What is personal development (and what it’s not!)

Reaching your potential - personal development

For decades now, personal development has been one of the biggest industries out there. People are buying books, signing up for master classes, online courses and attending retreats. All in the pursuit of learning, growing… and of course, developing. But what exactly is personal development?

Personal development is a way to better understand yourself, your unique personality and potentials, your strengths and weaknesses, your aspirations and your talents.

Eva Lu, Mind of a Winner

What is considered personal development?

Personal development and personal growth are the same thing. And I would take Eva’s quote above one step further. Yes, it’s about understanding yourself, but it is also about improving. Whether that is realising your potential, increasing your strengths and diversifying to safeguard against your weaknesses, or nurturing your natural talents. Let’s dig into this a little deeper!

The three aspects of personal growth

Sometimes we have a tendency to overcomplicate things. You know… the 5 steps, the 4 methods or the ten best techniques to develop yourself. But it’s much more simple than that. The areas of ourselves that we can develop and grow can be grouped into three basic areas: mind, body and spirit. The minute we complicate things, it can feel out of reach or overwhelming.

And it’s just not.

This is something everyone can do.

Personal development quote "do something great"


Mind relates to learning and cultivating a positive mindset. Through education we can develop not only our knowledge, but also our understanding of the world around us. And by cultivating a positive mindset, we focus our attention on the growth-related aspects such as abundance, persistence  and gratitude. 


Body relates to our physical being, and recognises the very real connection between a healthy mind and body. When we develop a strong, healthy, supple body (as best we can) we are able to enjoy life more fully and this supports our personal development in other areas.


And finally, spiritual growth is about developing our connections with others, with our faith or religion, or simply nurturing our connection with Mother Nature. We can only best understand ourselves when we can see ourselves in relation to those around us.

We achieve happiness and meaning through creating, relating and expressing ourselves, and by focusing on improving these three areas of ourselves, mind, body and spirit, we can achieve this is a balanced way. 

Related Post: A beginner’s guide to mindfulness to bring more balance to your life.

Why is personal development important?

There is a famous quote by Tony Robbins – “if we are not growing, we are dying”. It’s an observation of the natural world around us, and brings us right down to basics. 

We are born, we grow and we die. 

Sometimes it can feel that we get to a certain stage in life (and this could be different for everyone). Whether it’s when you are 20, 30, 40, 50 or even older, and you might feel like that’s it. You’ve been educated, you’ve become an adult and now you know all you need to know. 

And what’s wrong with this? You’ve worked hard to get there, right?

The thing is when we stop learning and growing, we also lose our curiosity and open mindedness. And these are really important elements of living a happy and fulfilled life. Not to mention, no one likes the grumpy old man who knows everything and can’t be told they are wrong! 

Let’s look back at the three elements above: mind, body and spirit.

When we stop working on learning and challenging our perspective of the things around us and the thoughts in our head, we can fall into the trap of negative thinking or false assumptions. And the longer they remain, the stronger they become. They build neural pathways that become stronger each time they are used, and harder to break.

Similarly with our body, when we stop using and exercising our muscles we all know they will atrophy and become weak.

And when we stop nurturing and developing our spiritual side, we lose the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding and faith. 

And (as promised) what personal development is not!

Now that we’ve looked at what personal development  is and why it’s important, let’s look at what it’s not. 

Becoming a better version of yourself

This may be a controversial call – but hear me out. Imagine, for a moment, that you’re watching a toddler navigate a single step up to the front door. It might be your own child, or a niece or nephew, or you can just imagine any toddler. They are about 18 months. Just a few months ago, they were learning to roll around the floor and in a few more months they’ll be stumbling forward in awkward staggered steps as they learn to walk.

Today, they are just navigating a single step, scooting their bottom forward, stretching out a little chubby leg to find a stable surface. They are 100% in the throws of learning and developing, and show surprising commitment to practising the movement over and over again. 

Are they a ‘better version’ than the baby that just months earlier was rolling sideways and backwards across the floor? No. Just more developed. Are they any less than their two-year old self who will be boldly walking in any given direction the minute they master their legs? Again, no.

All versions are fabulous. Genuine. Just right. 

Over the next few years, walking, running, hopping and skipping are all diligently practised and developed until these actions are second nature.

But the development doesn’t end there. The brain goes through its own development phases, sometimes developing more complex connections, sometimes shaking everything up and ditching some of those connections to get ready for the next stage of development.

And it’s a process that continues until we die. 

Personal development quote "trust in the you of now"

So no, I don’t think personal development is about becoming a better version of ourselves. It is about pursuing greater happiness and fulfillment in our lives to best enjoy life. Which leads me to the second “what it’s not!”.

An end in itself.

Personal development is simply a means to an end. The skills you might develop, or the plans you make to improve your education, they don’t make you a better person. They just give you the tools to delve deeper into this life, and our relationships with each other. And, as I said above, this in turn allows us to find greater happiness and fulfillment in life.

Related post: Finding your happiness.

Ready to jump in?

Personal development examples

Medium.com has a great article 21 Examples of Personal Development Goals for a Better You, which is a good place to start getting some ideas.

Or you’ll find more practical goals at 9 Examples of Personal Development Goals.

And if you’re ready to jump right in and set some personal goals, check out my post on how to write a SMART goal that works for you.

Personal development books

If you want to spend a little more time learning about this idea first, personal development books are a great way to expand your understanding of personal growth and re-assess how you see yourself.

In general, some of the older (20th century) books talk about the power of the mind, and how our thoughts do not define who we are. And in the later 21st century books you’ll read more about questioning and pushing back a little on societal constructs such as what is ‘expected of us’, or what success looks like. For example, Tim Ferriss turns the 40-hour work week on it’s head and Liz Gilbert urges us to let go of our preconceived ideas of creativity and inspiration, imagining that ‘ideas’ have their own life force.

My top ten favourite personal growth books (in no particular order!):

  • Think and Grow Rich – Napoleon Hill
  • The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, live anywhere and join the new rich – Timothy Ferriss
  • Awaken the giant within: How to take immediate control of your mental, emotional, physical and financial destiny – Tony Robbins
  • Big Magic: Creative living beyond fear – Elizabeth Gilbert
  • The Four Agreements: A practical guide to personal freedom – Don Miguel Ruiz
  • Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the rich teach their kids about money that the poor and middle class do not! – Robert Kiyosaki
  • Who Moved my Cheese: An amazing way to deal with change in your work and in your life – Spencer Johnson
  • As a Man Thinketh – James Allen
  • The Science of Success – Wallace Wattles
  • Super Accelerated Living: How to manifest an epic life – Bentinho Massaro (although this one is not for the faint-hearted. If you’re new to the idea of personal development, I’d recommended one of the other books. This is advanced, but I personally found it life-changing so I wanted to include it here.)


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