Vertical and Lateral Growth Continued…

I feel my explanation of the differences between vertical and lateral growth deserve a little more attention. I wrote it rather in a surge of ideas, so much so that I forgot to even mention why I am referring to them as vertical and lateral.

Vertical objectives are those that require us to reach high. Anything that is in the form of a specific objective is likely a vertical goal. Earning more money, losing weight, starting a business, overcoming fear, even building confidence are all vertical objectives.

Society tends to recognize this form of growth the most. Ask someone who they think is successful and they will likely say someone such as Bill Gates, Donald Trump or Tiger Woods. People we usually associate with money, skill and excellence. However growth, and success, are not represented on a linear scale.

Lateral growth extends the linear thinking of personal growth into another dimension. A two-dimensional view of growth encompasses much more of what we need in order to consider our lives excellent. Lateral growth involves experiencing new things, traveling to new places, even falling in love.

I call this type of growth lateral growth because it generally doesn’t require a challenge. Usually this kind of growth allows us to experience or recognize something that was there all along. In a sense, this type of growth comes from broadening our experience of life. In a sense, this forms an axis that runs perpendicular to vertical growth.

Any growth we experience can vary from being highly lateral or highly vertical. The key to using this to have a great life is to discover that it is the total area we seek, not the height or width.

Look at this diagram.

Graph of Vertical Growth

This would represent a person who is primarily devoted to vertical growth. Such success oriented people are generally rich and powerful. They are disciplined, motivated and set goals. Ultimately, however, these people lead narrow lives. They don’t enjoy things and spend most their time pursuing things that will all be gone when they are dead.

In essence, the total area of their graph is rather low, even if it is very high.

Lateral Growth Graph

Now look at the above diagram.

This would represent a person who is primarily devoted to lateral growth. These people tend to explore, have fun and be spontaneous. Unfortunately, these people are also restricted in the quality of their lives. They lead shallow lives without meaning, never feeling any real sense of achievement or satisfaction. In the end they rarely create a true impact others lives.

Now I want you to look at the diagram of a balanced set of personal growth.

As we can see, the total area of this persons graph is far greater than either of the two before it. These people live lives of greatness, success and hope. These people live lives filled with exploration, discovery and beauty. These people are both happy and fulfilled.

You may have noticed something unfair about my graph. In the third graph, the person has the same level of vertical growth as the former and the same level of lateral growth as the latter. Certainly there has to be a tradeoff?

I believe that this tradeoff does occur. Often the richest, most successful people end up working a lot harder and have less time to truly enjoy life. Those who live life as a wandering exploration tend not to achieve as many meaningful objectives.

There is however, two important points to consider.

The first is that, even if we halved the lateral and vertical growth to create a graph that was 50/50, it would create a shape with more area, that is to say, a better life, than either of the other two graphs. In this case, the tradeoff is not linear. Achieving a closer to equilibrium state is the key for a maximum life.

The second point is even more subtle. As you try to increase your vertical growth without increasing your lateral growth, you create an unstable life. This life eventually means that in order to make even small increases in lateral growth, you must make larger sacrifices in lateral growth and vice-versa. By changing your schedule from an 80 hour workweek to an 85 hour workweek, you may have to cut out all time to spend with family or to try new things. This small tradeoff for increased vertical growth has cost you heavily in your lateral growth.

My point is simple. By achieving a balance between the two forms of growth you have a far, far better life than you would if you focus exclusively on one or the other.

Is the balance 50/50? I think that depends on each person. Just remember that by shrugging off one form of growth to focus exclusively on the other will only lead to a life that is far less than you are capable of experiencing.

I’m going to leave you to think about that. Tell me, are you primarily vertical or lateral? Do you feel you have balance?

Here is a question open for discussion, in which I’d love to hear your response:

I’ve talked about vertical and lateral growth. Two dimensions. Could there possibly be a third dimension to personal growth? If so, what would it be? What do you think it is?

  • K.S.

    Hi Scott,

    Great work on personal development. I like your passion, commitment and drive to put the work out on your blog, congratulations.

    Indeed, I find the vertical/lateral model interesting. Some time ago, during a stroll, I noticed myself missing an essential ingredient in my own happiness, something I call “broad horizons”. I specialize in financial trading and for the last 9-10 years I am completely obsessed with it. The time and energy I spent on this left me with little to pursue anything else in the meantime.

    At that point, I didn’t define or have in mind something that would categorize or model this insight. All I knew was that I might be heading in the wrong, burnout direction altogether.

    Regarding your V/L model, some people, especially in today’s competitve world stay mostly on the vertical curve neglecting the nourishment derived from lateral growth. I think that a lot of people need a point in time, some accomplishment to “allow” themsleves for lateral experiences, like “when I get rich I’ll travel around the world”, or “when I build the house I’ll get married” or “as soon as I get the diploma I’ll start socializing with interesting and intelligent people”.

    This attitude reminds me of some form of procrastination where the person might be avoiding some curious, deep rooted fears. Futhermore, accomplishment of the vertical growth goals carries the risk of reinforcing those fears as probably nothing is due to change in the lateral sense – so now we additionally have subconscious fears of success, and the spiral seems to take it’s course.

    In short, lateral growth can be a very interesting area for self-development if tackled appropriately and seems essential for overall success. The V/L model is quite simple and straightforward and adding a third dimension might complicate it unnessesarily, but, I do have a proposition.

    It looks as if my example above is just a case study. The high strung vertical attitude does not nessesarily have to be an escape from fears, one can easily imagine people finding genuine pleasure in the process. I also suppose a lot of people don’t bother making an astonishing career and are quite content with sitting back and truely appreciate visiting the countryside from time to time or clubbing daily.
    So the question is, what makes the difference?

    Now, I intentionally split your concept into smaller pieces so to speak so we can differenciate between the “I want to” and ”I do” attitudes. Let’s also introduce the third dimension: the quality of experince, or the ability to appreciate the moment of whatever course you take.

    Capturing the quality of experience and quantifing it is indeed a very dynamic or maybe an impossible task but think of it this way: on the graph we have the x (lateral )and y (vertical) axis. Let’s sat that the “spikeness” of each is defined as the conscious energy devoted to each. The more we daily think about these aspects the more stretched their spikes are. So, we skillfully add up all the thoughts and sketch the graph, then we join the two spikes and calculate the area. Let’s call this the 2D “thinking” area.
    However, we all know that thinking and doing are whole different scenarios. Just because we think about getting that new date doesn’t mean we walk up to the woman and ask her out. Just because we think we are good tennis players doesn’t mean we get to win the match or even get close. Some people fantasize all their lives, where do they have their place on the graph? Let’s say they get their fair share of spikes, but the depth of their experience is adequate to the results they get.

    So the third dimension is actually living up to your dreams and overcoming troublesome emotions, like fear of rejection or disappointment..etc. The ability to embrace emotions evolving throughout the process of either vertical or lateral growth defines the quality of those experiences. The better the ability to handle emotions the more profound the experience (like finally learning how to get the date or winning) the more fulfilled our lives and the more confidence there is to handle the next set of emotions. The third dimension is therefore a proxy for one’s willingness to experience emotions and life in general.

    Having this said, we can imagine a truly happy computer geek who has learned to manage his feelings of say, loneliness. Or a priest living in celibacy, who has accepted his feelings just to realize that not having sex is just another sexual preference. Some people have one way spikes but their depth of experience makes them happy and fulfilled.

    Their views can change, since life in general is highly dynamic, but then again people with high a willingness to experience emotions can far more easily adapt to changing conditions.

    If you are a “one-spiked” happy person then good for you, since this is possible. However, if you feel that you should be doing something else instead of working late hours (like finding a date) then you might have your life out of balance and it’s probably time to review your priorities. This does not mean quiting! I’ve seen this over and over again, people keep going from one spike to the other – something like a “all or nothing attitude”.

    Most of us however, need both of the two worlds. So we see, balance is important and that it is usually found somewhere in the middle. This brings us back to your simple model which is BTW much easier to visualize than my 3D proposition. So I guess you’re better off sticking with it – I just wanted to give out some food for thought.


  • Scott Young

    Thanks for your thoughts, K.

    I think that vertical and lateral growth extend beyond a personal preference. While I think our intuitive natures may have us lean more to one side than another, I believe that too large an imbalance is suboptimal, regardless of whether you are comfortable with it.

    Interesting thoughts on emotional mastery being the third dimension. Earlier I would have said emotional mastery is more of a lateral growth concept, but now that I think about it, the concept is equally valid to both vertical and lateral growth.

    I suppose if you really wanted to make the distinction clear you could split lateral growth into internal and external forms. External forms would involve seeking outside experiences to expand your viewpoint while internal forms would involve using introspection to expand your viewpoint.

    The concepts of vertical and lateral growth are generalized enough that I think everyone should have a balance. Being ‘happy’ with a one-spiked graph I think is cutting you off from a lot of growth and experiences. Those experiences could arguably make your life a lot richer and happier.

    I think one of the major points of my post was to validate lateral growth. Too many uber-successful people seem to think that lateral growth doesn’t really count because it doesn’t require a lot of pain and sacrifice. Unfortunately it is this mindset that cuts you off from a lot of room to expand.

    Great thoughts, feel free to share them again.


  • sankershan

    thanku sir for your wonderfulk views, and also the graphics you used to make the things more clear .

    the topic described by you was my vertical growth, as i want to gain knowledge as i am pursuing MBA, if i am right i did this understand the topic.

  • Dev

    This is a must read for anyone’s personal growth. A successful life can be only achieved by blend of these two aspects. I look forward to know more on how to transcend to lateral growth as most of us are inclined to vertical growth front?


  • Hussain Mumtaz

    Hey Scott,

    I have been reading through your entire blog, and have made it a goal to learn from it. I plan to get through it before the New Year.

    I was able to connect the concept of this article of Vertical and Lateral growth to a key graph in Economics: the PPC, and that got me thinking. The entire goal of personal improvement can be connected to theoretical Economics, since the ultimate purpose of both is satisfaction.

    Really enjoying myself so far, good work.


    Hussain Mumtaz