What is Personal Development? – Vertical and Lateral Growth

Yesterday I confronted myself with a difficult question. What is personal development? How can I define certain tasks as being related to personal development, and not others. Is personal development just goal setting and pushing yourself?

My response to that was a resound “No!” A component of personal development definitely involves using goals and pushing yourself, but I would consider taking part in activities that broaden our experience of life to be growth as well. So how can I define personal development or growth?

Then it hit me. Personal growth doesn’t really fit nicely into one category, so I decided to write this post about what I feel are the two different types of personal development. Both are necessary for our development, but they differ considerably in the approaches and tools used to get them.

Vertical Growth

This is what most people think of when I talk about personal development. Vertical growth is the process of achieving, pushing ourselves and ambition. This type of development is characterized by facing challenges, struggle, pressure and pain. Ultimately this type of development also gives us our greatest triumphs and victories.

Techniques such as goal setting are ideal for vertical growth. Setting goals can allow you push yourself harder than you would normally. Goal setting is the process of identifying exactly what you want, and taking the actions required to get it.

Vertical growth is the most talked about form of personal development. I think most people could benefit from some serious vertical growth, the kind that would get them to see the amazing power they can wield to shape their own life. Vertical growth creates fulfillment, challenge, and triumph.

Ultimately vertical growth is the archetypal hero’s story. We are sent on a journey. We meet up with a wise man who teaches us and gives us weapons in our journey. We encounter horrible monsters in our journey such as dragons, trolls or goblins. Ultimately we slay the dragon, rescue the princess or return with the fabled treasure.

People love this story. It is in every ounce of literature, and it is basically the story of vertical growth. Ordinary people taking on extraordinary tasks. This is the kind of growth that inspires, motivates and fulfills.

Lateral Growth

There is, however, another form of personal development which is easy to neglect. This is what I will call lateral growth. Goal setting, drive and motivation are not the primary tools of this kind of growth. For those of you who are over-achieving goal setters, this kind of growth might be a little foreign to you. Simply because the tools we are so used to, don’t work as well as they do in this new arena.

Lateral growth is the expansion of experience. Lateral growth means exposing ourselves to new ideas. Lateral growth means increasing consciousness itself.

This type of growth can take many forms. Traveling to foreign countries to experience a different culture. Taking up a new hobby or pastime. Reading a different genre then your normal habits include. Meditation and quiet reflection.

I have read a book called Goal Free Living by Stephen Shapiro. In the book, Shapiro identifies that we shouldn’t set goals. He mostly goes on to say that we should always keep our options open, looking for new opportunities and always be trying something new. Being an avid goal setter, I was a little troubled about his ideas, simply because a lot of them made sense.

But now I realize that Shapiro was only partially correct. Shapiro was trying to identify lateral growth as the primary form of personal development. Just like success authors who attribute vertical growth as the only kind, he was giving a lot of truths but missing the complete picture. We need both to have a great life, not just one or the other.

Shapiro consistently said that goal setting was the problem. That having too many goals cuts off our ability to explore multiple options or routes. This goes against all of my research and personal experience with goal setting, so at first I was a little concerned.

But now, I understand that he was right!

Goal setting doesn’t really work that well with lateral growth. Motivation, achievement and discipline are not the tools of this area. Setting a goal to expand your consciousness likely won’t lead anywhere. Setting a goal to improve this type of growth would be like using a carefree attitude to become a millionaire!

So if goal setting and discipline aren’t the tools of this growth what can we use to capitalize on this form of personal growth?

The tools are varied but simple. Awareness, passion, spontaneity and exploration are the key components of this kind of growth. Becoming more passionate and observant is critical to using this kind of growth to your full abilities. An opportunistic attitude is necessary, as well. Whenever you see opportunities to improve this form of growth, you need to take advantage of them.

I’ve given a lot of attention to the second form of personal development in this article, does this mean I prefer it? Certainly not. Both are absolutely necessary to have a great life. Without vertical growth you live a purposeless life without any real sense of genuine challenge, fulfillment or drive. Without lateral growth you live a narrow life focused on objectives and deadlines, living a life that is narrow in experience and bland.

I mention lateral growth because I think a lot of people believe that my own personal obsession in to personal growth means I focus exclusively on the vertical. They then infer that means I never really get to experience and enjoy life from a variety of angles. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

People are varied. Some people will prefer to lean to the vertical side of personal development, while others lean to the lateral side. Despite your preference, you need both to live the richest life possible. Even within your own life you will likely go through phases that shift focus from one type to the other.

The biggest lesson to take home all of this is that both these types of growth require different tools, skills and concepts to be effective in them. Goal setting and achievement philosophies are easier to come by nowadays, so those who study personal development may unintentionally neglect the skills needed to improve lateral growth.

In the end, a big question that comes up is how do you balance achieving with enjoying? How do you balance achieving your goals with really enjoying the life you have? The key is a balance between these two forms of growth. Instead of taking a vacation from your busy goal-setting schedule by cutting off personal growth entirely, why not take a trip to the other side of personal development and have some lateral growth?

Harness the tools of vertical and lateral growth. Master goal-setting and discipline for the former and creativity and awareness for the latter. Live a life with both sides of personal development and get the most out of your life!

  • Steve Moore

    Hi Scott,

    This is a great way of looking at it. I totally agree on these two areas, it puts more definition to something I felt but hadn’t really thought about. I’m sometimes put off by too much focus on goal setting/success, because to me, much of happiness is about enjoying the moment, savoring what you have in the here and now, and expanding your life experience. Becoming too obsessed about reaching goals can take you away from that. Yet If you don’t have any sort of focus on goals then you can never enjoy some worthwhile things which require planning and focused effort. So it makes perfect sense to try and balance these two aspects. Thanks for the great posting.

  • Scott Young


    I think some people naturally will find their balance between the two forms of growth somewhere along the spectrum. I’d be naive to say that there is the perfect combination of vertical and lateral that works for everyone.

    The real thing I discovered with this is not so much about the balance, but rather how each of these areas of growth have different skills and tools required for success. Tools like goal-setting, discipline and motivation work great for vertical growth. Tools like spontenaity and creativity work better for lateral growth.

    Good luck and thanks for the comments!

  • Laura Young

    Interesting post, Scott!
    I think you hit on an important distinction. I remember seeing a goal setting sheet that included spiritual “goals” along with work and financial goals and such when I was doing my coach training. It never made sense to me. I just couldn’t list goals in the same way…It’s process and product really. Vertical growth often produces something tangible. Lateral growth, to me, feels qualitative, not quantitative.
    In my personal blog, I had just posted on a very related issue…my webhost was awol yesterday (fun fun fun!) and as I was looking at my business being locked up in some cyberspace vault somewhere I was also realizing that it wasn’t bothering me so much. It was fixable stuff. What isn’t fixable is the health of a friend of mine that I am preparing to lose. If I wasn’t working VERY HARD on my personal, lateral, growth, I’d not be able to handle the death of a close, dear friend. I need to pay my way in the world, certainly. I also need to remember that life is brief and I want to be able to show up for ALL of it.
    Thanks for the post,

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the post Laura!

    The key distinction I would like to point out is that lateral growth is still growth.

    Lateral growth might be incorrectly interpretted as basically a category of “everything other than goals”. I personally don’t feel watching most TV shows qualifies as any form of growth, lateral or vertical.

    When I first created my goal setting binder, I decided a good way to set up my goals would be to sort by category. So following other goal-setters advice I made categories such as Health, Financial, Mental and Spiritual.

    To this date I have been unable to fit a goal into the spiritual section. It just doesn’t make sense to make a spiritual goal. Spirituality is a category that is almost exclusively on the lateral axis of growth.

    Thanks for the comments,

  • Laura Young

    Oh I agree! Lateral growth always FEELS much deeper to me. DEFINITELY growth! The high goals may stretch me and challenge me but the lateral growth GROWS me. The most rewarding and hardest work I have ever done that I consider personal growth has been lateral. Meanwhile I climb up and up on the vertical. Seems like they work in different realms to me, each of them important in their own right.

  • Scott Young

    I guess great minds think alike. (and also apparently share surnames 😉 )!

  • Florian

    I found your blog via google by accident and have to admit that youve a really interesting blog 🙂
    Just saved your feed in my reader, have a nice day 🙂

  • Ken D

    I stumbled on your blog pretty much by accident. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what link brought me here. For an 18 year old, you have a pretty good view on these issues so I wish you all the best.

    As far as classifying spiritual goals goes I may offer some advice. As I always say, take what’s good and leave the rest:

    You could learn about different religions and philosophies. You could dive down deep into beliefs, values and how they change depending on points of views and time periods. It was Moses that broght down, “Thou shalt not kill”, right before they crossed the river and slaughtered people.

    I think you could definitely set spiritual goals but that may not really become a main focus for you until you get a bit older in your years.

    I feel like I was cursed because the spiritual focus came first for me when I was entering into my teens. It made me into a ‘lost soul’ who feels very out of place in this world. I think it may be better for you to focus on the vertical side rather than the lateral. (just my opinion-I could be totally wrong about it)

    I have been very lateral focused and am now pushing myself to be more vertical. (using your terminology) It was Joseph Campbell who once stated he was very lateral focused in his endeavors which gave him a tremendous amount of breadth, but he wondered if he wasn’t missing the passion that is brought about by someone who follows a single line in depth…

    Anyway, I wish you the best.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks Ken,

    I think there is need for depth and breadth in life, hopefully I’ll gain some wisdom in my later years that will help me balance the difference.

  • cheng02

    You about hit it right on nail.

    “The tools are varied but simple. Awareness, passion, spontaneity and exploration are the key components of this kind of growth. “

    Yes awareness is everything. I was reading Bob Procter’s AttractionAccelerationReport where he illustrate it simply with the statement “see people dont earn 50K a year because they want to earn 50K a year. They earn 50K a year because they are not AWARE of how to earn 50K a month”.

    I also studied Think And Grow Rich. In it Napoleon Hill mentioned Desire as a essential principle if personal success. As a Asian I tends to believe that Awareness precedes Desire. You cannot want something if you are not Aware of that thing.

    A copy of Bob’s report can be downloaded at

  • Scott Young


    Interesting thoughts. Awareness does precede desire, but lateral growth is not just a tool to more vertical growth but an end in itself. Learning for the sake of learning.

  • Jason China

    Good post!
    If the western culture encourages vertical growth,the eastern culture prefers to lateral growth!A famous Chinese philosopher liang shuming had ever said,westerners go ahead! Indians go back!Chinese go on the balance.
    It also reminds me of the great Chinese book laozi.
    Here is the link

  • Scott Young


    I never thought about the East vs West distinction. Interesting.


  • Bill

    I never heard the term lateral goal. I guess it fits. Any progress is good as long as you experience what you wish to happen. I heard James Ray say that we should have a BHAG, Or a Big Hairy Audacoius Goal.-Something truly outrageous. I assume the reasoning is that you get so inspired, and excited that you make it happen. The problem seems to be we don’t start because we don’t know HOW. Solution figure out the What and the how takes care of itself.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the thoughts Bill!

  • Paul Pop

    Firstly, I apologize for my scrutiny. Secondly, I may be incorrect. And now… the meat:

    you write:

    “My response to that was a resound ‘No!'”

    I believe that you actually mean:

    “My response to that was a resounding ‘No!'”

    It struck me as off when I first read it so I looked it up in a dictionary. Then I google searched it. I am not certain if I am correct or you made a mistake… but once I got the idea in my head I had to follow through.

    My apologies,

    Paul Pop

  • Paul Pop

    After soothing my brain, I was able to finish reading you article. Not only are you open to new ideas, but you also look for ways of keeping what you like of your current ones. It just got me wondering what you changed after revising your outlook. So… What have you changed?

  • Charles H

    Hi Scott,

    I just want to say, as someone who was exposed to your site 2 years ago, that you have created a very welcoming environment for people to express their thoughts freely without fearing criticism or value-judging. You haven’t positioned yourself as some “guru” (I hate that word by the way! ;), but as a very resourceful starting point for gathering critical information and helpful advice that will aid others on their path to expanding their current level of awareness.. Beautiful!

    Thank you again.

    Your Avid Reader,

  • Scott Young

    Thanks Charles, your comment made my day. 🙂

  • Sam

    Am still wondering how to define ‘Success’ correctly…:)

  • Sam

    Am still wondering how to define ‘Success’ correctly…:)

  • Elina McGill

    I’m still confused as to the difference between lateral growth and vertical growth. What is the key difference between the two. I would love to get your ideas on these concepts and further examples.