Personal development: why all the fuss?

Eve, Le Blog Best Practices, Personal development

The personal development market is booming: self-help books are enjoying double-digit growth; 30% to 40% of corporate training budgets are spent on coaching; there’s an exponential boom in offers of advice promising to transform stress into positive energy, to boost self-confidence, restore balance, connect body and mind, find peace in your relationship to your inner self, gain serenity or find wisdom, express your assertiveness and ability to communicate effectively, follow your true vocation, stay motivated and reveal your hidden sources of energy, inspire and nourish your creativity, unleash boldness, love yourself and even find true happiness…

Where does the need for all this personal development come from? Is it a twenty-first century invention designed to cope with the challenges we face in our extraordinary world? We take a look at current trends, personal development through history, the various reasons for the keen interest it generates, and then look at the issue from a more critical angle.


A practical philosophy based on well-being, for yourself and for others

Personal development could be defined as self-study designed to improve your attitude to life, to make you feel better on a personal level, and to improve your relationships with those around you.

The practical aspect here is key: personal development involves concrete advice and tips, and spotlights experience as a way of appropriating the tools to achieve well-being.

From personal guidance (such as coaching) to interaction using the “mirror effect” (such as mentoring) through to organizational methodologies (such as GTD) and experiential workshops to generate “light-bulb moments”, as well as more meditative approaches (mindfulness, for example), personal development means finding practical help to change your outlook on life, or even to completely transform it.


An overview of current personal development trends

Think positive!

“Modern” personal development can be traced back to psychotherapeutic methods derived from behaviorism. Its resurgence first came about in the 1950s, when Pastor Norman Vincent Peale created the concept of “positive thinking” and enjoyed enormous success with his book on the subject, published in 1952 (The Power of  Positive Thinking).

His idea is to encourage people to see the glass as being half full (and eliminate any frustrations that a half-empty glass may be causing): stop moaning, start counting your blessings, appreciate the simple things in life, etc. It makes you better company, as well as bringing about a genuine feeling of improved well-being, and goes along the same lines as the Coue method or autosuggestion techniques.

Forty years later, positive psychology went further, promising fulfillment or even pure happiness to those looking to enhance their quality of life by targeting strengths, aligning values with interests and skills, nurturing empathy and an ability to show compassion (towards yourself and towards others) by accepting and acknowledging emotions and developing resilience.

Find your real “me”!

Transactional analysis, which in the 1960s derived from Jung’s work on archetypes, highlights the relationships between various egos (the internalized parent that represents morality, the inner child who expresses emotions and the conscious adult who exercises self-control with rationality): our individuality is complex and multi-facetted, it is developed through internal tension and if we are to find peace and improve our relationships with others, we need to be able to encourage our various “selves” to talk to one another in order to build and hone our authentic self.

Develop your soft skills to achieve your goals in life!

During the 1970s, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) established a difference between knowing and being: having the skills required in a job description and/or being able to meet standard social expectations is not enough to succeed in life; you also need to develop relational skills, emotional intelligence, and to build and develop an open attitude. To do that, you need to start by taking a look in the mirror at your deep self, fight against the beliefs that can hold you back, and get on with finding ways to meet your own needs, aspirations and interests.

In Daniel Levinson’s “seasons of life” theory, he highlights the importance of having a Dream (with a capital D), the ambition to become the person you idealize. You should then channel all your resources into achieving this life goal. Here, personal development means success!

If we showed more acceptance, would we engage better?

The third generation of cognitive and behavioral therapies questions this somewhat euphoric view of the superpowers that can be achieved using positive thinking (whose ability to “chase away” negative thoughts has actually not been proven). These third generation therapies aim to move away from a pushy style of personal development that uses overwhelming imperatives: “Dare!” “Move!” “Change!” “Boost!” etc.

In addition, by setting happiness and success on a pedestal as goals, all some approaches to personal development achieve is nurture a culture of outperformance, and merely steer the competition into the playing field of well-being.

As a result, movements such as ACT are now setting out to encourage people to give up trying to improve yourself, and start accepting yourself, just as you are, with all your faults, fears, “negative” thoughts, contradictions, and inner chaos, and to focus on eliminating it all so you are no longer held back and can engage fully with yourself (i.e. get on with projects that are important to you). It’s not about transforming your weaknesses into strengths, but about moving forward with them, focusing on your values (i.e. what really matters to you). 

Epicureanism: pleasure and virtue, the formula for happiness

As long ago as the third century BC, Epicurus separated the negative from the positive in everyone, and his philosophy had no small impact on positive psychology. Epicurus saw happiness as the pursuit of pleasures that draw your attention away from frustration and suffering.

He seems to be heading for hedonism, but is stopped short at the importance he places on virtue. Seeking out your own happiness to the detriment of others is therefore pointless, and can cause harm or sacrifice their well-being.

So you need to strike a balance between the quest for your own fulfillment and the importance of other people. The spirit of “consciousness”, the “search for meaning” and the sense of “responsibility” we talk often about now owe much to the Epicurean philosophy that connects individual happiness with relational ecology.

Thinking for yourself, opening yourself up to the world with Marcus Aurelius

Five centuries after Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius shared his thoughts in his Meditations, a collection of personal writings and epigrams tackling the issues of personal reflection, duty to others, the strength required to overcome trials, the meaning of life, and much more.

Some quotes from his work have a heftier impact than any commentary on Marcus Aurelius’ philosophy could have; his contributions to contemporary personal development include: “He who lives in harmony with himself lives in harmony with the universe” (Non Violent Communication), “Never value anything as profitable that compels you to break your promise, to lose your self-respect” (Self esteem), “Before you speak, show on your face what are going to say” (Non-verbal communication), “It is peculiar to man to love even those who have offended him” (Resilience), “No man is tired of receiving what is useful. But it is useful to act according to nature. Do not then be tired of receiving what is useful by doing it to others” (Giving and receiving), “Develop independence within yourself at all times, with kindness, simplicity and modesty” (Empowerment), “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to enjoy” (Positive Psychology), “To understand the true quality of people, look into the minds” (Empathy), “How much time he saves who does not look to see what his neighbor says” (Decision-Making Biases), “Kindness is invincible” (Benevolence).

Pascal and the quest to find the meaning of life

Let’s now fast forward to the 17th century and take a look at the works of Pascal, a philosopher with a solid reputation as a methodological mathematician who had a famous spiritual experience that made him an ardent convert to spirituality, and led him to develop a philosophy on the meaning of existence. In his Pensées (Thoughts; 1669), Pascal states that there are three orders of things: the flesh (which calls our attention to physical needs), the spirit (which calls our attention to reason), and the will (which calls our attention to emotions and relationships with others).

We can obviously only aspire to get as close as possible to achieving these goals by striving to bring together these three orders. Any approach to personal development that highlights inner reconciliation or focuses on worrying less about other people’s judgments, owes a great deal to Pascal.

Spinoza: finding happiness through ethics

Moving a few yards along the shelves of the philosophy library and we come across Ethics by Spinoza. Now presented as the leading philosopher of happiness that every Chief Happiness Officer should know inside out, Spinoza was an evangelist of eudaemonism, the fortunate encounter between listening to your own desires, the basic aspiration to enjoy freedom and the longing to play a role in the world by contributing to collective progress.

The cornerstone of the Spinozist theory is the power of joy: we need to experience pure enjoyment, as fleeting as it may be, if we are to become intensely happy. If you can find satisfaction in everyday life, you are better equipped to cope with difficulties, and most importantly, you are stronger and more inspired to get out and do more things.


What explains the current personal development craze?

Fast and incessant changes in our environments…

This non-exhaustive mapping of modern personal development trends and the philosophical inspirations on which they are based serves only to underline the common sense idea that everyone wants to feel good about themselves and in the company of others.

But this doesn’t explain the current craze for personal development, and its incredible commercial success. What has changed so much over the last two decades that so many of us now need to worry about our happiness and the meaning of our existence in the world? Big, rapid changes in all our environments (work, family, society, etc.), of course!

… A loss of direction

We used to have fairly stable benchmarks to determine what made us someone and what we had to do with (and make of) our life. Now everything is called into question: we used to know more or less what success meant: and we now realize that having a good job, a good salary, and a good social position is less realistic than it was, and may not be as satisfying as it looks. We used to have professional goals to achieve and processes to guide us on the way, and now we are being asked to learn agility and soft skills; we used to know and be in control (more or less) of the codes in relationships between genders, generations and cultures, and now inclusion is essential if we are to follow the movements of the economy and society, which forces us to take a look at how we perceive of our own gender, age, and culture, not to mention our relationships with other people.

More and more discomfort zones and experiences

On top of all that, these exhausting, incessant, and detailed transformations require huge effort! The idea of taking a break from it all, finding inspiration, taking a step back is appealing. We’d also like easy solutions we can use on a daily basis, right now, in this chaotic world that brings us so much discomfort several times a day. This urgent need to find ourselves, and the craze for personal development, is a symptom of the vastly changing world we live in.


Constructive criticism of personal development

Can we really achieve the impossible?

But what does personal development really have to offer, given the massive challenges involved in the social, economic and cultural transformations that are affecting 7 billion people in their quest for identity and satisfying relationships?

An optimistic answer could be to quote Gandhi, who said “If you want to change the world, start with yourselfOr Beethoven who invited the bells in his tower to chime to enchant the world…

We can also avoid coming down on one specific side or another by backing the common good theories (including that of Elinor Ostrom, the one and only woman to have received a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences), which counter the idea that what benefits a group is the sum of individual interests: as there is no “invisible hand” to bring individual interests in line with one another (though that statement may disappoint Adam Smith’s supporters), there are certainly no guarantees that 7 billion people with improved work-life balance, clearer aspirations, and better grounding will be able to rise to huge collective challenges such as world peace, the fight against climate change, or the eradication of extreme poverty.

“Hummingbirds” against global inflammation?

Indeed, personal development comes in for the same criticism as “micro-change”, which calls the succession of small-scale initiatives “harmless marginalities”. Can we really change the world by sowing tiny pebbles, stop rivers from overflowing by diverting gushing water into small streams, extinguish wildfire by collecting drops of water brought to us by well-meaning “hummingbirds”?

The reference to the hummingbirds, which is taken from a story popularized by Pierre Rabhi who encourages everyone to “do their bit”, also comes in for some criticism: after a period of diligent work investigating the ideological foundations of Rabhi’s theories and their effect on mentalities, the journalist Jean-Baptiste Malet claims that the idea is “a form of non-political, spiritualistic and individualistic ecology”. By “non-political ecology” it must be understood that behind the promise that we can all “do our bit” through individual actions, there is a risk that coming together as a group to back a global social project will appear less important. Placing the blame on the “spiritualism” of the Hummingbird movement, Malet points out some potential, and reactionary, wrong moves, which he believe prove Rabhi’s essentialist position on gender, or his fierce opposition to homosexual marriage, that Rabhi considers “dangerous for the future of humanity”.

So might this form of “individualism” lead to a more worrying outcome? By selecting where exactly people want to “do their bit”, and develop “soft skills” that correspond to their personal values, aren’t individuals demonstrating a certain selfishness in their (well-meaning) determination to contribute to a better world? To what extent are individuals prepared to set aside their own interests to benefit the common good? And aren’t these individuals, those who are satisfied with their own development, likely to somehow become “numb” to their own sense of well-being in the face of power struggles and systemic inequalities that leave others less comfortable, or even suffering?

The benefit of interaction between personal development and psycho-sociology 

A non-binary answer to this concern about individual action taking precedence over collective action is perhaps to be found in the overlap between personal development and psycho-sociology. This discipline, which studies the interactions between individuals and the socio-cultural context in which they evolve combines the transformation of people and organizations: it encourages influencers, leaders and other role models to be exemplary in how they handle change: limiting decision-making biases, practicing inclusive management, ensuring a good work-life balance, humility, and so on.

Those who practice this approach and strive to establish and nurture an environment that allows everyone to be the best they can, contribute to personal development for all, and the quality of an entire ecosystem. And there we find a breeding ground for successful future managers, trained in soft skills and aware of their responsibilities in the transformation process that is not only shaking up the entire world as we know it, but also bringing countless exciting opportunities…


Marie Donzel, for the EVE webmagazine. Translated from French by Ruth Simpson.