Last semester I took a class called, “Foundations of Evaluation.” It was the first in a sequence of classes that are supposed to prepare me to be a professional evaluator. However, I quickly came to think of the class as “Critical Thinking 101.” Our professor was incredibly accomplished (his CV contains over 400 publications), incredibly blunt, and utterly mentally intimidating. We spent most of the class trying to pick out the fallacious thinking that leads to bad decisions and even worse outcomes. A huge part of that process was identifying and evaluating the assumptions used to reach a decision. It can be an eye-opening process to clearly see an assumption that has always been lurking just below your consciousness and yet directed your thoughts. It’s important that we identify the important assumptions in our lives and ask ourselves if they are truly justified.
Assumptions are often created subtly and without our active knowledge. The slow accumulation of life experience through observations of the world around us, conversations with our parents and peers, and the way we’re taught new information coagulates into the basic assumptions we use to help bring order to our world. For that very reason, assumptions are a valuable tool. They save us time and mental power when thinking about a situation and/or deciding what to do. We are able to use the assumptions we hold to bring sense to completely different situations that still have an underlying similarity. Having to make sense of every single situation or stimulus from scratch, without the help of assumptions, every single time we are presented with them would be a massive drain on our psyche.
However, the benefit of assumptions only hold true when our assumptions are truly valid. Otherwise, we are saving ourselves mental effort but coming to seriously suboptimal conclusions. In my case everything I do, from the writing on this blog to the focus of my schooling, is focused on one very important assumption. If it’s not valid, there’s a good chance I’m wasting my time. Is it true that we all have the ability to improve our lives in measurable and significant ways if we want to?
WHAT I DO
This assumption is the driving force behind the majority of things I do as a student and a writer. To start, everything I write on SamSpurlin.com only holds true if you also agree with this assumption. Personal development in general is predicated on the idea that focused energy in a specific direction will allow you to make positive changes to your life. If that’s not true, then I’m certainly wasting my time and effort writing about personal development. The same goes for my coaching. The people that I work with obviously all believe that there is action they can take to improve their lives. It’s my job to show them that action and give them advice for how to best use their energy when it comes to personal development. Lastly, the underlying basis of the entire branch of psychology that I’m currently studying is also predicated on the assumption that people can do things to improve their lives. Positive psychology looks at the human being and the human experience from an angle of growth. Developing happiness, mindfulness, creating positive relationships, and establishing new habits are all possible only if we actually have some control over our experiences as human beings.
THE COUNTER ARGUMENT
I don’t want to spend the rest of this article beating on a straw man that doesn’t actually exist. Does anybody actually believe the opposite of my underlying assumption? Does anybody believe that we don’t have any control over our direct experience? There are actually plenty of arguments that espouse this position and they all boil down to one of two sub-assumptions; that we can’t control our genes and therefore can’t control the way we are and that we can’t control our living circumstances/environment. Let’s unpack each of these believes a little bit.
Our genes ostensibly control the vast array of our physical and psychological characteristics. Therefore, how can we make the assumption that we have any control over our lives? We obviously have no control over who our parents are so therefore there’s not much we can do on the genetic side of things. If I’m genetically predisposed to be fat (or stupid, or smart, or shy, or anything) than what’s the point of expending energy to change that? All this talk about personal development is just an exercise in self-denial about how little we can actually control anything. Besides, if somebody does seem to improve their life with focused effort, then they obviously had the genes that allowed them to do it!
Personal development is a rich person’s endeavor. To be reading this article you obviously have access to some kind of computing device and an internet connection. That alone precludes the vast majority of the world from ever even reading this. Worrying about your happiness and trying to understand motivation are only salient concerns when you aren’t desperately poor and don’t know where your next meal is going to come from. Just as we can’t control our genes, we can’t control the environment into which we are born. If I happen to be born to a single mother of three in the inner city my opportunities are going to be much more limited than the only child of millionaire parents. It’s the sad truth but our position in life is essentially random and assigned to us at birth.
Between genetics and environment, it’s obvious that we have no control over our personal development. Just think about somebody who grew up in an environment of abuse and extreme deprivation. They are unlikely to be thinking about personal development because they have much more pressing issues at hand — like surviving! Or, for example, take somebody who is extremely depressed. Or, somebody who is an extreme introvert. These are all things that aren’t under our control as human beings and prevent us from being more than we are. Personal development is the discipline of people who don’t have anything better or useful to do.
THE CASE FOR ASSUMING WE CAN CHANGE OUR LIVES
I must admit, writing the previous couple of paragraphs from the perspective of somebody who believes we don’t have any control over our ability to grow and improve was surprisingly difficult. Every time I started typing a sentence my brain would scream, “No! That’s not true!” This just goes to show how powerfully this assumption is interwoven into the way I view the world. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a logical or accurate assumption to have.
The keystone of my argument requires an explanation of the way I view personal development and how it may differ from how many people look at it. Personal development has always been about the process of growth, not the product of it. This may seem somewhat counterintuitive as I think most people get involved with personal development because they want to change something about themselves. It’s only logical, then, to be focused on some end state that is somehow better than you currently are. I don’t deny that personal development relies on some kind of change, but I do argue that an unwavering focus on some ideal state is not a good use of our time or energy. Instead, merely the process of growing, of improving, with no focus on some ultimate end, is the true benefit of personal development. Without this approach personal development becomes a Sisyphean quest of never-ending self loathing.
If we change our perspective on personal development from a quixotic quest for perfection to a uniquely personal journey of self-awareness and self-improvement we can eliminate a key threat to the assumption that people have control over their immediate experience. Whether you’re a multimillionaire living in the most ideal and perfect of environments or a victim of abuse in the most squalid of home situations, personal development is possible and equally necessary. Neither of these two fictional characters are shooting for the same level of personal development in any aspect of their lives. Starting points aren’t important or relevant in any way when making personal development an important part of your life. There is no ultimate end point that we’re all searching for.
Looked at another way, holding the assumption that you can improve your life in important ways allows you to be in a position of power when living your life. Each moment is a situation that can either add to or detract from your personal development. Even if you don’t have direct control over the circumstances of an event, you can always control your reaction. Taking this stance puts you in a position to have control instead of being buffeted about by the random winds of fate. In a world where my two options are believing myself to be a victim of my circumstances and thereby completely powerless to change them or having control (however tenuous that grasp may be) on my immediate experience I will always take the latter.
I will happily concede that some people are born into more advantageous situation than others, that some people are born with a higher genetic set point for happiness or intelligence, that growing up in an environment of abuse is something out of your control and likely incredibly detrimental to your personal development. Perhaps it is merely a function of my definition of personal development, but I cannot think of a single life situation where personal development is not possible or important. Personal development is not a product of our environment or life situation but a product of our minds and how we view the world. We can be imprisoned by circumstances, physical limitations, or injustice but if we retain the control over our ability to think then we retain control over our ability to personally develop.
It’s important to note that this assumption says nothing about whether or not you want to make changes. I don’t make the assumption that everyone in the world finds personal development important. That would be an incredibly fallacious belief that has no actual bearing in reality. My assumption merely says that anyone who decides to take action will find it possible to improve their lives in measurable ways. Part of my job as a teacher and coach is to show people the path that exists. I can describe the path’s location, clear it of obstacles, and give somebody a map but I can never throw them across my shoulders and take them down the path of personal development myself. The initiative and motivation has to be internally generated (how to go about generating that is a story for another time).
THE BUDDHISM CAVEAT
Being interested in Buddhism made me start thinking about whether personal development is reconcilable with a Buddhist approach toward life. Is it possible to reconcile a commitment to perpetual personal development with the ideals and values of Buddhism? Isn’t it anti-Buddhist to never be content with where you are and always on the lookout for something better? I don’t know enough about Buddhism to fully answer this question, but I immediately am drawn to the practice of meditation as a metaphor for personal development. Meditating is something that is incredibly frustrating and difficult at first but gradually becomes easier over time. I think many Buddhists would say that they’re always trying to improve the quality of their ability to meditate. Indeed, unless an individual has experienced enlightenment, I’m under the impression that a lot of effort is placed into making meditation a better experience. This movement toward better meditation while simultaneously dropping expectations is analogous with any journey of personal development. The value is in the practice itself, the process, and not in the end-state it produces.
You can either believe you have control over your life or you don’t. For me, believing I can change the circumstances of my situation gives me power. It puts me in a position of strength and impels me to be engaged with the world, to not let it float by. The flip side of this approach is to give up all control or attachment and just “go with the flow.” I think it’s possible to be interested in personal development and not overly attached to it at the same time. That’s why I always focus on the process — on habits– and not the final outcomes of personal development. I try to let personal development, like eating, sleeping, or breathing, be a constant in my life that doesn’t require constant attention or rethinking. It’s just the way I’ve decided to look at myself and the world.
What assumptions do you hold about the way the world works? What assumptions do you hold about other people? Have you taken the time to think through these logically and possibly even change them? Our assumptions orient the stories we tell ourselves about how the world works. I think it’s vitally important that we get them right.