[This was originally published at https://agilebestself.com/2020/06/19/what-is-personal-growth/]


New growth

Think back for a moment to when you were ten years old. What did you know at the time? You could most likely tie your shoes, put on clothes, say the alphabet, count, read, write, do basic math, etc. But if you’re a little bit like me, you probably have a hard time thinking about what exactly a ten-year-old knows.  And of course, my own upbringing and cultural biases may be painfully transparent in that list of knowledge and skills a ten-year-old might have.

Now think back to when you were seventeen. What happened in the years in between you being ten and seventeen? You probably had a physical growth spurt, and you grew from being a child into the beginning stages of adulthood, with all the well-known trials and tribulations of puberty. You had literal physical growth.

Agile Best Self Principle #11: The best inspirations and insights emerge from like-hearted communities. 

If you were lucky to continue attending school, your perspectives on the world probably changed. You went from knowing mostly about yourself, your family, your hometown and region to learning about how things are in other families and places, how things were in times past and in other countries. You learned how to get along with your peers, with grown-ups, with strangers. You had a different kind of growth – you learned. You literally restructured your brain with the help of others. You experienced an early form of what I think of as personal growth.

Without knowing it, you were creating new neural networks and learning first hand that neuroplasticity is your friend.

Agile Best Self Principle #9: Continuous attention to scientific research enhances best self.

A big part of that brain restructuring is about forming new or different pathways in the cells that make up your brain. These new connections help you navigate the world. They let you see the world in a certain way, based on what the people around you have told you, taught you, explored with you, and experienced with you.

For a long time we’ve collectively believed (through stories our brains tell us) that once we reach the developmental stage of adulthood, we’re kind of “finished” or “complete”. Once we reach that state, maybe we tend to think “This is the way the world is. This is who I am.” Sure, we can learn a new skill here and there – maybe a new tennis move or a new technique for cooking  – but by and large, we think we’re “finished”.

Now let me ask you – have you ever had someone present an idea to you that completely changed the way you understood something? Not in a “oh, that’s kind of neat” way, but in an “OhmygoshthatsAMAZING!!!” way? It happens to me every once in a while. Some TED talks are like that (thank you Kathryn Schultz), and some books (thank you E.F. Schumacher), and some conversations are like that (thank you MN). They give you ideas that work like new tools you can use. In fact, that’s what E.F. Schumacher called ideas (in “Small is Beautiful”) – they are the things you think with. And sometimes they occur to you directly, sometimes they are given to you by other people, and all you need to do is receive them from your like-hearted community (or elsewhere).

One of those amazing ideas has for me been one that I learned about in the ICP-ENT workshop I participated in at the beginning of 2018. It’s the idea that even as adults we are not “finished” developmentally. We may not grow physically anymore, but we can still grow “inside” – in our mind. This idea was revealed to me by the research of Lisa Lahey and Robert Kegan via their “Immunity to Change” work. I won’t be able to do their findings justice in a short blog post, but the essence is that even adults have stages of mental development. Understanding neuroplasticity is a huge part of the Agile Best Self mindset.

I won’t name the stages precisely, but what happens as we move through them is that we are increasing our mental “complexity”, or our capability to hold competing ideas in our mind in new ways. We can begin to detach ourselves from the evaluations and judgments others make of us and form our own sense of self that is not affected by how other people might tell us they see us. We can begin to chart our own course in life, based on things we learn and learn to hold “lightly” without letting them define our sense of self. We can become the “authors” of our sense of self.

We can even learn to go beyond self-authorship and grow to a stage where we can take feedback that others give us and examine it in relation to our own sense of who we would like to be. We can learn to go from self-authorship to self-transformation, taking in any feedback and from a certain place of light “detachment” and decide if the feedback might be worth taking on and integrating into a new sense of self.

These stages of development are something that we move to and through gradually – we learn a little, slide back, and work to get back up again. With each move, we get a little better at separating our identity, our “center”, from the views others share with us. We are ultimately able to treat the view we have of ourselves like a pair of glasses that we can take off, metaphorically, and look at them, rather than looking through them. We can turn something we are subject to into an object we can examine based on new information. That, in my way of thinking now, is what personal growth is. Developing your mental state, the way your brain works, into ways that make us more effective in the world, enabling us to navigate new complexity, new situations, new information, new ideas (that might previously have caused “upsets”) with calm and poise.

Dead and alive

We all have the capability to make small steps to move towards our best self by developing our mind, and in essence “growing personally”. Whether we are twenty-two, forty-two or sixty-two.

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