For a term so seemingly self-explanatory, the concept of personal growth has long fascinated scientists, scholars, and social workers, prompting countless researchers’ career-long studies and anchoring an entire industry dedicated to self-help and improvement. But what is personal growth and how does it affect our career trajectories and choices?
We asked that question to Dr. John Meyer, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Western University in Ontario, Canada, whose research about career engagement and motivation draws on the ideas of personal growth.
What is personal growth and why does it matter to one’s work?
At its simplest, personal growth is exactly what it sounds like: an individual’s efforts to change and grow in various aspects of one’s life. “It is a skill set that every person carries into life experiences that influences each person to seek out opportunities for growth and to capitalize on those opportunities by engaging in intentional efforts to personally change and improve,” writes Dr. Christine Robitschek, an associate professor of psychological sciences who runs the Personal Growth Initiative Lab at Texas Tech University.
There are generally thought to be five main pillars of personal growth: mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and social growth. Studies have shown that consciously leaning into any—or all—of these areas can increase overall satisfaction and fulfillment, including in one’s career. That’s where Meyer’s work comes in.
Piggybacking on the work of University of Wisconsin researcher Carol Ryff that examined personal growth as one of six key factors to overall well-being, Meyer and his students developed a personal growth and development scale (PGDS) to determine to what degree engaging in work could contribute to an overall sense of well-being. “We found that it was indeed the case that when people were more engaged in what they were doing, they reported greater personal growth and development,” he says.
Focusing on personal growth starts with a mindset.
Mention “belief” in a room of scientists and you’re likely to hear a collective groan. But some researchers have found that belief is actually inherent to personal growth. Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, calls this the “growth mindset” and her research on it has influenced studies on the topic for the last quarter century. “Her idea is basically that some people come into [a situation] with a fixed mindset: the belief that you’ve got to play the hand you were dealt and that there’s really no opportunity for improvement,” Meyer says. The other option is a growth mindset. “That’s the sense that you have the opportunity to develop and grow; the idea that your attributes aren’t fixed.”
Having a growth mindset at work is “a really good starting point,” Meyer says. But it doesn’t stop there. As Ryff points out, it’s a constant struggle to maintain that mindset, and simply having the growth mindset won’t initiate growth; only action can do that.
Personal growth should build on strengths you’ve already developed.
Armed with the mindset that one can change, an individual now must make it happen. “I think there’s limits to it, of course,” Meyer says. He cautions one to be realistic. “I don’t believe that anybody has the opportunity to do anything that they want to do, but I really do believe that we all have something that we can do.”
Identify your strengths and interests, he says. “I’m not saying that people should close the door prematurely, but instead of trying to do things you might not be able to do, look back at your personal history: What are the things where you’ve had your successes? What are the things that interested you? And then say: Well how could I get better at that?”
Personal growth is for everyone, every day.
The journey towards personal growth is long—often lifelong—and turbulent. Some days, growth will come naturally; other days will be a struggle. The good news: Personal growth is achievable for everyone, on any day, no matter where you are in the process.
For your good days: Meyer’s research concluded that often, “the rich get richer” when it comes to personal growth. “Our studies found that people who are already doing well will find ways to improve more,” he says. “Whereas those who might not be experiencing that well-being—or have sort of given up—are actually less likely to benefit from whatever experience that they encounter.” In layman’s terms: if you stay engaged and hungry for growth, growth will come more naturally than if you’re starting from scratch.
"Our studies found that people who are already doing well will find ways to improve more. Whereas those who might not be experiencing that well-being—or have sort of given up—are actually less likely to benefit from whatever experience that they encounter."
For the bad days: Other researchers, such as Marianne van Woerkom and Maria Christina Meyers, two researchers at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, have found that people with lower levels of self-confidence and personal initiative can also benefit from personal growth. Their 2018 study concluded that a strengths intervention initiated by an employer—i.e. an effort to target an employee’s strengths to encourage growth beyond one’s job description—“was especially effective for participants with low to medium initial levels of general self-efficacy,” they write in the study’s abstract. “We conclude that a strengths intervention may provide a brief and effective tool…in particular when offered to employees who lack confidence in their own abilities.”
So what does it really look like to be focused on personal growth?
According to Meyers, personal growth and engagement go hand in hand, and an intentional effort to focus on both can lessen the likelihood of burnout. “If you feel that you’re not capable, or you’re not being yourself, or you’re not following your true destinies so to speak, you’re more inclined to burn out,” Meyer says. “But if you can find those things that are engaging to you, burnout should be less likely.”
"If you feel that you’re not capable, or you’re not being yourself, or you’re not following your true destinies so to speak, you’re more inclined to burn out. But if you can find those things that are engaging to you, burnout should be less likely."
Believe you can change, find your strengths, then go for it: Often growth in the workplace manifests itself when one finds new challenges and initiatives outside one’s direct job description and engages fully in them, whether that’s taking on new tasks or side projects outside work hours.“Combining these tools, people should be better able to seek and take advantage of opportunities where they can grow and make decisions for their careers based on their goals,” Meyer says. “It opens all kinds of doors.”