What is Personal Development?

I think it is important to ask this question. The thinking that unfolds below may help you focus on why you are on the journey you are on and whether it is the right one for you right now. I hope it also peaks your interest in the social sciences and their contribution to our ongoing dialogue around the human condition.

Wikipedia has a reasonable definition for personal development: “activities that improve awareness and identity, develop talents and potential, build human capital and facilitate employability, enhance quality of life and contribute to the realisation of dreams and aspirations.”¹

I like this definition. It utilises clear language which minimises the risk of multiple interpretations. It covers individual and organisation uses for personal development. It also covers the benefits of personal development such as the development of talents or the realisation of goals. This last point I see as a slight weakness in this definition. Defining personal development and describing its potential benefits are perhaps best approached as separate tasks.

Other definitions I have come across include phrases such as “grow as a conscious human being”, “become a more conscious, whole or healthy human being”, “experience the fulness of life”, “grow personally and spiritually” and “discover…joy, inner peace and soulful connection.”

All these phrases work on some level but are in danger of becoming too abstract. What is a “whole or healthy human being”? What is “fulness” when referring to human experience? And what the heck is “soulful connection”?

Consciousness is a phrase that is well-used in personal development. A more appropriate phrase, I would argue, is self-awareness. To become “more conscious” is, for me, actually referring to becoming more aware of our own attributes, states of mind and emotions. I do not believe we actually become ‘more conscious’ in terms of the inner voice and physical sensations we experience as consciousness. Through personal development, we improve our ability to recognise attritibutes that were previously only ‘visible’ to our unconscious mind. This is not more consciousness, it is more material  available within our conscious perception.

You might think I am being pedantic in challenging the use of a well-recognised methaphor. Maybe. The reason I will occassionally do this is because my mission is to bring the dialogue surrounding personal development back to tangible realities. Too many writers, in my opinion, fluff up their language with non-words and unhelpful metaphors (vis a vie “soulful connection”, “inner path”, “damaged auras” or “blocked chakras”).

The danger I see with ‘alternative’ approaches to personal development is that great work can be attributed to the wrong activity. I’ve no doubt that a great many people experience genuine personal development through many of the ‘alternative’ approaches. What I don’t believe is that physic powers, discovering predetermined inner paths, channeled energies or connecting with others’ souls is what is actually happening.

It may be a placebo effect, which in itself is a genuinely interesting process of change going on within the individual. Whatever it is, it can probably be defined through scientific observation of physiological processes. Wouldn’t it be better to know what is really going on? Wouldn’t this actually be more intriguing and wonderful to understand? Why bestow gratitude for wonderfully complex human physiological processes to some supernatural being, energy or parallel reality?

Looking at the social sciences, the field within which I practice, three aspects of the human condition come together to help offer another definition of personal development.

Argyris (1974) described the difference between what people say they do and what they actually do. He spoke of “espoused theories” (the belief systems people say they operate by) and “theories in action” (the beliefs systems actually evident in their actions).

Schön (1991) introduced the concept of the “reflective practitioner”. This is the person who reflects and asks questions such as “How am I able to do what I do?”, “What knowledge and skills must I have, but am unaware of, that enable me to do what I do?” and “How could I improve what I do?” Schön was referring to professionals such as doctors and architects when he spoke of a ‘practice’. I would describe your ‘practice’ as whatever role in life you feel needs improving. It could be your work or it could be your relationships, for example.

Finally, Senge, et al (2007) write about presence. They define this as “deep listening, of being open to beyond one’s pre-conceptions and historical ways of making sense.” They go on to say that presence is “letting go of old identities and the need to control.”

For me, presence is about a heightened state of awareness to the present moment and to future possibilities as they appear. Its about a level of self-awareness that offers confidence in our strengths and knowledge of our weaknesses that combines to allow us to see and grasp opportunities more often and with improved chances of success.

Bringing these three concepts together I would offer a definition for personal development as the life-long development of presence through the creation of a reflective practice focused on raising levels of self-awareness.

I will expand on presence, reflective practice and self-awareness in later posts.

I will also leave it to another post to attend to the many potential benefits of personal development. For now, I hope this post has helped offer a challenge to your thinking about what personal development is, the dangers of straying into the non-language of the ‘alternative’ perspectives and peaked your curiosity for how the social sciences have been researching and defining an extremely important aspect of our lives.


¹http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_development (accessed 25th October 2011).

Argyris, C. (1974) Behind the Front Page. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Schön, D. A. (1991) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action. London, Ashgate.

Senge, P. et al (2007) Presence: Exploring Profound Changes in People, Organizations and Society. London, Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

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