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!


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  • Sam

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

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