Covey. Both take a holistic approach, and both recommend working from the ‘inside out’ rather than the other way round. This is also referred to as the ‘principle-centred approach’. As Jim Rohn put it: “Work harder on yourself than you do on your job. When I learnt that, it turned my life around”. (‘Challenge to Succeed’, 4-CD set)
Dr Covey’s hugely popular book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People’ takes the reader through a detailed programme consisting of seven stages, the first of which is learning how to ‘Be Proactive’. In this chapter he explains how we can train ourselves little by little to take a more proactive approach to our life, by working on the areas we can do something about, instead of wasting time complaining about those we have no control over. Dr Covey, a leadership and business expert, suggests that the value of a basically proactive person to a company hiring a new employee can be as much as 5000% more than that of a ‘reactive’ person!
The subsequent chapters of ‘7 Habits’ take the reader through what Dr Covey calls the ‘Personal Victories’ to achieve independence, then through the ‘Public Victories’ to achieve a state of ‘interdependence’, the ultimate goal of personal development; ‘because we live in an interdependent world’. The book is a manual for life to work through again and again, as we never stop learning or lose our capacity to grow. Dr Covey ends his book with a quote from T.S.Eliot:
“We must not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time”.