What is Personal Development?

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Personal development is as old as Plato and Aristotle. In fact, personal development was considered by many societies as the only true vocation. They also believed that the study and application of philosophy was the best method to achieve personal development.

Various cultures and various individuals throughout history have discussed and studied the need and ways to achieve personal development. At times it has been called “virtues”, or “moral character”, and in others it is referred to as “ethics”. Christianity has been concerned with the “moral development” of individuals and took their “virtues” from the Bible. These are: Faith, Hope, and charity or love/agape.

Virtue as defined by ancient Greeks was: The commitment to “habitual excellence”.

In most cases the major concern was, “personal development”. Each defined ways and means of achieving this development. Aristotle believed that it was necessary to achieve the “golden mean” between a trait and it’s opposite. Take Aristotle’s example of courage. “Courage is the balance between cowardice (deficit of courage) and foolhardiness (excess of courage)”. So Aristotle’s Golden Mean would lie in the middle between these two extremes but lying closer to “foolhardiness than cowardice”.

Benjamin Franklin developed a 13 week system in which he concentrated on one character trait per week. Listed below are traits he considered most important for him to work towards to be successful.

Character Traits

Self-control: be determined and disciplined in your efforts.

Silence: listen better in all discussions.

Order: don’t agonize-organize.

Pledge: promise to put your best effort into today’s activities.

Thrift: watch how you spend your money and your time.

Productivity: work hard-work smart-have fun.

Fairness: treat others the way you want to be treated.

Moderation: avoid extremes.

Cleanliness: have a clean mind, body and habits.

Tranquility: take time to slow down and “smell the roses.”

Charity: help others.

Humility: keep your ego in check.

Sincerity: be honest with yourself and others.

These are just brief examples of the history of “character development”, or “personal development”. It is beyond this article to provide a history of personal development, but I can give a brief discussion of what personal development means to me.

Stephen Covey in his books on “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, discusses the evolution of “personal development”. In one section he talks of his study of personal development and makes a significant observation. He maintains that prior to the 1920’s and 1930’s, personal development was defined as “Character Development”. Ben Franklin’s list of character traits highlights the idea that a person needed to develop their “character”.

However, in the 1920’s and after, he states that the focus of personal development changed from character development to “personality development”. The focus of development changed from inner development to focus on the outer traits of a person or personality traits, such as a “pleasing personality”, or “having a positive personality”. With this as a guideline, it isn’t important if we truly have a positive personality or if we have a pleasing personality, it is more important to “act” like we have them. Mr. Covey maintains that this translates into other virtues and traits and what we end up with is all flash and no substance.

Mr. Covey provides several examples of this and used the then President Clinton and other politicians, as example’s. Instead of “being” honest or committed to excellence and integrity, they decided that “acting” honest or acting as a person with integrity is more important because they then appeal to the broadest possible voter base.

I went through treatment for alcoholism in 1977 and again in 1978. This March, I celebrated 30 years of being clean and sober. When I first sobered up in 1978, the self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous exploded on the American scene.

Since then we have numerous groups which fashioned themselves after Alcoholics Anonymous, adopting and changing A.A.’s Twelve Steps to fit their particular problem.

However, at the base of all of them, is “personal or character” development. Bill Wilson, co-founder of A.A., says in his book, “As Bill See’s It”, “the main purpose of the 12 Steps of A.A, is “character development”. He goes on to say, “but who wants to talk of or work on their “character”? He also maintains that A.A., is a spiritual kindergarten. While the primary purpose of A.A., is abstinence of alcohol, Mr. Wilson maintains that the only way to obtain that goal is by committing, one day at a time, to the development of our character.

This is true of the other self-help programs which use Alcoholics Anonymous as their foundation.

On a personal level, couple months ago, my son, who is 14 years old, was teasing me about the “self-help” books I read. I told him that he should be thankful that I have continued reading and using those books, because if I hadn’t, his life and mine would be entirely different, and not in a good way.

Personal Improvement, in my experience encompasses all areas of our lives. Mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual. There is an old saying in A.A, which says, “if you’re not going forward in your life, you’re going backward”. This means that there is no status quo. We can’t rest on our laurels or what we did yesterday. As Ben Franklin showed, personal improvement is a life time activity and if we are not actively pursing excellence we are at the mercy of mediocrity.

As one person pointed out, “if we are not pursing our own goals, we are working towards somebody else’s goals”.

Personal development, for me, provides meaning to my life. It gives me a yard stick to measure my progress in life. What is personal development? When I first sobered up, I went to a meeting where on the wall behind the speakers were two boards.

On one board was listed about 20 different positive character traits such as courage, integrity, patience, gratitude, determination, persistence, etc. On the other board was listed their opposites.

During the meeting, at least once a week, my sponsor would lean over and quietly ask me, “which side of the board are you on”?

A commitment to personal development insures I stay on the right side of the board!


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