What is personal development?

Personal development starts with self-awareness.
Personal development starts with self-awareness.

A colleague of mine asked an intimidatingly simple question: what is personal development? Reflecting on my own experiences, my error was working on “the how” before I had an understanding of “the why.” Of course at the time I thought I was doing the right thing, and this realization didn’t come until I had the luxury of hindsight. Below are the three steps I’d suggest following sequentially to develop your character and enjoy life’s experiences more fully at work and at home. I hope you find them helpful.

  1. Expanding your self-awareness
  2. Defining who you are and where you’re going
  3. Building proficiency and perspective

Expanding your self-awareness

A fundamental and easily overlooked step in personal development is learning to see yourself more objectively. Ironically, what is obvious to the people we interact with all day can be completely surprising and intimidating to ourselves. Once we overcome the irrational fear and judgement associated with this, what we learn can be powerful. True North, What got you here won’t get you there, and Emotional Intelligence are references that cover self-awareness. Here are a few techniques to help expand your self-awareness:

  • Start by asking your colleagues and friends to share more feedback with you about how you “show up” in different situations.
  • To make this less intimidating, try asking them “how you would describe working with me to a new employee in our office?”
  • If your job involves giving presentations or speaking to groups, try recording video of yourself and watching it later.
  • Right after particularly stressful, frustrating, or exciting situations–anything at one end or another of your emotional range–try to recall your thought process that lead to certain decisions or reactions.

Defining who you are and where you’re going

A greater sense of self-awareness should give you choices. You’ll have the choice of how to define your values and priorities, and choose the direction you take in life. Of course you can’t fake who you are, but with greater self-awareness comes greater control in a range of situations and the ability to “dial up” the attributes that will help you most on the path you choose. One resource I have found helpful in establishing a purpose is The Way of the Superior Man (Deida has also written books for women). Never forget that the path you choose is ultimately up to you: any constraints that appear to stand in your way can be removed. Here are some questions to help you reflect on who you are and where you’re going?

  • When you have a great day, what makes it great? What is the worst part of a bad day?
  • List your favorite three people to spend time with. What draws you to them? How would you develop those attributes in yourself?
  • Take the memory stick test to understand what rewards motivate you
  • Try to write your obituary (very difficult!). How do you want to be remembered?

Building proficiency and perspective

The final phase of personal development is deepening your capability to excel in the role you’ve chosen in order to fulfill your purpose. This is transition between personal and professional development. Depending on the profession or role you choose, different journal articles, associations, and books will be helpful to deepen your knowledge. I’ve compiled a list of my favorites on professional services and sales from my stint in consulting.

I hope this overview provokes your thinking. How has your personal development experience compared to this? Did you answer different questions, or in a different order?

The most overlooked resolution: do more of what you do best

Maybe you are part of the 55% of Americans who don’t make New Year’s resolutions, or maybe you are instead part of the 8% who self-report as being successful in achieving them. Losing weight, saving money, spending more time with family are all popular resolutions. Reading these statistics about New Year’s resolutions prompted me to observe that because most resolutions involve change, we are overlooking a powerful way to improve our lives: resolving to do more of what we do best.


We all have a number of strengths, and focusing our resolutions (New Year related or otherwise) solely on the aspects of ourselves we wish to change risks spending precious time and energy on efforts that may not make much of a difference in our lives overall. Think of it as re-balancing your portfolio of personal attributes: you might achieve a higher overall return by investing more in your stars and not waste more time and fees fiddling with the dogs.

Cover of "Strengths-Based Leadership"
Some personal development pundits have suggested this approach as well, most notably Tom Rath’s book Strengths Based Leadership. I’m not suggesting you put on rose-colored glasses and ignore the aspects of your life you’d like to change. Often the act of writing it down and creating some accountability by telling others your resolution can help spark the change. But don’t overlook the aspects of your personal or professional life that you can resolve to do even more of, and have an even happier New Year (just don’t greet anyone with that phrase in March!).