What does “personal growth” mean to you? It seems a trivial question at first, but digging deeper it reveals a wide variety of different approaches, ideas and assumptions. To some the idea might be related mostly to learning: a skill for example. To others it is about emotional maturity. Yet others would define it in terms of social abilities, while some may see it linked largely to spirituality. It also get linked frequently with “self-actualisation”, a term that is, in contrast to “personal growth” at least, quite well defined. So what’s the fascination with “personal growth”?
To start with let’s take a look at “self-actualisation”: In the classic sense of the word (as described by Maslow), it represents the highest stage of the hierarchy of needs, implying a form of advanced development well above the more basic stages (or needs). So far so good. As a short-hand, it is often described as “living to the fullest” or fully realising one’s potential. While the concept is great as a concept, it has two issues for me: Firstly it implies a finite stage – rather than an ongoing development. Secondly, and this is more based on personal observation of interpretations rather than the concept itself, it is often misconstrued as something ranging from self-reliance to hedonism. Let’s take these in turn:
The (static) stage issue.
Seeing “self-actualisation” as some form of static stage implies that once reached, you have done it. Now that is a great concept if you are “taking stock”, but it doesn’t let you move ahead: because once you are at the end of the road you simply can’t go any further. I find that a pretty sad way to look at things, because it means either you can never really reach self-actualisation, because you believe in the potential for constant progress of yourself. Or, you believe there are finite goals to begin with – and no matter what you do you can’t “grow” beyond them. The logical conclusion out of this would be to say that self-actualisation is great to indicate a current stage of development (or needs related to the stage), but not as a goal in itself. That’s why I prefer “growth”: Growth is hardly ever finite, it evolves constantly.
The “self-reliance to egoism” issue
Often, self-actualisation seems to be mislabelled as “doing things by myself (and myself only)” – or used as a justification of “hedonistic pleasures”, neither of which is really in the original definition, though both are common. The issue I have with in the first instance is a fundamental belief that doing things by oneself is not necessarily impossible, but often means choosing the (unnecessarily) hard way. For example, I can figure out how to ski by myself. But it will probably involve a lot of falls and accidents. Or I can rely on others to teach and guide me. That way, I can avoid many problems and focus on “growing” myself and developing my skill. Regarding confounding or confusing self-actualisation with “hedonistic pleasures”, unfortunately the idea of “self-actualising” often gets misused as an excuse to do whatever one wants – with no need for any restraint or regard for others. As an amusing historical aside, it seems Maslow himself was unhappy how many people “constructed” self-actualisation in such a way!
Again, “growth” appears to offer a solution here: growth is always dependent on other factors. Plants grow because of water, sunlight and nutrients. Humans grow with other humans. In short: growth is not just about “one self”, but about the self in connection with others.
That, in turn, let’s me come to the preference for “personal growth” (rather than simply “growth”). The personal in this emphasises the individual journey “personal growth” takes. It isn’t about achieving a universal target or outcome valued by someone else. It is about a personal, individual journey. And that journey has the potential to lead the traveller ever closer to the idea of (temporary) “self actualisation”, or achieving the best they can be – at least for the time being. And before they are setting out to explore new areas, new ideas and new connections.