[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.

I woke up early and couldn’t go back to sleep again. Thoughts and ideas were swirling in my head, so I wrote them down. I’m not looking for debate. #Leadership #CallToThink #CallToLead #CallToListen

Imagine, just for a moment, that you are free. You have no rent to pay, no mortgage to cover. You don’t need a car or to pay for the insurance. You don’t need to worry about going bankrupt should you get sick or injured by accident. You can meet your needs for essential food by walking to a grocery store near you. You have shelter, water, energy and waste services. You have freedom to choose what you want to do every minute of your waking hours. What would you do with that freedom?

Now, think about how close to that imagined picture we are right now, in the global pandemic of SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19. Everyone is affected in some way, but each one differently. People in essential jobs, connected to basic human needs, are working harder than ever. People who work in jobs not directly connected to basic human needs are sheltering in place and physically distancing themselves from others. Since so many people now work on things not connected to basic human needs, society has come to a severe slowdown. The lifeblood we traditionally use to make society work – money – has stopped flowing easily. It’s as if the world has a giant blood clot in its main artery. Money no longer works well to support our civilization.

Road and air traffic have slowed down dramatically. As a result, our natural environment is becoming healthier. There is better air quality and less carbon dioxide being emitted. Maybe global warming is even slowing down for a bit – what if we could use this global “pause” for something really, really useful?

It seems to be a great time for us to collectively examine what we really need and what we want to do for the future of our civilization. When the current, acute, global health scare is over, do we go back to our old ways – restarting the engine that is creating a slow, imperceptible (for now) global disruption on a much bigger scale than this invisible virus? Could we redesign civilization to be sustainable to the point where we balance our consumption of natural resources with what the living planet can produce (see https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33133712)? Is this a time to talk about slowing population growth, to rethink the purpose of our economic systems, to fully internalize the interconnectedness of all living systems, to reshape or evolve the structures our societies have built with little conscious thought?

If your own answer to those questions is yes, how do you want those conversations to go? Where is the forum for having those conversations? How do you involve 7 Billion people in it? Or 230 million? Or 5 million?

Maybe this is not a conversation for everyone, but for people in leadership positions.

Maybe we haven’t had any real leadership capable of thinking in these ways since our oldest democracies were established.

Maybe we’ve all been too busy, chasing money, status and the acquisition of material things.

Maybe this is a time to develop extraordinary leadership capabilities that span incomprehensible complexities and help to find simple new rules we can start living by.

Maybe this a time for leaders in government, business and industry to dramatically shift their mindsets and perspective from squabbling and competing over money, market share, morality, religion and taxation to stepping into global consciousness and leadership to show us a new way, a new vision, and ways for us to move there?

Maybe this is the time for many to dive into developing their own leadership capabilities.

Is it time for you and me as well?