For almost 100 years, personal development has been a cultural attribute of American society. Alternatively known as self-help, self-improvement, and self-growth, personal development is both a cultural phenomena as well as an individual practice. It often approaches the commitment of religious faith. While certainly not limited to America, it is not surprising that the self-improvement movement began here. Pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps and the American ideal of the self-made man inspire millions to better their lot in life by changing the one thing they can really control – themselves.
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From the 1930s Napoleon Hill classic, “Think and Grow Rich”, to the Tony Evans cult phenomena including fire walking and ‘neuro-linguistic reprogramming’, the personal development movement has come a long ways. What began with cliché catch phrases such as “Every day and in every way I am getting better and better” and the faith-healing movements of Mary Baker Eddy has transformed itself into a multi-billion dollar industry. Included in this movement are ministers doubling as positive-thinking gurus, media celebrities, personal development courses that cost thousands of dollars, and millions of ordinary people hoping to transform themselves into the people they dream of becoming.
At the core of the personal development movement is the belief that one can change one’s life by changing oneself. Of course, this presupposes that one wishes to changes oneself, that one aspires to a higher place in life. This means different things for different people. Some simply wish to find peace, contentment and happiness. Others wish to become blindingly rich, or well known and successful in their field or trade. The common denominators among all of those who have chosen a course of personal development are these: A wish to change one’s life, a desire to change oneself, and the belief that it is, in fact, possible to do so.
The beliefs of those who embrace personal development are not, however, unique to the modern age. Long ago, in the wisdom of the ancients, it was recognized that we, to a certain extent, shape our external reality by our inner reality. The author of Proverbs, whom many assume to be King Solomon, wrote over 3000 years ago: “As a man thinks, so he becomes”. The Buddha, only a few centuries later, observed much the same thing – that we shape the circumstances of our external reality by our own minds. If our intention is to change our external reality, and we are willing to make the interior changes required to make it so, then it is indeed possible to transform our lives by transforming ourselves.
Many would see the above statements as simply common sense – and they are. The rub is this – changing ourselves is not easy. Habits of mind become entrenched, and many, no matter how hard they try, seem unable to break through the barrier imposed by their own mental conditioning. Yet enough success stories exist to prove that it is possible. We are neither slaves to our past, nor need we remain subject to it. We are not bound by the prison of self – we can indeed transcend our own limitations, whether self-created or imprinted on our minds in our youth.
This is what the personal development industry is all about. Despite the criticism that the industry is only selling false hopes and dreams to people, the facts are these: Thousands if not millions of people have pulled themselves out of hopelessly miserable circumstances and transformed their lives. From the homeless girl who earned her way into Harvard, to plane crash victims told by doctors they would never walk again – but did – there are countless examples of people who did the impossible.
There are undoubtedly charlatans in the personal development industry, just as there are in politics, schools and our churches. Yet the core principles of the movement are simple – by transforming our minds and our hearts, we change our lives. Ultimately, these principles are fundamental to most of the world’s Religions. What the personal development movement has done is abstracted these core human behavioral principles from the context of the supernatural and restated them in ordinary terms.
For those who put them into practice, these principals do work. Yet it does take time, faith and effort. To transform one’s life takes more than just positive thinking; one needs to see and experience the truth of things, as they are. A large part of the success of those who succeed is that they faced overwhelming odds – and the choice of either having faith that things could change, or accepting defeat. Instead, they chose to believe – and were triumphant in conquering their external circumstances and recreating their lives after the image they had implanted fervently in the center of their own minds.
For personal development to truly succeed, one needs a burning vision of what is possible. Then, one needs a plan of action, in order to make that vision manifest in the here and now. Finally – and this is where many people get stuck – one needs a transformation of the heart as well as the mind.
If one’s heart is closed off in bitterness to the world, to other people, and to one’s own self and true nature, all the positive thinking in the world will not help. In these cases, it is best to begin with a transformation of the heart – and a vision that such a transformation is possible. One needs to have faith in the ultimate goodness of life and humanity, and forgive the failings of others as well as one’s own failings.
From this point of interior transformation, one can then begin the pursuit of happiness in earnest. Focus on the vision of what, for you, is your perfect life. Study from those who have succeeded in personal development. Learn from them how to create a plan that will make your vision manifest. Finally, open up your heart to the reality that the Universe is a place of infinite possibilities, of endless love. We were made for Eternity; we were also made with the potential to experience the joy of Eternity in the here and now.