personal development isn’t the path to success

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Whether you label it professional development, personal growth, self-actualization, or transcendence, many of us fiercely pursue ‘development’ in order to improve our job options, get ahead in life, and achieve our own definition of success. We assume focusing on developing ourselves is something we must do in order to become more accomplished and build a successful career.

And we would be so wrong. 

It rarely occurs to anyone in Western culture that someone might become a salesperson, entrepreneur, leader, or engineer as a means to personal development, and not the other way around.

This world view puts the proverbial cart before the horse, according to August Turak, author of Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity. Turak asserts that what matters is realizing the reason you were born is to become the best human being you can possibly be. Personal development isn’t a tool for merely reaching a limited professional goal—becoming a complete human being is already the highest and most noble goal to which you can aspire.

Turak showcases Trappist monks as an excellent example of his assertion. These monks have been among the world’s most successful businessmen for over 1,000 years precisely because they dedicate their entire lives to personal development. Being on time for work, for example, isn’t just part of a monk’s job description—it’s a way to build self-discipline and to show consideration for their customers and fellow monks. In other words, being on time isn’t a result of a monk’s personal development; it’s an expression of their personal development.

The secret to the amazing business success of Trappist monks isn’t that they’ve managed to establish a successful work-life balance between their personal and professional lives, but that their personal, organizational, and business lives are all subsets of their overarching mission—becoming the best human beings possible. Business success for the monks is the byproduct of pursuing a higher purpose, and Trappist principles can be successfully applied to a variety of business settings.

The monks, and respected business leaders like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, aren’t wildly successful in spite of their high principles but because of them. And this is true of our personal lives as well.

So how do you operationalize these principles? Seek out organizations, leaders, challenges, and mentors who will help you grow. Do so even if it means baffling colleagues and family as you trade the lucrative ‘safe bet’ or ‘sure thing’ initiative for another project with more opportunity to learn and grow. Similarly, cultivate and associate with people who continually inspire and challenge you to become better.

Most importantly, if we want authentic success at work and in life, we must resist viewing personal development as a way to become great at what we do, but instead, always do what we do to the very best of our ability as a way to pursue and express personal development.

By michelle m. smith, CPIM, CRP
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