Friday, January 1, 2010

The Ethics of Personal Growth

Just to keep you guessing... finally a real post. Or something like it. Out of nowhere. Because going out drinking half the night, and sledding, and horseback riding under a blue moon (in the deep drifted snow of this particular winter) eventually wear you down and you find yourself just wanting to stay home with a cup of decaf on a perfectly good Friday night.

So here we are. All the talk of New Year's resolutions, along with the usual critiques of the practice of making New Year's resolutions, that you get this time of year has gotten me thinking. And I've got some questions. And I'm not sure what I think about this. It seems to me that behind all the talk about New Year's resolutions lurks a basic cultural value that is rarely questioned or considered. The belief that personal growth is always good - that one has a perpetual obligation to improve oneself - seems to be one of those foundational beliefs that is so basic and bedrockish that it's virtually invisible to us, and not open to debate. But when you think about it, it's sort of an odd belief. If you were to say it out loud: "personal growth is intrinsically valuable" or "every individual has a daily obligation to improve themselves and grow as a person," people might find it strange and disagree with you.*

And yet, this conception of personal growth seems to drive so many narratives and scripts in our culture. We're constantly being exhorted to lose weight, exercise, read to our kids more, quit smoking, deal with our addictions, talk to our doctor about the newest prescription drug, try out the latest fad diet, get involved in our communities, plant a tree, stop and smell the roses, be more productive, take some "me" time, spend more time with our kids, floss, exfoliate and moisturize, etc. etc. etc. Of course, advertisements often tap into the person growth/self-improvement script, but so do public service announcements and political speeches. Corporate and administrative bodies often exhort their employees and other administerees to perpetually engage in various self-improving activities, and schools embed all kinds of these messages in the curriculum. The result is that we're so thoroughly immersed in it that it's hard to examine and critique it. But when you do, it seems sort of archaic - like it's some sort of Calvinist or Puritan throwback, or the remnants of some Victorian or early capitalist ethic. It conjures up images of social darwinists admonishing the barefoot unwashed masses for their perennial failings in the personal growth and self-improvement departments.

And of course, it's deeply gendered. Women are more often shamed for their failings in all things related to body-image (after all, it's virtuous for women to count calories, while it's gay for men to eat small portions or the wrong kinds of foods...), and the paternalistic tone of admonishments aimed at women is unmatched by those that are aimed at men. This is not to say that men aren't shamed for their own range of failings in the self-improvement department as well.

But besides this issue of the gendered forms it takes, what do we make of this underlying proposition that personal growth is a good unto itself? Is there any reason to believe it? Is there any reason not to believe it? In other areas, the belief that growth is always good has received heightened scrutiny and critique of late. For example, the (probably related) capitalist belief that economic growth is always good has gotten some serious bad press on several fronts. First, there's the famous observation that growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. Which may or may not prove anything (arguments by analogy are notoriously unreliable), but is generally thought to back the claim that unchecked economic growth is environmentally destructive and unsustainable. Within the business world, there's the concern that undirected growth is frequently unsustainable because it can result in unwieldy businesses or systems that lack a clear vision of their objectives and limitations, and are difficult to coordinate, regulate, or direct. So this idea that economic growth is intrinsically good is not as widely accepted as it once was, but the conception of personal growth as intrinsically valuable doesn't seem to have experienced the same kind of scrutiny or fall from grace.

There seems to be a related belief that the absence of growth always amounts to stagnation or decay. And I realize that this is true in many systems in the world around us. But can we extend the metaphor from physical systems, for example, to our mental/ spiritual/ emotional existence? I get the concept of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics and all that. I understand that, from a biological perspective, ceasing to produce new cells, for example, does amount to stagnation and deterioration in a body. But why do we think there has to be some metaphorical connection between our bodies and our minds in this way? As I read the lamentations of commenters on blog posts about New Year's resolutions every year in which they bemoan the fact that they didn't read enough new books, or meet enough new people, or try enough new activities, hobbies, or exercises, that they didn't learn any new recipes or discover any new bands last year, but that this next year they will accomplish some or all of those things, I wonder why we take it for granted that constantly acquiring new experiences is always a good thing (some new experiences just suck, after all), and why we think we must always be stretching and growing at all.

Obviously I'm not saying that new experiences and personal growth are necessarily bad things either. But I wonder if it isn't true that there's a time for growth and new development, but there's also a time for stability and sustaining who you are and what you're doing and sort of settling in for a minute and taking a few comfortable breaths and feeling like you're pretty damn good (or maybe even unbelievably awesome) just the way you are. And I wonder if this is something of a cyclical process, and if the rhythm of this process evolves over the course of a lifetime. After all, we're now coming to appreciate the value of economic stability, which can trump the value of economic growth in certain situations, so why couldn't it also be true concerning personal growth and stability? But if we adhere to the growth vs stagnation dichotomy that seems to be inherent in this chunk of our cultural bedrock, that's not an option. Allowing oneself to take a break from working on one's personal growth is a sign of moral deficiency, and will inevitably result in decay and degradation. And this just seems overly simplistic to me.

On the other hand, perhaps my current conceptualization of this is overly simplistic as well. Maybe it's the case that, as complex beings, we are generally experiencing both personal growth (or decay) and stability at the same time, in different areas. After all, learning to knit or taking up rock climbing tends to cut into your reading time, so perhaps there's just a constant subtle, complex, hard-to-articulate interplay between growth, decay, and stability in everyone's existence.

At any rate, I'm still not sure how to answer the question of whether personal growth is intrinsically valuable. There's something compelling about the claim, and it's certainly very intuitively plausible. But this might just be a result of its prevalence in my culture. On the other hand it seems so normative that it raises red flags for me. And this could just be a feature of my natural contrariness, or a result of my resistance to religious ideologies and conventions. There is a lot of admonishing and exhorting involved in these cultural scripts, after all, and they easily lend themselves to the preachy and judgmental and holier-than-thou side of things. And all of this is just a big turn-off for me because of my religious background. But that doesn't tell us anything about the truth of the proposition, does it? So I'm interested in hearing your thoughts. Is personal growth intrinsically good? And do we have an obligation to pursue personal growth and self-improvement throughout our lives? What do you think?

*Of course, the second statement doesn't necessarily follow from the first: even if we think personal growth is intrinsically valuable, it doesn't mean every person has a moral obligation to pursue it. These are two distinct claims. But in our culture, they tend to be inseparable, so I'll treat them as such in this discussion.


  1. I am going to say yes, growth is intrinsically valuable. But rather than growing for growths sake like some sort of cancer cell, there should be some sort of plan.

    There are plenty of frameworks people could use, in their pure form or by creating their own hybrid.

    You could view personal growth as climbing Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs until you have self-actualized. You could move onto the post-conventional stages of Kolberg's Moral Development. You could strive towards the Aristotelian Means of virtue, or force yourself to become a Nietzschean superman.

    Striving for 'personal growth' is just another way of saying you want to improve yourself. Sometimes people just need some help operationalizing what they are thinking about.

    Now, you mentioned how corporate interest try and drive someones growth... but someone's professional development, or emotional heath, or relationship health or personal health could all be brought underneath the umbrella of personal growth, with the realization that there are synergistic and antagonistic effects between the various types of growth.

  2. Ronnie1/02/2010

    Perhaps nobody stays the SAME as years pass because everything around us changes .. so we may need 'growth' just to stay where we were, I find myself shrinking as time goes on. That is to say, I do less, think less, and something is needed maybe to counter that! Plus, I am going to be changed over time whether I like it or not. May as well call SOME of those changes.

  3. I’ve followed your blog for a few months now, and this prompt finally has me mustering up the courage to formulate a response…here goes.
    I am perpetually restless, so I’ve always valued personal growth for what I know to be selfish reasons. If it’s intrinsically good to constantly change and evolve, then my natural tendency to want to keep moving and throwing myself into challenging circumstances is “good.” But, as so often happens, my mother fundamentally challenged my belief with the simplest of observations a few years ago.

    I formerly maintained that it’s “good” for people to move, not stay in their hometown for their entire lives. First, my mother pointed out what a spoiled brat I was (calling out my privilege for having the means to move, even though she would never use that terminology). Then she went on to maintain that it can be more challenging (“good” in the way I was defining it) to stay in one place and make a go of it.

    All this to point out that I like crave movement, because my natural inclination is to cut and run from my problems. Oh, the wisdom of mothers.

    Since then I’ve reconceptualized the way I think of personal growth, which circumvents a bit of the conflict you’ve laid out. I am striving to grow to the point that you describe as stabilized, being comfortable with my faults, neutralizing them to the extent that I don’t hurt the people I care about and “taking a few comfortable breaths and feeling like I’m pretty damn good just the way I am.” Once I’m truly there, then I won’t be such a work in progress, but a person who sometimes likes new experiences. To me, personal growth is about becoming comfortable with myself, not fundamentally changing who I am.

    Consequently, I stopped envisioning resolutions as ways to change who I am, but to challenge myself to develop hobbies and experiences that I may have been too scared to pursue. My success story seems trite – I took sewing classes – but I was formerly incapable of doing things myself, and I couldn’t find another person who would sign up with me. All I resolved to do was do what I wanted to do, and it was incredibly powerful. It was personal growth…because it made me become a bit more of myself.

    Ok…for a non-commenter, I think I’ve gone on long enough. Thank you for opening up this discussion today.

  4. Meg'n1/03/2010

    I think your version of it where it's a cyclical process where at times we need growth and challenge and at other times we need rest and stability is probably the most compelling. I think the challenge is to tune out the preachy voices that we're programmed to respond to with guilt (at least as women) and negative self-talk. It's also telling to me when these themes are picked up by commercial interests (24 Hour Fitness, anyone?) and the whole guilt and moral obligation to constantly improve yourself thing becomes just another advertising mechanism.

  5. Interesting questions posed in this post.

    As I am in the midst of writing a book about women's relationship with power, titled "Unlimited," and thus am currently viewing everything through that lens, my thoughts are admittedly skewed. However, I think for me the answer lies in defining the term "personal growth" to mean "intention." Growing with intention seems good to me, akin to what Steven suggests when he says "growth with a plan." It is purposefully using one's power to achieve something of meaning to the individual and perhaps even something positive for the world.

    Personal growth that simply encourages us to look inward at our own navels becomes quickly boring. That's why I have always had limited patience for much of the popular self-awareness psycho-babble that makes a bazillion dollars for its purveyors.

    But personal growth that gives more knowledge or a bigger vision about something I feel passionate about or greater opportunities to accomplish things I might not have been able to do before--bring it on!

    Also, I have found that changing jobs, especially late in life, brings an amazing amount of growth by clearing out the cobwebs in the brain, and that makes room for the growth of fresh ideas.

    Kathleen Turner says "Never repeat your successes." And she rarely repeats the type of role she has done in the past, always likes to try something new and different so that people don't typecast her and she doesn't stop, well, growing her acting skill.

    So I'd err on the side of saying personal growth is always good when done with intention.

  6. Wow, this is a heckuva way to return to writing "real" posts.

    I think that the key to all of this is being honest with ourselves about where we are, and becoming good at self-reflection. If we were all really clear and honest about where we were then we would be better at this directed growth that everyone else is invoking (and which I agree with), and we'd also be better at recognizing when things are good and it's a good time to relax a bit.

  7. Written like a true philosopher.

    I think this is another example of capitalism co-opting valuable concepts (the colonization of the lifeworld, perhaps?). Probably what you're reacting to is this feature, combined with the paternalistic tone that self-improvement talk often takes. And then it gets hard to separate out the sincere desire to grow and develop from the social/commercial pressure to do so.

    On a related note, I think the pressure for self-improvement on men has increased in the last few years. And this seems to be totally a product of the commercialization aspect of it.

  8. Sienna1/05/2010

    I think there's also a tension between the pressure for women to care for others but neglect themselves (which makes the push to focus on yourself kind of attractive) on the one hand, and the paternalistic tone of the self-improvement rhetoric (which makes it very unattractive) on the other hand. You've noted before that you think self-care is a feminist act, but when it's packaged in this preachy, paternalistic form, you revolt against it. At least that's how it seems to me, and it's why I'm not comfortable with a lot of the rhetoric.

  9. Vanaya1/05/2010

    But isn't there a difference between self-care and personal growth or self-improvement? Maybe sometimes self-care just amounts to letting yourself settle in and feel OK about things just the way they are for awhile.

  10. Anonymous1/05/2010

    Fabulous, fabulous post. It's almost like you made a New Year's resolution to start writing ass-kicking posts again.

  11. And now the big push is for women to get more sleep. Apparently some study (funded by the pharma company that makes ambien) has found that women are more sleep-deprived than men. Which I can totally believe. But instead of pointing out that women who work outside the home do twice as much domestic labor, and pressuring men to get off their asses and help, the response is to shame women and pressure them to get more sleep. As if they're just being ornery and choosing not to get enough sleep! Sheesh.

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