My three principles of growth (that go against popular opinion)

I’ve grown a lot over the last six to 12 months as I’ve encountered and begun to overcome one of the larger obstacles in my psyche: being comfortable with interdependence.

I’ve written before about my obsessive requirement to be independent, and both the benefits and deprivations it’s resulted in during my life so far. Interdependence is astonishingly difficult for me, no more so than when it comes to that fundamental first layer of Maslow’s Hierarchy: shelter, food, warmth – ‘home’, really.

So that’s been my growth area recently. Not on purpose or consciously at first – but essentially, because I couldn’t survive without looking at it.

In the land of personal development, professional development, positive psychology, wellbeing – in fact, most things to do with ‘being a better human’, growth is the thing.

And, if you cast your eye around the economic, social, political and cultural landscape, you’ll notice ‘growth’ being generously thrown about there, too.

People bloody love growth. They idolise it. They make a fetish of it. So let me lay down some of my principles around growth which inform the work I do with my clients and the way I write.

The principles

Oh, growth! You sexy bugger. So attractive, so meaningful, so expansive and lush. Mmm, growth.

Anyone even vaguely interested in personal and professional development will have been exposed to this idolising of growth. It’s particularly rife in entrepreneurial circles.

But what does it even mean? I mean, really, when you think about it – what do people mean when they say, “I grew as a person” or “I had three years of rapid business growth” or “Growth is important for the economy”?

What it means and what people use it to mean is the point at which a lot of my principles around growth crystallise.

  1. Growth doesn’t have to mean ‘bigger’

When people use the word ‘growth’ and its related forms, they often this: X got bigger.

The business got bigger. The economy got bigger (more money in it). The person got bigger (conceptually expanded). It just got bigger.

This is an understanding of growth which, I feel, lacks nuance and fetishes one of the tenets on which our current economic model is built: that big equals better.

To talk briefly about entrepreneurship, business and self-employment for a moment – I sense there is an obsessiveness about growing these things, either through more clients, more money, more products or just simply more. The bigger you can make yourself and your work, the better.

In your creative work, this might look like the desire to have a bigger show, a bigger event, make more money, etc.

But why? Why is it better to be bigger? To have more, consume more, earn more – expand in this ever-increasing, ‘The Blob’ style way?

Next week I’ve been invited to present and be a panellist at a leadership event for selected students at a red-brick university. On the phone, the organiser says, “If you can talk about how leadership has helped your business grow, that would be great”.

Afterwards I thought, “But – it’s just me. It was me four years ago and it’s me now. Where’s the growth?”

And this is where my first principle comes in. It’s all too easy to see growth in this simplistic, capitalist way: that growth = bigger and bigger = better. That’s what I was thinking when I got off the phone. But that’s not what growth is.

Growth is “to increase in size or substance”, and while ‘substance’ could mean ‘mass’, I’m going to take it as something different and go for quality. Growth can mean an improvement in quality as well as an increase in size.

Some personal development theories might call this ‘deepening’, as in “a deepening of your practice”. For me, this works in some capacities but has a little too much introversion and hermit-ness to it. Growth can mean sending down roots, sure, but the purpose of those roots is to suck up nutrients to push you – You, The Artist and You, The Creative – forward in your life’s work.

So growth doesn’t have to succumb to the ‘bigger = better’ fiddle.

You don’t have to be a huge plant; you can be a fucking great plant instead.

  1. Growth is painful

When I was about 12, I was such a gangly kid. There’s a photo of me brushing sand off my feet (grumpily – I do not respond well to sand between my toes) and I am just all pale arms and legs jutting out at funny angles.

I remember how uncomfortable those pre-teen years felt. There was a distinct sensation that my skin was too small for my body. I would reach and knock things over because I didn’t realise how long my arms were. Nothing ever seemed to fit, including my own flesh.

This is what people mean by growing pains. And just like teenagers, our work, business and life suffers from these awkward, clumsy, uncomfortable pains during a period of intense growth.

Lots of the businesses I’ve worked with go through growth periods, and the most common phrase I hear from their staff is something along the lines of: “You know we’re just growing so quickly, it’s hard to keep up”. Growth is an uncomfortable process, for everyone involved, no matter the rate or intensity.

Growth shifts you from one state into another, and any shift brings loss, destruction and trauma. Even improvements in the quality of what you’re doing can feel painful, as you recognise the errors of your previous phase and try to work out new ways of sustaining a more complex practice.

Fetishising growth, particularly when it comes to work or business, ignores these pains – or at best, glosses over them. It can be easy to be lulled into the mythology that bigger = better and getting to bigger = fun. More stuff! More people! More money!

Yes … and more pain and complexity and challenges. None of which are bad. But all of which are real. In a period of growth (personal or professional), I sense we’re more likely to make mistakes because we are shifting from one state to another, reaching out and not realising how long our arms are.

Perhaps if we recognised this as a fundamental element to growth we wouldn’t be so surprised when it eventually happens, or become frustrated at ourselves that we’re not ‘doing growth gracefully’.

  1. Growth is never continuous

Imagine a human; you give it good food and the right amount of it so it gets stronger and healthier – and it grows. Imagine a plant; you give it good soil and light and BabyBio and it gets stronger and healthier – and it grows.

Imagine an economic system; you give it resources and labour and mechanics and it gets stronger and ‘healthier’ – and it grows.

The difference between them is this. The human and the plant know, in some sense, that eventually they will stop growing. They will pause, they will ‘retreat’, they will slow down and one day, they will cease to be entirely.

Our economic system, capitalism, doesn’t recognise this. More importantly, if we believe in capitalism as a ‘good’ way to structure an economy, we won’t believe it either.

Yet this is one of the reasons economic crises happen; because those in charge of the economy thought it would never stop growing. They behaved as if things could only get better despite the very fact of their existence allowing them to know, on an instinctive level, that everything must, eventually, stop.

I sense this is why we also see stories of entrepreneurs crashing out perhaps only a few years into their journey; because they believed things would always grow, and they acted accordingly.

Growth is never continuous. Look at the nearest plant to you. In good weather, with sunshine, water and soil, that plant’s rate of growth will be incredible. With poor climate or poor care, its growth will slow almost entirely. Eventually, if there’s too much poverty in its surroundings, it will cease to be.

This is the same for us – not just physically, either. Some periods of our life will be characterised by intense and radical growth because the conditions are just right. For me, the last two years has been this period. But perhaps now, my growth pattern is slowing as conditions are changing to be more stable.

At some points in my life – and undoubtedly in yours – conditions for my growth were so poor as to feel I wasn’t growing in any way. I was stagnating. At some points I even felt I was ceasing to be.

We know intuitively that growth is not continuous. So why do we believe our work, our business, our economic system will always grow, always have more, always earn more – and why do we act accordingly?

There’s a phrase: ‘Make hay while the sun shines’. I absolutely agree with this. We must enjoy what we have, while we have it, and be ecstatically grateful for even the briefest moments of time on this planet.

There’s another phrase: ‘Put something away for a rainy day’. I absolutely agree with this, too. We must save a little now – time, money, energy, space – for a time when we won’t have a lot.

The problem is not in either of these phrases. The problem is that we don’t pay attention to both these phrases at the same time.

And in my work …

These principles inform a lot of how I think about personal development.

Growth is as much about improved quality as increased size.
Growth is painful and knowing that helps alleviate the pain.
Growth is not continuous, and that’s completely okay.

I feel if you fetishise, idolise and obsess over growth, you’ll tie yourself in knots because you’ll be adhering to a set of principles that are, at best, incorrect and, at worse, fundamentally damaging.

We are, essentially, cucumbers with anxiety. You’re a plant with trousers on!

You don’t have to be a big plant. You can be a great plant.
Remember, you’re going to creak and break when you grow.
The right conditions are important. Sometimes you won’t grow at all.

And that is all absolutely okay.


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