For the past ten years I have been working on the connection of personal development and sustainable development. My theory is that in order to create a more beautiful world, we need to develop as human beings, to heal ourselves and to grow inwardly. An adequate summary of my idea is: when we become better, more whole and healthy human beings, we create a better, more whole and healthier planet to live on.
Although at the beginning of what became my life’s project, I felt like I am the only person on this whole fucking planet in this line of thinking, I soon discovered that basically the whole fucking planet does. So it’s not really my idea. Some popular authors in this field are Joana Macy, Charles Eisenstein, …. The political theory of metamodernism is based on the idea that we need to develop as humans in order to have a functioning world.
After years of research and very few empirical evidence, I started to wonder if what I am working on is really true. My doubts were triggered through personal experience: I have worked on“developing” myself for a similarly long time as southpark has been around (video of Southpark). And at the same time I deeply cared about sustainability and the planet. It was already at the forefront of my thinking. The basics were covered. I should be the most perfect habitant on this planet, being all sustainable and all.
Yet, although I learned a lot about myself, personal development didn’t much change my behaviour. What ended up changing my behaviour was when I decided to change my behaviour, despite what kind of person I am. I didn’t become a better or wiser person, life didn’t become a fairytale in which my dog turned into a unicorn. Life kept being good and shitty AND I became more sustainable. In areas in which I did make substantial changes already, I eventually made those decisions by no particular means.
Tying personal development to sustainable development can become a trap: namely the idea that we only need to develop as human beings and the world will be all fairytales and unicorndogs.
This doesn’t mean that personal development has no place in the world. So let’s look at why personal development makes sense and when it doesn’t.
What it can’t do
Make us super-humans.
We are not the first once with this idea. Many spiritual and religious endeavours strive for enlightenment so that everything is amazing and love. Wealth promised us the same thing. So did the job as a start-up entrepreneur. So does losing weight. They are all based on the simple idea, that once we reach X life becomes awesome, when what is more true is, that we reach X and life remains more or less the same.
The idea of a more beautiful world is an illusion.We human beings have been around for a decade or so. And although apparently cultural differences exist, we are still more or less the same. For better or worse. Humans didn’t change or evolve much, man. We are still good and bad at the same time. We are still largely directed by the parts of our brain that is often referred to as our animal brain. Philosophers from 3.000 years ago asked the same questions about a good life that people ask today. For a very long time, we have been smart enough to ask the big questions. But not to answer them.
Change how we feel.
No matter what the world is we create, we will always feel more or less the same. There will be no happily ever after. There might be different struggles, maybe higher order struggles. But it will feel more or less the same. Ask someone in Germany 700 years ago how they would feel in a world where they have a heater, running water, internet, and as many hamburgers as they wanted. They would be psyched. Yet, their life very likely didn’t feel much different from our own. Many people today think the other way around: how happy people must have been without hamburgers, internet, running water and heaters.
No matter what happens we remain to be the same humans. No matter what happens, we are still the same people, with the same flaws, and the same struggles.
Personal Development makes sense as a virtue in itself. To be a better human for and to others. It is not though that we become an enlightened species reaching new levels of being. We remain humans.
Lead to anything.
Personal development is not directional. We like to play the mental game of striving, becoming, and developing because it makes us feel that we are on a path to something. This process of achievement abides by a linear model of reality, which has humanity running toward a goal that can never be reached.
When personal development is a means in itself and the striving is what we strive for, it makes sense. When it becomes a means to an end, it’s misused. Personal Development is not development, but rather change itself.
It is not really that we develop, it is rather that we come to belief other stories. In general and to simplify personal development is about letting go of stories that harm ourselves and to start believing in stories that serve ourselves. Often, this process is very self-centred. It’s about how oneself can become happier and more fulfilled. Although – as mentioned above – it is very helpful to be a fulfilled human in society. This is also only the case, where the collective doesn’t suffer yet. When the boundaries are clear. When it’s only about personal fulfilment, as it is often promoted, it can actually harm the planet. The way it is often approached is to tell people that they can be and become and do everything in the world. The argumentation then is usually that you become a better person when you do that and thus serve society. But this is not the case. It’s short sighted, when the individual fulfilment of desires becomes the focus. I can do anything, I am entitled to become what I am meant to be, and other bullshit.
What it can do
Help us show up as better humans.
A human being who has developed skills for emotional regulation and compassion is a much more constructive member of society than someone who doesn’t have those skills. And the likelihood of developing these skills becomes more likely, when we live in a culture that supports these virtues.
For example, the institutions, laws, regulations and market mechanisms we created appear to encourage our dark side to come play. To consume, to compete, to watch out. Cars are given priorities to bicycles. Meat production is subsidised. Commercials are allowed to take over public space. The infrastructure supports unsustainable, rather than sustainable behaviour. Simplified, we can say that they type of environment doesn’t serve us to develop as human beings, but instead encourages our rather primal instincts and desires to run wild. When we create environments that are more conducive to kind and caring behaviour, we behave more kindly and caring.
Personal Development can contribute to a healthier society and at the same time a healthier society contributes to personal development.
The question though is, what to develop as humans. How do we know what kind of personal development we need in order for a society to function? Neither buddhism nor any other religion managed to actually change society by their respective development program. The Nevada and bliss of a developed society never came. Let’s take common education once and still understood as THE necessity for a civilised culture. But what does that even mean? Are uneducated people less civilised? Who is to determine what is development and what isn’t. What is good development and what isn’t? Good to whom?
The road of personal development
People in the business of personal development usually try to tell and teach you their so called recipe for success. They have a certain worldview. And some are successful. In hindsight, they correlate their success with their worldview. So you better learn to see the world like they do. But making this connection is plain storytelling. There might be no causal link whatsoever, but we stick to the idea that there is, because it sounds good.
Things will unfold and develop as they unfold and develop. There is no specific course one can take. Who knows what actually changes the system. It’s all theory and ideas.