Ask Steve – Why Grow?

Why do you want to constantly improve and develop yourself? Why not simply say, “This is good enough. I’ll just relax in the garden with a glass of wine instead of finding a way to be more productive”? Where does this self-improvement drive come from?

Initially my interest in personal development was a totally reactive event. As I explained in Podcast #001 – Intro to Personal Development, I was in a very dark place in my life. At age 19 I was a kleptomaniac who’d been arrested for felony grand theft (not my first arrest either). The only viable solution was for me to find a way to grow beyond my self-destructive behavior. The long-term consequences of not changing were too high to ignore. So it was really the desire to avoid a great deal of potential pain that first motivated me to adopt a growth mindset. I accepted that I’d gotten myself into trouble, and I’d have to get myself out of it. I realized I could do something about my situation if I fully committed myself to it, and that thought gave me hope.

My newfound growth mindset did in fact turn my life around, but it took a few years just to reach the point of feeling normal again. I abandoned habits like shoplifting (which I used to do several times a day), drinking, and negative thinking and replaced them with more constructive ones like reading inspiring books, studying computer programming, and running. I moved to another city. I dropped all of my old friends and made new ones. I went back to school. And I spent a lot of time thinking.

But despite significant external progress, I still felt like an impostor on the inside. For many years I couldn’t walk into a retail store without feeling like a criminal and thinking I was being watched. Even though I’d stopped stealing for good, I still felt a surge of adrenaline while walking out of a store after I bought something. Even buying groceries made me uncomfortable, and I became paranoid about checking to see if I’d accidentally put something in my pockets. I also didn’t feel worthy of my new friends and pleasant new lifestyle because on the inside, I was still an ex-thief.

At this time my desire to grow was still largely motivated by fear and guilt. My focus on growth gave me temporary relief from fear by giving me more control, but no amount of control was ever enough. So this approach soon led me to a dead-end. I think a lot of self-help junkies get stuck at this point. They use the pursuit of growth as a way to avoid pain and gain more control, and eventually it becomes an addiction.

Eventually I turned my growth mindset inward. I continued working on external results, but I also began to address my character, my emotions, and my thoughts. I remember that during this time one of my top values was honor. I very much wanted to become an honorable man. This desire intensified after meeting my future wife, Erin, who’s the most unconditionally accepting person I’ve ever met. Her trusting nature drove me to become worthy of that trust. We developed a deep spiritual bond and helped each other grow tremendously. In many ways we’re opposites, but we each have the ability to bring out the best in each other. Today we do this very consciously.

Through this process I came to work on my spiritual beliefs as well. I think that was a natural consequence of working on my thoughts. Eventually I underwent a polarity shift in my thinking about growth. This happened gradually over a period of years, starting in the late 90s. My primary motivation moved away from fear and shifted towards love. Instead of growing to avoid pain and gain control, I began growing for the sheer joy of self-expression. I moved from an outside-in approach (trying to grow in order to feel better) to an inside-out approach (learning to feel good regardless of circumstances and expressing that joy as growth). I’ll have to write more about this shift in consciousness in future articles. After this point I just stopped being so afraid of the world, not even of death.

Today I continue to pursue personal growth because I absolutely love it. I’m driven by intense curiosity. I’m not afraid of failure because I recognize there’s no such thing. The illusion of failure is a result of an unhealthy attachment to outcomes. I put my focus on the enjoyment of the experience, taking delight in the unfolding of the present rather than stressing over the future. External outcomes have much less hold on me than they used to because I’ve learned how to feel good regardless of circumstances. The freedom to choose my own thoughts is the only real freedom I need.

My approach to personal growth is similar to Dr. Stephen Hawking’s approach to cosmology. Just as he wants to understand the secrets of the physical universe, I want to understand consciousness. I see consciousness as primary and the physical universe as secondary, so I’m less interested in studying the physical universe as a scientist would because to me the physical world is a consequence but not the root cause of anything. I prefer to work upstream in the causal realm of consciousness because that’s where the juiciest insights are found. No amount of physical treasure can possibly compare to the elimination of fear from one’s consciousness. The improvement of my physical conditions is not of great consequence to me; that’s merely the projection of far more important progress made in the realm of thought.

I know it’s common to perceive an inherent conflict between self-acceptance and personal growth. I addressed that in a previous article, appropriately titled Self-Acceptance vs. Personal Growth. My approach to growth creates no conflict with accepting myself as I am right now. That’s because my growth mindset is a form of joyful self-expression (inside-out) rather than an attempt to seek happiness in the external world (outside-in).

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.