Professional vs. Personal Growth

IMG_1911Today, we're looking at professional vs. personal growth. Here's the thing: professional growth is hard.  Personal growth is incredibly hard.  I've noticed that when working at generating change in my professional life, there a number of external factors that hold me accountable and even require that growth.  If I was told to take a project management course, there wasn't much standing in the way of me simply doing that.  After all, it didn't require me to change who or how I was being - simply to take a course and learn some new tools.

In fact what I have generally observed is that employers shy away from asking someone to change how they are being, instead focusing on what they are doing.  If who you are being at work is insufficient to get the required job done, the prevailing attitude is that it was best to simply let you go.

Let's contrast this with my own experience in personal growth.  There is no one invested in me learning and changing how I show up with people, aside from myself.  In fact, most people probably won't even notice, as the overt changes will be subtle and gradual.  There is also no immediate consequence to me changing.  Let me provide an example.

Two years ago, I was working for the Department of Justice in Vancouver.  I was shy and nervous around new people.  While, on the surface, I was talkative and engaging, I was always managing a story that I was ultimately inadequate and that if given enough time in silence or conversation with me, people would reach this conclusion themselves and walk away.  (What I later learned was that I desperately wanted connection.  Ironically, the very ways I tried to manage my fears were also preventing me from having this with people).

As a result of this pattern of being, i didn't really connect with the people I was working with, other than on a superficial level.  I decided to run an experiment: from that day forward, I had to make eye-contact with every single person I ran into as I walked down the street.  If they returned the eye-contact, I would either smile or nod to them.  I didn't realize it at the time, but this would be my first ever practice in service of generating connection.

So, let's go back to my original point.  If I chose not to make eye-contact with the people I passed in the street for a day, no one would know.  No one would be there to hold me accountable or call me out.  Further, were there really any consequences to not doing so?  It's not like I would lose my job or upset my wife if I didn't take on this practice for the day.

I could also cheat at it.  I could quickly look in their eyes and then look away as fast as possible when I saw that they weren't looking at me.  I could create a whole bunch of stories, excuses and explanations for why, this time, it wasn't really about me and I hadn't failed in my practice.

The most significant shift that this practice generated was not really about what I was doing.  The act of looking at people in the eyes as you walk down the street is not necessarily ground-breaking.  But, it did change who I was being.  It required a shift from being closed, protected, and controlling, to being open, vulnerable, and connected.

This shift has made a significant difference in my life - opening up my ability to be with someone new that I've met, instead of staying over here in my head.  It's allowed me to show up more powerfully as a coach, by allowing me to let go of my own concerns, and be fully present with the client.  It's allowed me to show up more powerfully as a human being in every situation.  Without having to worry so much about how I am perceived, I'm free to simply be.  Doing has lost some of its focus in my life (I say "some" because it is an ongoing journey).

Here's the thing - none of this shift was necessary.  I would remain a great coach without having done this kind of work.  I would have continued to be successful in the practice of law without learning to be more vulnerable and open.  In fact, all of my survival mechanisms and protection measures have served me very well in life up until this point.  And they would continue to do so.  I was by no means suffering from a lack of success.  And there's the crux of personal growth: whatever you have been doing up to this point has gotten you to where you are.  If you want to keep making incremental improvements and getting "better", there is no reason to generate personal transformation.  It's unnecessary.  In fact, it may even be to your detriment if you want to stay right where you are.  Making these kinds of changes might actually require letting go of some of the strategies you've used so far in life in order to get where you are.

Personal change and growth only become necessary when you want to take on something that is outside of your current horizon of possibilities - when you want to achieve something that currently impossible given your present circumstances.  They are only necessary when the thing you want to generate in your life requires you to be someone different than you currently are.

So, until next week, here's the question for you to ponder:

  • What would I be doing, if there were no barriers, no limitations, and no issues with achieving it.  If I didn't have to worry about how I actually did it, what would I be doing with my life?  Is that thing possible from my current circumstances?  If so, think bigger.  Go big.  Dream huge.