If you have spent some time on this website you have probably heard me make a reference to the distinction between lateral and vertical growth. These two terms I coined so I could reference what I felt were the two main streams of all personal development. Vertical growth is goal-setting, discipline, shoot-for-the-stars type of approach. Lateral growth is the curiosity, learning, explore-the-stars type of approach. Another way I like to describe the two forms is that lateral growth is anything that improves your knowledge of the world and vertical growth improves your effectiveness in it.
Understanding and effectiveness, achievement and exploration, yin and yang. Although no personal development is completely vertical or lateral, these two overarching strategies involve completely different approaches and often create completely different outcomes. This raises an interesting question, where should you put your focus?
Focusing on vertical growth tends to make you more successful and powerful whether that is the areas of finance, skill or even your body. A large amount of vertical growth can give you incredible power to pursue avenues of growth previously unavailable. For example, earning a lot more money can allow you to travel the world and see different cultures and meet interesting people. Working on your physical body and becoming fit and healthy can allow you to take up various physical activities that would have been off-limits to someone out of shape. Vertical growth can also increase your internal characteristics such as discipline and motivation to take up opportunities that would have scared you off before.
Lateral growth has very powerful intrinsic rewards as well. Curiously exploring your world and gaining a greater level of wisdom and understanding of it is incredibly useful. Trying new activities may allow you to find hidden talents and passions. Meeting new people may form relationships you can treasure for a lifetime. Lateral growth also has the interesting ability to change and improve your life in entirely unexpected ways. While pursuing vertical growth tends to have fairly expected rewards, lateral growth can completely change you from the inside out.
Obviously these two streams of personal development have very different strategies and rewards. Where should you place your focus? Each has their own pro’s and con’s and the answer must be dependent on your own intuition, situation and even your future opportunities. It is too easy to fall into the trap of pursuing only one stream and ignoring the other, so consciously making the decision of where you will put your focus for the next few months or years is of utmost importance.
Focusing on vertical or lateral growth must by a cyclical process. Like all human processes, switching gears back and forth after you have made progress in each is the best way to operate. This is why if you haven’t consciously made this decision before, looking at past trends can be the best way to determine where you should focus now.
Having you been pursuing a lot of vertical growth in your recent past? If you have spent the last few years setting a lot of goals, disciplining yourself to achieve them and struggling hard against obstacles you may need to switch gears to pursue lateral growth. If you are feeling burnt out or fulfilled with your current progress those are usually indicators that you need to switch gears to learn more, explore and uncover new passions and challenges.
Vertical growth can be incredibly hard to switch off. Goal setting and achieving are very addictive. Chances are you probably feel that you aren’t in a position to set your goals aside and go frolic in some meadow of self-discovery. You have real challenges that are urgent and incredibly important. Unfortunately this narrow viewpoint is caused from too high a focus on vertical growth. You may have to take a break from goal setting before you can completely switch to lateral growth which requires a completely different paradigm of improvement.
If your past indicates a heavy bias towards vertical growth that is the first sign that you need to make a switch, but it isn’t conclusive. Sometimes it may be appropriate to keep working and get a bit further on those goals before making the switch. Other times you may have not made enough progress and you need to get a bit further to lock those advances in before moving on. If this sounds like you, use the next two indicators to see whether you should make a shift.
Have you spent a lot of time in discovery, learning or exploration recently? If you have spent the last few years trying new things, learning more about yourself and the world or experimenting, now might be the time to focus on your vertical growth. For most people this would probably be the period after they leave University. If this sounds like you it may be time to start focusing in on some goals to improve your effectiveness in the world you have gained some understanding of.
Lateral growth is easier to switch off than vertical growth because our culture has a very strong vertical growth bias. Society has a very strong emphasis on achievement and success and tends to seem that your vertical growth phase should last from when you leave school until you retire. Frankly I think this a completely illogical, ridiculous and potentially dangerous way to operate in your life. Ideally the process should be a pendulum swing constantly between these two forms of growth.
The other reason that lateral growth is easier to switch back from is that life often necessitates it. Especially early on in your vertical growth, you may have to pursue it simply to stay alive. After University most people have to get a job just to pay the bills and this makes the transition to vertical from lateral far easier. When you have already established your physical situation somewhat a diversion to lateral growth may not cause the growth in income you would like but it probably won’t kill you.
After looking in the past the next indicator of whether you should make a switch is by looking at your current situation. If your current situation favors or even necessitates one form of growth over another then that can give you strong clues as to where you should go next. Even if past trends indicate that a switch may be necessary, if anything less than 110% effort on your business would result in bankruptcy, now may not be the best time. Similarly, pursuing a lot of goals when you don’t have the education, wisdom or even passions to pull it off would be foolhardy.
Once again, it is much more difficult to go from vertical to lateral than the other way around in our culture. Many of us have gotten into a race where our needs quickly match our capacity. As soon as we gain extra income from some vertical goals most of that is gobbled up for an even bigger house with even bigger mortgage payments. As a result any change of vertical speed would cause you to crash and burn. For all practical purposes most of us in the Western society are living so far above what we need to survive it is a joke. Most of us have even greatly exceeded the amount needed to keep us comfortable (meaning shelter, food, safety, ect.). In theory the switch from vertical to lateral shouldn’t be difficult but unfortunately most of us make it unnecessarily so.
If your current situation cannot facilitate the vertical to lateral growth shift then you should start creating your plan so that you can stabilize it. Lateral growth doesn’t mean quitting your job, but it will take up much of your energies and time so being forced to work more and more just to sustain it will make shifting more and more difficult. Remember the quality of your life is the quality of your growth, not how much more money you can earn, so once you have past the basic comfort threshold extra money should be used to free, not imprison you.
Rarely will your current situation make pursuing vertical growth impossible or difficult, at least not in our culture. There are situations, however which may make pursuing vertical growth less attractive than your opportunities for lateral growth, however, which I’ll discuss shortly.
The third indicator for what type of growth you should pursue should be based on what future opportunities you have for growth. There will definitely be times in your life perfect for one type of growth over another. Recognizing future opportunities is probably the best way to base the decision on where you should grow next. Although there may be long periods in your life without an obvious opportunity for each, in which you should either look to past trends or your current situation.
My decision to switch from vertical to lateral growth for at least the next year was brought about by the opportunity of attending University. Few greater opportunities for lateral growth present themselves then going to school. Already geared towards education and learning new subjects, Universities also present themselves with a large variety of opportunities for lateral growth.
Recognizing the opportunities for one form of growth over another is a very personal interpretation as well. When Steve Pavlina attended University for the second time he decided to set a goal to graduate with two degrees in three semesters and achieved it. Although I have chosen to approach University from a very lateral perspective, he took almost the complete opposite approach setting an extremely vertical goal. Neither approach is wrong and it all depends on your situation.
Starting a new business or getting a new job are also great times to work on your vertical growth. Opportunities for which type of growth you should pursue are often abundant. Although there are times when it might be important to pursue the form of growth regardless of present opportunities, you need to make the decision consciously for yourself.
Opportunities are also internal. If you are overweight and unhealthy you may want to take this time to focus on your vertical growth and get yourself back in shape. You may also feel bored and restless with your current life and decide to go off and explore a little more. Outside situations are not the only opportunities available.
Growth tends to polarize itself. The more vertical growth you experience the more you want to shift towards that end of the spectrum. If you aren’t conscious about this tendency you may end up so far to the vertical growth extreme you can’t even make the jump to lateral at all. Similarly, an extremely lateral based existence feeds upon itself until you find it very difficult to work hard towards a single goal and focus.
Growth also follows your personality. Certain personality types are more likely to fall into one dimension of growth or the other. Even if your personality creates a bias, you need to consciously counteract that bias to ensure that the quality of your life isn’t impaired by it. Both forms of growth are necessary for a well rounded life. No vertical and you can’t accomplish anything of value, powerless to do almost anything. No lateral and you can’t understand anything and you will end up pursuing meaningless objectives in a narrow existence. Both are suboptimal.
Right now, how would you rate your current trajectory with 0 being completely lateral and 10 being completely vertical? If you aren’t between a 3 and 7 it doesn’t necessarily indicate a switch is necessary but it is important to ensure you can still oscillate between both sides of the spectrum.
Western VS Cyclical Growth Perspective
I’ve harped on about how inadequate the current Western perspective on life is by adopting a fairly poor method of switching between vertical and lateral growth. I have also advocated shifting closer to a cyclical perspective of growth. I decided to create this simple graph showing the two patterns of growth.
The average Western approach to growth and improvement tends to focus on a lot of lateral growth in early childhood and teenage/young adult years. After this period there is a sharp transition from lateral to vertical which is sustained heavily through the working years only making a slight dip before retirement. After retirement, assuming you don’t die from the built up stress of a linear life, you are expected to enjoy yourself and perhaps pursue more lateral growth.
A cyclical approach follows a similar curve, but breaks up each period with patterns of intense vertical followed by intense lateral. Intense vertical growth creates opportunities for lateral and vice versa. Both improve the quality of our lives but adopting this cyclical approach is the most efficient method to attain it. As soon as you gain the rewards from one area of growth you can reinvest those rewards in the other end. This pattern of focus keeps you fulfilled and passionate.
Take a look at your own life and compare it to these two charts. Does it follow the roughly Western cultures outlook or are you one of those select few individuals with the foresight to adopt a more cyclical approach to life? In either case you now have the opportunity to take advantage of your future.
Whether you decide to reach for the stars or explore them is a very personal decision. It is also a decision with incredible impact on your entire life. Choose what will work best for you and what will help you get the most out of your life.