Investing in Yourself: Personal Growth

investRecently, I discussed the value of investing in yourself – putting time and money into improving you, not building assets. Today, we’ll look at one area of investing in yourself as part of an ongoing series on the topic, spread out once per weekday over two weeks. If you’d like to review all the entries, look at the investing in yourself subcategory.

The final entry in this series (yes, this is the end of it – I know some have really liked it and others have not liked it so much, so this may either be good or bad news for you) focuses in on the idea of personal growth – becoming a better person with a greater understanding of yourself as well as the world and people around you. Doing so not only increases the comfort you feel with yourself, but it also helps with relating to others in all aspects of your life, personal and professional.

Personal growth is not about taking tests or attending seminars – in fact, most of that stuff is a waste of your time and money. Personal growth really comes from challenging yourself and your beliefs, and doing that well takes time and patience and a willingness to change.

Personal growth is one area of investing in myself that I take very seriously, and I always have. I spend a lot of time on introspection and understanding why people are the way they are. I’ve worked very hard to understand my core values and to also understand the values that others use to operate. Doing this consistently has transformed me as a person, making me much more able to comprehend new situations and also to understand and to control how I respond to them. Here are eight little things you can do to personally grow.

Figure out what your core values are.
Most people have a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong that’s guided by a surprisingly small handful of core values. Whenever you feel inside yourself that something is wrong, ask yourself why you feel that way. Keep trying to break each answer down into more and more fundamental pieces, things that you are sure are right and things that you are sure are wrong. If you invest some time into this, you’ll find that slowly your beliefs and reactions of right and wrong begin to make a lot more sense to you and you can explain them much better as well. More importantly, it becomes much easier to figure out the best ethical and moral decision when something new comes up.

Travel.
By this, I don’t just mean go to a tourist hotspot and see the sights for a few days. I mean genuinely travel. Get off the beaten path, and stay for an extended period – at least more than a few days. If you live in a small town, spend a few weeks in a city. If you live in a city, go live in the country for a while. Visit other parts of the country you live in and, if you can afford to, visit other countries as well. Hitting the sights is fine, but the real value comes from exposing yourself to the life of people that you don’t know.

Read challenging books.
A Stephen King novel is fun, but it doesn’t really stretch your understanding of how human life works. Read challenging stuff. I recommend picking up any novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction or any of the Modern Library’s 100 best novels or best nonfiction works (stick with the editor’s picks, primarily). Almost all of those works will force you to reach a little bit, to understand lives and existences different than your own. When you walk away, you’ll have a deeper understanding of what it means to be different than you, and the more you read, the deeper your appreciation for the varieties of human experience will become.

Explore the varieties of religious experience.
The vast majority of people on earth incorporate some form of religious experience into their lives, whether it’s a Westerner attending an Easter Sunday service at a Protestant church or a trip to a Buddhist temple. I’ve attended a huge variety of religious services and I’ve found that they have a lot more in common than most people tend to think – they all involve people trying to connect with something greater than themselves. It is this commonality, paired with the huge diversity of the specifics of practice and belief, that really make clear that most people on earth are trying to take different, parallel paths to the same goal. Not too many years ago, I used to be afraid of people of different faiths, tending to think that they were either foolish or frightening – now I see them as using the tools they’ve learned to try to experience much the same thing. Try visiting a few religious services of faiths you don’t follow and just watch and listen carefully.

Figure out what you actually want from life.
Almost everyone I know (myself included, at times) spends their time and money chasing the things they think they want from life, while ignoring signs that those might not be the things that they actually want from life. For example, I have a friend who is incredibly passionate about painting. Spend five minutes with her and she’ll almost always move the conversation towards a gorgeous painting she’s seen recently or one she’s working on. Yet she took a job at Home Depot instead of at an art store because the Home Depot job paid $3 an hour more. Why? She needed that $3 an hour. For what? Car payments on an almost-new automobile sitting in her driveway, a car that she only drives on weekends because she takes the metro to work.

It’s really clear from everyone around her that her passion is in the painting. With her passion and skill, she could likely parlay the job at the art store into some opportunities for individual instruction or countless other things that would let her indulge deeply in the things that truly matter to her. Instead, she works at Home Depot in complete drudgery so that she can have an almost-new car sit in her driveway five days a week.

For most of us, it’s not as clear cut, but we often are beholden to things we somewhat want (like a shiny new car) over the things that fuel the passionate fires in our belly (like painting). Figure out what those real fires are and direct as much as you possibly can towards fueling them. It’s a lot easier to drive a 1987 Honda every day to a place you’re passionate about than a 2005 Prius to a job that you hate.

Commit to a large activity that solely benefits someone or something else.
By this, I basically mean volunteer work. Spend some time with any sort of volunteer project, preferably for the benefit of some group that fuels your passion. Perhaps you can spend some time helping out at a soup kitchen or building a Habitat for Humanity house if you sympathize with the poor, or maybe you can start a small volunteer project at a retirement home if you sympathize with the elderly. I know one person who goes to a VA hospital and reads a chapter out of a novel aloud every day.

Spending time helping disadvantaged people shows you quite often how many blessings you actually have in your everyday life. It might seem devastating to you to not get a promotion, but if you spend a day working to help out sick children at a hospital or building a home for an extremely impoverished family, you’ll quickly see how many things you have going for you in your life.

Set one big goal for a year from now, then break it down into bits you can do each day.
One of the most transformative things a person can do with their own life is to set a really big, audacious goal, break it down into small actionable pieces, and then start knocking off those pieces. For example, let’s say that my goal one year from now is to lose fifty pounds. After talking to my doctor, I might realize that the way to do this is to get twenty minutes of exercise a day and to improve my diet. Thus, I set three tiny goals for every single day: do a twenty minute exercise session, eat more vegetables than anything else, and keep my daily fat intake below 50 grams on any given day. These are my goals, every single day, and I literally write them down everywhere I go.

Over time, each of these little steps contributes to that big goal. The pounds slowly slip away and before I know it, those fifty pounds are gone. That’s a huge milestone, a huge goal set that I’ve reached. Sure, it’s a vast improvement for my health, but the real power of it is that I’ve reached a big, monstrously audacious goal – and I did it myself.

Set a big old goal for yourself for the next year, one that you can achieve through your own actions, then set daily goals to push you slowly each day. Along the way, you’ll not only achieve something big but learn patience – and other things about yourself as well.

Never stop.
You might try everything else in this entire article and find that none of them really work for you. Or, you might find that only one or two work and the rest are rubbish. Never use that as an excuse to not bother to grow as a person. No matter what, seek out things that challenge the fundamentals of what you believe, both about yourself and others. You’ll either reinforce your deeply-held ideas or you’ll discover that perhaps they weren’t as perfect as you believed they were – and both things are incredibly valuable.

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  1. This is a great post to finish out this series. The explosive growth of the personal development blogosphere (my site is just one of thousands of examples of this) is a testament to the fact that many people are trying to improve themselves.

    The biggest problem that I see with people is that they haven’t taken the time to figure out their core values. It’s great that you’ve suggested that as the first thing to do. I personally don’t believe that we have only one overarching life purpose, but I DO believe that we all have values that resonate with us. Pay attention to your response to lots of situations, write those responses down, and after a while you’ll begin to piece together what you fundamentally like and what you want to avoid.

  2. Brent says:

    As for reading challenging books, check out this blog: http://www.200books.com
    Has a lot of interesting ideas.

  3. I think change is a big stumbling block for people but it can be a great way to grow. It’s hard but it’s worth it.

    As for a challenging book that is still entertaining (A MUST for me) check out Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace—it’ll blow you away.

  4. RSA says:

    Are you a Joe Tye fan?

  5. Frugal Dad says:

    A friend told me the other day that she was happy when she finally finished her masters because she didn’t have to “read anything for learning ever again!” How sad. I don’t think we should ever stop learning, or growing, and one of the best ways to get educated on a subject is to read about it.

  6. clevelis says:

    Good points! I love a good challenge. Particularly in the area of reflection, I attempt to take an honest assessment of the year on New Year’s Day and again on my birthday. For the birthday, the focus on how have I truly changed. As my birthday approaches, I just read a great book (The Shack by William Young) that was challenging but excitingly thought provoking. I’ve found that one key for me is that I can be free to change and try new things b/c my core values serve as the paradigm and anchor.

  7. Love your travel suggestion. The Dalai Lama says to visit one new place a year. I think it really serves to open your mind and horizons to how others live, think, and feel.

    I also like your suggestion on exploring other religions. I have a set core of religious beliefs I practice, but it’s been invaluable to learn from other’s religions. It’s really served to better my understanding of the world.

    http://www.theinnovativetraveler.com

  8. Miguel Wickert (Pineiro) says:

    I just started a site covering various topics, among them are personal development. I like the comment about outward focus. It’s great to invest in ourselves, but apart of development and growth is looking outward. I recently found out about this movement called the “Love Alliance.” The aim is to raise awareness of social injustice. Thanks a refreshing post!

  9. Susannah says:

    There are a lot of talented artists, writers, actors and so forth who think they can’t afford to take their creative side seriously. It’s a terrible waste. Part of the problem is that we buy into the “can’t afford the artistic life” business and start sinking into American consumer debt.

    You say your friend would prefer working the art store job. That’s legit, but it treats the art like a hobby or an interest, not a vocation. The focused artist may choose the extra $3 at Home Depot to help afford more studio space, invest in publicity, or save like hell so she can float herself a few months to work. THAT’S focusing on core values. Success as an artist requires taking yourself seriously as an artist. That’s not all it requires, but it’s one of the prerequisites.

  10. Lisa says:

    I think personal growth is what makes life fun, and even bearable, when things aren’t going my way. It’s nice knowing I can change things for the better, that I have the power. Little successes fuel the fire for more growth, so I keep my steps small. My blog is my latest series of steps. I’ve had to break that down into pieces, as it’s quite an undertaking! I applaud your great success here. The seamlessness of it on the surface, shows all the hard work behind it.

    Lisa

  11. Sally says:

    I’m a long time reader but a first time commenter. I just wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed your ‘Investing in Yourself’ series. Thank you!

  12. If you can’t afford to travel to a new place each year, use the internet to take a virtual tour. I use Google Earth to look at the geography, wikipedia to learn about the location, and then I do searches for pictures and videos.

    The internet has become a great tool for life long learning.

  13. Maggie Shaw says:

    Hi Trent. I find this the best entry in this series. Because if you’re not happy with yourself, how can you truly be happy? I find that the times I am happiest are when I am working with Habitat for Humanity. I’ve been doing Global Village trips since 2002 and am co-leading my first team in May.

    I’ve also set a big goal for myself: to compete in a Men’s Health event in September of this year. To do this, I’m working with a trainer and a nutritionist two days per week, and running the other days. I also write down everything I eat and highlite the bad foods (although you have to treat yourself once in a while). Taking this on step further, I’ve typed up a list of goals for the year and taped it to my refrigerator. A constant reminder is a wonderful thing.

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