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The Paradox of Personal Growth

I should have been over the moon.

I had just experienced my biggest ‘success’ with The Weekend University.

We had moved our ‘Sleep & Dreams’ event to a new venue, sold all 320 seats, and had three great talks.

Normally, we have a ‘pub social’ after every event where attendees get a chance to meet each other and share different perspectives on the lectures. I also use this as an opportunity to catch up with old friends in London I don’t get to see during the month.

But for this event, there was a mishap with the pub, the social was cancelled, and the friends I usually catch up with weren’t able to make it.

So here I was, having just organised an event for 320 people, eating dinner alone.

By objective measures, I should have been pretty happy. I had moved to a new venue, broke a record in ticket sales, and helped to create a memorable experience for everyone involved.

But I was far from it..

I thought: ‘Why am I doing this?’ ‘What’s the point in achieving success, if you don’t have anybody to share it with?’ ‘Why bother with all of this hard work when the end result is sitting here, having a meal by myself?’

This experience seemed to reflect a larger, more sinister problem in my life.

I was chasing ‘success’ (and sometimes getting it), at the expense of other more important things.

I don’t know where it came from, but somewhere along the line, I seemed to have picked up the belief that in order to grow as a person, I would have to ‘go it alone’ and sacrifice social relationships in the process.

In this post, I’ll explore why this is fundamentally not true, and offer a new paradoxical view of personal growth.

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist best known for creating Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

In his 1943 paper: ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, Maslow argued that human beings have five different sets of needs:

  1. Physiological –food, water and sex.
  1. Safety – a safe and stable environment.
  1. Love and belonging – an intimate relationship, positive friendships and family.
  1. Esteem – a solid sense of self-esteem, a positive reputation and the respect of others.
  1. Self Actualisation – personal growth, ‘peak’ experiences and contribution.

His theory suggests our needs exist in a pyramid-like structure with the basic ones (food, shelter, belonging, etc) at the bottom, and self actualisation needs (personal growth, contribution, etc.) at the top.

Crucially, you have to start with the bottom of the pyramid first, and work your way up.

In other words, you’ll not be able to focus on self actualisation, if you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from (1), if you’re not in a safe environment (2), if you don’t have strong social relationships (3), and if you don’t value yourself or feel valued by others (4).

Only when our basic needs are met, are we able to start thinking about the top of the pyramid.

Humans want to get along and get ahead. And they will become whoever they need to be in order to do so.

Will Storr

Often we chase success or personal growth for the wrong reasons.

We’re not striving for a goal because of an intrinsic desire to realise more of our potential.

Instead, we do it because we unconsciously believe it will help us satisfy lower, more basic needs on the pyramid that aren’t currently being met.

We think; if achieve ‘X’, then I’ll get the love and respect that’s missing in my life.

So we spend all of our time working, and sacrifice the very thing we’re really after in the process – human relationships. As a result, we become increasingly isolated and our quality of life plummets.

Worse still, we might actually achieve our goal, and get to the top of the mountain we’ve been climbing, only to realise when we get there, we’re more disconnected and miserable than we were when we started.

So, we set a new goal, and begin the cycle again.

How then, do we get around this?

How can we balance our need for social connectedness (getting along), with our need for self actualisation (getting ahead)?

You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

Jim Rohn

In his book: ‘High Performance Habits’, Brendon Burchard attempted to identify common sources of meaning in self actualisers’ lives.

To do this, he interviewed 1,300 high performing individuals, and found that across the board, they placed a high value on their relationships in life and work.

These people were excelling in their careers, while at the same time, enjoyed positive relationships and had a strong sense of social connectedness.

So how were they pulling it off?

What separates self actualisers from everyone else, is that connection for them is more about challenge, than it is about comfort.

In other words, they deliberately seek out a peer group that challenges them.

They surround themselves with people that inspire them, with similar values, and who pushes them to realise more of their potential.

By doing so, they create synergy between multiple levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy – their need for belonging, their need for esteem, and their need for self actualisation; providing them with both meaningful work and meaningful relationships in the process.

Paradoxically, Burchard’s study found that high performing people don’t succeed in spite of their social relationships, they succeed because of them.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

John Donne

The paradox of personal growth is that there’s nothing personal about it.

As Maslow’s Hierarchy demonstrates, it’s not possible without meeting social needs first.

And as Burchard’s study shows, if we do want to achieve excellence in our chosen field, we’d be wise to surround ourselves with people who challenge us, and who want the best for us.

Otherwise, you might find yourself achieving ‘success’ like I thought I did that day, only to realise that its real value is being able to share it with others.

Seeking Clarity

My plan is to do a Masters Conversion degree in Psychology this September.
But the problem is – I’m not 100% sure about what to do after yet.
I know I’m fascinated by the subject, and I know I want to work with people, but there’s so many routes I could go down, that I’m pulling my hair out trying to pick one.
What if I choose the wrong thing?
And what if I spend years of my life, and thousands in education, only to realise at the end, that this isn’t actually what I want to do?
In the process of trying to figure this out, I’ve come across some ideas that have helped me get a bit clearer on my direction.
If you’re in the same boat, and trying to figure out what you want to do long term, they might be helpful for you, too.
This post covers two of the ideas I’ve found most useful.
Minimum Viable Work Experience

“The lesson of the MVP is that any additional work beyond what was required to start learning is waste, no matter how important it might have seemed at the time.” – Eric Reis

​It’s not uncommon to meet someone who spends 3-5 years in education, only to realise that when they get there, it isn’t actually what they wanted.
While travelling in South America when I was 21, I noticed I was meeting a lot of people who were transitioning out of an old career and into a new one. (A disproportionate amount of them were accountants.)
Our education system sets us up for failure this way.
At 18, we’re forced to pick a career path and make a decision that will affect the rest of our lives. At 27, I’m just starting to get to know myself – at 18, I had no chance.
So is there a way to avoid this?

Is there a way to test out all of the different things we think we might like to do, without investing huge amounts of time and money in education – only to realise at the end, that it wasn’t what we actually wanted?

In the startup world, there’s something called a minimum viable product (MVP for short).

In a nutshell, an MVP is the most basic version of your product that you can release to the public. The goal is to get feedback from real customers early to see if it’s something people actually want, before you spend years in planning and thousands in product development.

If people buy it, then you know you’re on to something. If it’s a complete flop, then you know you need to make some changes – or drop the idea completely.

This gives entrepreneurs a great opportunity to test their ideas – without investing huge amounts of time and money in the process.

So, what if you applied the MVP model to figuring out what you want to do?

What if you tried to get ‘Minimum Viable Work Experience’?

What if, for a few months, you actually went and volunteered in the industry you were thinking of dedicating your life to?

Then you could see what a day in your future life would actually be like.

If you’re thinking about starting your own business, you could volunteer for an entrepreneur you know. If you’re thinking about becoming a solicitor, you could go volunteer at a local solicitor’s office. If you want to become an architect, you could shadow an architect for a few days – offer to bring them coffee, do their admin work, etc.

This is my goal in the next few months.

Basically, I’m going to try and find volunteer work in all of the different roles I think I might like to do, so that when the time comes, I have some actual experience to base my decision on.

However, there are some industries you can’t just go volunteer in.

Thankfully, you can’t just ‘try out’ being a surgeon, judge or a dentist for one day.

So what can you do then?

Career Conversations

​”What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.” – Bob Dylan

Between 2011 and 2012, the polling company Gallup conducted a survey to find out how people really felt about their work.

They surveyed millions of workers in 142 different countries, and found that:

  • 13% of people are ‘engaged’ – meaning they are enthusiastic about what they do for a living and feel they are making a positive contribution through their work
  • 63% of people are ‘not engaged’ – i.e. ‘sleepwalking through their workday, and putting time but not energy or passion into their work’
  • 24% of people are ‘actively disengaged’ – not only are they unhappy at work, they are actively undermining what their engaged coworkers accomplish, and basically out to damage their company.

In other words, 87% of people don’t like what they do for work every day.

Why would this be?

In his book; ‘Stumbling Upon Happiness‘, psychologist Daniel Gilbert makes it clear that as human beings, we’re terrible predictors of what will make us happy in the future.

When considering a career path, we dream up a picture of our future selves in the situation and imagine how it’ll make us feel.

The problem with this approach is that often our imagination is faulty, and we have no clue about what a typical day in the job actually involves.

If, like me, you’re terrified of ending up in the ‘87%’, Gilbert advocates a different approach.

Simply put, if you think you’d like to do something, the best way to figure out what it’s actually like, is to speak to someone who is currently already doing it.

Radical advice, I know – but it’s not common sense.

Since reading Gilbert’s book, I’ve been arranging phone conversations with people who work in all the different careers I think I might be interested in, and asking them questions like:

‘What does a typical working day look like for you?’

‘What about the job do you find most rewarding?’

‘What are the worst parts of it?’

‘If you were going back to before you started, is there anything you know now, that you wish you knew then?’

‘If you were starting from scratch, how would you approach your education?’

This might be slightly uncomfortable to do – but if you think about what it could save you in time, effort and money, it’s potentially one of the most worthwhile investments you could make.

It’s enabled me to construct a better picture of what a typical working day looks like in each of the careers I’m interested in, and helped me get a bit clearer on the route I want to go down.


“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman

As Gallup’s study demonstrated, the vast majority of us (around 87%) will end up doing work every day we don’t enjoy.

If we’re lucky, we’ve each only got about eighty laps of the sun, and chances are, we’ll spend a sizeable chunk of those laps working.

Therefore, one of the most important things you could ever do, is to figure out a working situation that you find interesting and enjoyable – one that you wake up in the morning and look forward to.

‘Minimum viable work experience’, and ‘career conversations’ are two simple (and low cost) ways to do that.

The Evolution of Human Cooperation

Ever wonder how we went from this:


To this?


In other words, how did we go from small insignificant primates on the savannas of Africa, to building large cooperative societies with hundreds of millions of members?

It’s tempting to think technological innovations were the driving forces. The invention of tools, fire, the printing press, fossil fuels, the industrial revolution, etc.

However, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers an alternative explanation. In his book: ‘The Righteous Mind’, and various lectures available online, he argues that it was psychological innovations, rather than technological, that ultimately got us to where we are.

So what were these innovations, and how they might help explain this mystery?

1. Shared Intentions – The Initial Spark


‘It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.’ Michael Tomasello

6 million years ago, we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees.

We were the same species, with the same DNA, the same brains, the same opportunities, and the same threats.

Yet now, human beings are living in cities, conducting scientific experiments and exploring outer space, while chimps are… well, still chimps.

What could possibly explain this? And what was the initial spark that set us off on such different directions?

​Chimps are actually really smart. They can learn words, deceive people, make tools, solve problems, and can even seem to be able to mourn the death of their friends

So what can’t they do, that we can?

In an experiment comparing intelligence between chimpanzees, orangutans and human children (aged 2.5 years old), scientists administered a series of problem solving tasks – simple problems that didn’t require language.

Fifty percent of the tasks were physical with no social element involved. E.g. Using a stick as a tool to get some food through a cage.

The other fifty percent of tasks were social problems.These involved reading social signals, gestures and eye movements provided by the experimenter to solve the problem.

For example, in one of these tasks, there would be two cups placed on a table and one of the cups had a reward underneath. The experimenter would point at the cup containing the reward and it was the child or chimpanzee’s job to read the signal and choose the correct cup.

In the physical problems, chimps and humans scored almost evenly.
But as soon as a social element was added (looking at where the experimenter was pointing), the human children dominated, and the chimps’ scores were no better than chance.

In other words, the human kids could use the social signal (pointing) to read the intentions of the experimenter, and use the information to guide their behaviour.

The chimps could not.

Jonathan Haidt argues that our ability to share and read each other’s intentions was the initial spark that allowed everything else to fall into place.

If we could share intentions, it meant we could cooperate in groups for the first time towards shared goals. We could hunt bigger animals, build better shelters and we were less likely to be picked off by predators.

This one psychological innovation paved the way for language, cooperative hunting, foraging, rearing, and a division of labour.

Without the ability to share our intentions with each other, none of the above would have been possible.

2. The Evolution of Morals

‘Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.’  – Clifford Geertz

Now that we were cooperating in groups for the first time, it was critical to ensure people did their fair share of the work and were effective ‘team players’.

​For cooperation to work, we needed a way to motivate and reward selfless behaviour that would benefit the group, and punish selfish behaviour that would harm the group’s survival chances.

We needed to make it dangerous to be a ‘slacker’.

Evolutionary theorists argue that this helps to explain the evolution of human morality.

In some sense, it can help to think of morals as invisible rules that bind a group together, motivating behaviours that increase the group’s survival chances, and making it unappealing and socially unacceptable to do things that did the opposite.

Think of an early human tribe that had to go out in search of new food every day.

Men would go out on a hunting expedition and bring back some meat, and the women would go foraging for fruits, seeds and nuts. But suppose there’s one member, who stays at the shelter all day, never does any work, and still expects to enjoy the food that everyone else brings back. How do you think the group members would treat this person? Is it likely that he would pass his genes on to the next generation?

Or might they just get rid of him?

At the individual level, we can see how people with good morals were more likely to survive than those without, and from the group’s point of view, tribes containing individuals with high levels of morality would be more cooperative and therefore more likely to survive than those who didn’t.

If this theory’s right, and if you’re reading this today, it’s highly likely that you come from a long line of ancestors with high levels of morality.

Our fascination with soap operas and our universal love of gossip are just two examples of how this evolutionary tendency manifests itself in the modern world.

So now we had shared intentionality which enabled us to work together, and morals which motivated individuals to be effective team players, what was the final step? How did we go from small groups of hunters and foragers, to civilisations containing hundreds of millions of people?

3. The Psychology of Sacredness


‘If you think, as I do, that one of the greatest unsolved mysteries is how people ever came together to form large cooperative societies, then you might take a special interest in the psychology of sacredness.’  – Jonathan Haidt

Universally, humans have a tendency to elevate certain objects, people and places to the status of sacred.

​For the religious, it might be a holy book or a place or worship. For humanists, it could be The Universal Declaration of Human Rights or a cultural icon such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King, and if you’re patriotic, it could be your nation’s flag or national anthem.

When we consider something sacred, we are usually willing to sacrifice our own self interest for it. Throughout history, people have gone to war and sacrificed their lives in service of the sacred; whether it be for an ideal such as freedom or democracy, a country, or a religious belief.

Sacred things have a powerful influence on human psychology.

Why is this? And how can it help explain how we went from small groups of hunters and foragers, to mega-civilizations?

Sacredness is powerful because it can create shared belief systems and common identities.

At some point in our past, we gained the ability to think of, believe in, and tell stories about things outside of the physical world. We could imagine fictional realities and communicate them with others.

Before this psychological innovation, our group sizes were limited by the number of people we could know and trust personally.

But after, they could grow exponentially.

For example, if I became convinced that an old oak tree in the forest was magical and had supernatural powers, and could convince the thirty people in my tribe to believe it too, then that’s thirty people who now believe the same thing.

But what happens if I can convince a neighbouring tribe, which also contains thirty people about the supernatural powers of this tree? Suddenly, the two groups have something in common – they believe the same thing.

And because we trust and like to cooperate with people who believe the same things we do, the two groups of thirty now had the potential to cooperate as one group of sixty.

Now, for the first time, human beings could start combining groups under shared belief systems, and this paved the way for large scale human cooperation like never before.

Organised religions, countries, and armies would not have been possible without it.

‘Humans are ninety percent chimp and ten percent bee.’ – Jonathan Haidt

As a culture, we are living in an era of heightened individualism.

Success is measured by what we’re able to achieve personally, whether it be likes on Facebook, followers on Instagram, or how quickly we’re ascending the corporate ladder.

But researching Jonathan Haidt’s work has made me realise that cooperation is at the very core of being human. 

It’s what separates us from other primates. It’s why we’re at the top of the food chain, and it offers the best explanation for how we went from small groups of hunters and foragers, to where we are today. 

So if we’re looking for a way to improve ourselves, both individually and collectively, maybe the thing to focus is on improving our cooperation skills.

It’s worked for us in the past; why not now, too?

The Paradox of Risk

Having just booked a one-way flight to Barcelona with no idea on how it’s going to end up, I’ve been thinking a lot about risk lately.

In the short term, not taking risks means stability and comfort.
In the long term however, avoiding risks and exposing yourself to the occasional bit of volatility and discomfort can make you soft.

You can become a prisoner of your own comfort.

Compare an eighteen year old who leaves school to start his own business, and another who goes to university and gets a job in a large corporation.

The process of starting a business is almost a daily shock to the system. Each day brings with it a new problem. In overcoming each problem the entrepreneur becomes more resilient, and learns skills that he can use for the rest of his life.

Although in the short term, it appears risky – he is in a process of developing a skillset that he can take anywhere in the world and can apply at any time.

Now take the 18 year old who has went to university and took the safe position in the corporation. He has the security of a weekly pay cheque and seems to be in a safe position.

However, if we take a longer view of the situation, it’s a different story.

If for example, an economic crisis hits, the corporation will have to lay off a large percentage of its employees.

His economic security is dependent on the corporation and forces outside of his control.

If a big shock takes down the system he is dependent on, he is in trouble. All he knows is the banking job. Our entrepreneur on the other hand, is self reliant and used to absorbing shocks on a regular basis.

He is used to finding solutions to problems and adapting to new situations. He will make something happen- it’s in his nature.


“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”― Nassim Nicholas Taleb

By doing what you are supposed to – going to university, getting a degree and then getting a job, you are making yourself dependent on a system. If that system sinks, then you will go down with it.

I don’t like the idea of my basic needs- food, water and shelter being dependent on factors outside of my control. As I’ve got older, I’ve felt a growing instinct to become increasingly less dependent on things outside of my control. Almost everything in life can be taken from you, but the more you can depend on yourself, the more freedom you naturally have.

And besides, life is a lot more fun when you don’t know what’s going to happen next.