What is Personal Development? – Revisited

Personal Development is hugely popular and an important focus for many people. However, I rarely see anyone stop to think about what it actually is. Nor do I hear people ask what its potential benefits might be beyond the vagueness of “to achieve my potential” or more pragmatic outcomes such as “to get that promotion”.

Given its prominence, I think its worth taking a moment to explore personal development more closely. This exploration might just open up new avenues of activity and also highlight deeper, more purposeful benefits.

A good starting point

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 the quality of life and contribute to the realization of dreams and aspirations.”¹

I like this definition. It utilises clear language, which minimises the risk of multiple interpretations and it references personal development at both the individual and organisation level. It also covers the benefits of personal development, such as the honing of skills or the realisation of goals.

Beware the mumbo-jumbo

Other definitions I have come across include phrases such as “become a more conscious, whole or healthy human being”, “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. They also have questionable meanings. For example, what precisely is a “whole…human being”, why is spiritual growth separate from personal growth and what on earth is “soulful connection”?

Often these abstract terms are associated with ‘alternative’ approaches to personal development. There are gurus-a-plenty willing to help you repair “damaged auras” or clear “blocked chakras”.

The placebo effect means these approaches will have an impact for some, but not the majority. I prefer to look towards more grounded thinking and approaches that are thankfully the subject of ongoing dialogue within the social sciences.

A word or two from the scholars

Looking to the social sciences, some thoughts from respected scholars might help us create a more grounded definition for personal development.

Schön (1991) introduced the concept of the “reflective practitioner”. This is the person who reflects and asks questions such as “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, for example, your work but it could equally be your relationship with family or friends.

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). Personal development might be thought of as the activity undertaken to close this gap such that we recognise the values behind our actions and make more conscious decisions about which values to enact, and which to not.

Finally, Heron (1998) talks of co-operative inquiry. This involves “two or more people researching a topic through their own experience of it, using a series of cycles in which they move between this experience and reflecting together on it.” He goes on to say “It is a vision of persons in reciprocal relation using the full range of their sensibilities to inquire into any aspect of the human condition…”

This final area of theory and practice helps prevent personal development becoming too much of a ‘self’ oriented practice. In personal development, raising self-awareness is important. However, this doesn’t mean it necessarily comes only from reflecting on our inner thoughts and feelings. In order to determine task-oriented strengths, for example, we need to be doing things. It could be said we need to be ‘in relationship’ with tasks.

Similarly, there are aspects to our self that we cannot know without first seeing ourselves reflected in the reactions others have to us and, simultaneously, experiencing how we react to their reactions. We therefore need to spend time developing self-awareness through being ‘in relationship’ with others.

My definition for personal development

Bringing these three concepts together, I would offer a definition for personal development as:

the development of a reflective practice,

the aim of which is to close the gap between espoused theories and theories in action

and which is centred on an ongoing inquiry into the self in relationship with task and with others. 

This definition takes personal development beyond the list of outcomes and benefits seen in the wikipedia wording. It raises personal development to the status of a professional practice. This potentially counters the criticisms centred on it being ‘fluffy’ or a one-off-and-done activity.

It also calls out very specifically the aim of the practice (closing that gap) and in so doing points to a focus on the types of activities that might be undertaken. Critically, it moves personal development, and its key area of focus, self-awareness, away from being a solitary act.

Personal development is, perhaps counterintuitively, an activity best carried out in relationship.


Footnote: An earlier version of this post first appeared in 2011. Upon revisiting the original post and preparing it for publication here, I realised how much my thinking had moved on. This version is therefore quite different from the first, particularly through the addition of an element of ‘relationship’ in the pursuit of self-awareness. As a result, the definition has evolved. I’m sure it will change again, sometime in the near future.


¹http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_development (accessed 9th March 2017).
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.
Heron, J. (1998) Co-operative Inquiry: Research into the Human Condition. London, Sage.

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