Ask Steve – Where to Begin Your Path of Personal Growth

There are so many areas I feel I need to work on in terms of my personal growth that I don’t know where to begin. When I look at all the articles you’ve written as well as all the books, CDs, and seminars out there, it’s overwhelming. Where do I even begin?

If you’d asked me this question in 2004, I’d have recommended you begin with goal setting, organizing, and time management.

If you’d asked me this question in 2005, I’d have recommended you begin with discovering your purpose.

If you ask me this question today, I’ll recommend you ask me in 2007. 😉

Seriously though, here are some suggestions. There’s no rigid right or wrong answer to this question, but there are a few heuristics you may find helpful. I’ve used all of these at one time or another.

Method #1 works well for all experience levels. #2 is great for beginners. And #3 and #4 are best for those who consider themselves fairly experienced in the conscious pursuit of personal growth.

Method 1: Start with your weakest area

As a general rule, I recommend you start with whatever area you think is weakest. Listen to Podcast #002 – Truth and Awareness. In the show notes (and in the recording), you’ll see a list of 12 areas of your life to consider. This list is just a guide, so if you have a more preferred way of thinking about the various parts of your life, feel free to use that instead. A simplified 4-part model you can use would be body, mind, heart, and spirit (aka physical, mental, socio-emotional, and spiritual).

As the podcast suggests, give each part of your life a rating on a scale of 1-10 for where you feel you are right now (1 = worst, 10 = best imaginable). Perhaps you’d rate your physical health a 5, your finances a 3, your relationships a 9, and so on. Now begin your self development efforts by tackling your weakest area. For this particular example, you’d begin working on your finances first.

As you shift your focus to your weakest area, it’s OK if some of your stronger areas backslide a little. They can probably afford it anyway. You might have to steal time from other areas to raise up this weakness. That’s perfectly OK. Continue focusing your greatest efforts on your weakest area until it’s no longer your weakest area, even if you have to sustain that focus for years. It will be worth it.

This method yields fantastic results if you stick with it. It was the primary focusing method I used for about a decade. It helped me make across-the-board improvements to my health, my marriage, my finances, my emotions, my friendships, my beliefs, etc. The key is patience, especially if you’re starting from a situation where one area of your life is way behind the others and you have to make that your primary focus for the next few years (such as if you’re grossly overweight or deep in debt).

Method 2: Start with your physical body

If all areas of your life seem about equal (especially if you’re dissatisfied with all of them), then I recommend you start with the physical. Improving your health and physical fitness will benefit you across the board, and physical fitness is a terrific habit to develop early in life. It will give you more stamina, more physical strength, and more mental clarity. It will likely extend your lifespan. It will help stave off diseases from the common cold to cancer and heart disease. It will help you develop self-discipline and goal-setting skills. It will help stabilize your emotions and give you a feeling of well-being. It will improve your self-image. It can help you become more successful socially. And depending on the nature of your work, it may even improve your career outlook, which in turn may boost your income. That’s a benefits package that’s tough to beat! These benefits are universally agreeable too. Almost everyone would agree that good health is more desirable than poor health.

A key advantage to working on your physical health is that it’s easy to measure physical results (weight, strength, speed, time, etc.). You can also get a medical check-up on your various health stats such as your blood pressure and cholesterol.

Method 3: Use your intuition

The first two methods are fairly logical, but if you’re a more intuitive person, you can go with your gut instinct. Podcast #003 – Consulting Your Intuition presents two different methods for… wait for it… consulting your intuition. Subconsciously you already know which area to work on next, but it helps to use a structured method to bring it into your conscious awareness.

For most of my adult life, I relied on Method #1, but today I favor the intuitive approach. I don’t recommend you begin with this approach if you’re a very skeptical person though — it simply won’t work. Intuitive answers will rarely satisfy the requirements of steadfast skeptics. Your intuition will give you an arrow but not the entire path. If, however, you have the faith and resolve to pursue your intuitive wisdom, your growth will unfold in the most amazing, synchronistic ways that take you quantum leaps beyond what hard logic can do for you. But if you begin to doubt your intuitive guidance, you’ll simply sabotage your results.

Intuition is a skill that takes practice to develop. It took me several years to feel comfortable enough to trust it. Intuition works like an intellectual short-cut. Think of it as a way to train your subconscious to process the data stored in your mind and to compute the logically correct answer, much like a quantum computer. It takes time to train your intuition for accuracy as well as for you to be able to trust its output. A world-class computer chess program may output certain moves that seem illogical to human players, but there’s an undeniable logic behind its decisions which becomes clear as the game unfolds. Your intuition works much the same. Train it by practicing with small, low-risk decisions to gradually build accuracy and trust.

Once you’ve developed your intuition, you gain the ability to make highly accurate decisions very quickly. I’m not at the point where I trust its accuracy enough to run my entire life, but I’m getting there. Sometimes when I think my intuition has let me down, further down the road circumstances reveal that it was dead on. Trust comes with time and experience.

Method 4: Face your fears

Name your single greatest fear. That will tell you where to focus your growth efforts.

Facing and overcoming one’s greatest fear is not for the timid, but if you desire a bold, aggressive leap ahead in a relatively short period of time, this is the way to go. Even a small amount of progress down this path can make a world of difference.

Like most people I was once afraid of public speaking. Supposedly this is people’s #1 fear, even more than the fear of death itself. I knew if I faced this fear, I’d be a changed man. I thought to myself, “If I can conquer this fear, everything else will seem easier.” So I went for it. How? By speaking. I volunteered to speak at tech conferences where I felt most comfortable. I was nervous the first couple times, but I did it anyway. Later I joined Toastmasters and began speaking regularly at club meetings. I practiced impromptu speaking. I competed in speech contests. I spoke to a local business group. I experimented with different delivery styles. I gave several humorous speeches. I presented a 90-minute workshop. I even joined a local comedy improv troupe and performed in two live shows. This played out over a period of several years, but I emerged a totally different person. Now instead of being nervous, I actually look forward to speaking opportunities. I went from fear to fun. I not only overcame my greatest fear, but I also added a valuable skill I can enjoy for the rest of my life. Am I glad I did this? You bet!

You can even use this technique to overcome the fear of death, as strange as it may seem. Being afraid to die will choke off many opportunities for living, and it’s totally unnecessary. You can find an article about the process I used to overcome my fear of death here: Life After Death. It’s amazing how much more expansive and abundant life feels once the fear of death is gone for good. When you’re no longer afraid to die, then you’re finally ready to play the game of life full out. This doesn’t mean taking stupid risks — not being afraid of death doesn’t turn you into a reckless moron. But when you no longer fear death, you free up the internal resources that were previously preoccupied with that fear, resources that you can then apply to living. The result is that you feel significantly lighter, happier, and more energetic. This is true of overcoming any fear, but the fear of death is special because we all eventually die. You may be able to avoid the stage, but you can’t avoid the grave.

Patience, grasshopper

I advise you to think of your personal development in terms of years, not days or weeks. While you’ll achieve many milestones along the way, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll transform every area of your life overnight. Be patient with yourself.

If you’re discouraged by how long this will take, you’re looking at it the wrong way. The time will pass anyway whether you work on your growth or not. So you might as well emerge a few years from now as a fitter, happier, wealthier, more fulfilled person. It’s not as if you have anything better to do. 🙂

At some point on this path, you’ll cross an invisible threshold where all of these areas start coming together all at once. You achieve the point of synergy. Your early struggles finally pay off, and your progress accelerates dramatically. You experience as much growth in a single year as you used to experience in 5-10 years. The last two years have definitely been like that for me. Things are changing so fast I have to reassess my situation on an almost weekly basis. Five years ago I wouldn’t have thought it possible to sustain this rate of change, but I seem to be managing it just fine.

Here’s an example of how synergy works. Suppose you begin with Method #2 and start with the physical. As your physical fitness improves, you can channel some of that extra energy and mental clarity into your career. This in turn will likely boost your income. That extra income may relieve some of your financial pressure, which can help you feel better emotionally. From this state of feeling good, you may choose to devote more time to your spiritual development. This can bring additional clarity to your work and help you transition to a career where you feel you’re contributing more. Doing work you truly love will likely boost your income even higher. And in turn you could funnel some of that income into buying a gym membership, hiring a personal trainer, or taking exercise classes to further improve your health. And the cycle continues…. This is the positive spiral of personal growth, and it’s a truly wonderful place to be.

This entry is part of the “Ask Steve” series. See the original Ask Steve post for details, or view the Archives (July 2006) to peruse the entire series.