what is personal development?

Personal Development Made Simple: A Beginner’s Guide

Do you know who Tony Robbins is?

He went from working as a janitor to the world’s most well known personal development speaker with a net worth of $480 million

Similarly, Brian Tracy went from working dead-end jobs (like dishwasher) as a high school dropout to a multi-millionaire salesman.

Here’s one more: W. Clement Stone took the book Think and Grow Rich and followed it to a tee. He turned $100 into millions in the insurance business. 

This was all thanks to personal development.

Now, there is a lot of fluff and bad advice out there on personal development and I want to set things straight. You may be (rightfully) skeptical of personal development because of all the useless articles and books out there. But real personal development, at its core, can help you. And I will prove it.

What is Personal Development?

At its core, personal development is simply improving yourself as a person so you achieve more of your goals, while doing it more efficiently.

A simple example of a personal development practice would be setting goals. Before I started goal setting, I was drifting around and not getting any results with my fitness because I did not know if I was improving or not. But then, I set measurable steps I could track and specific tasks to get there. All of a sudden, I could hold myself accountable and I started seeing progress.

Personal development is actually a broad topic. It can include working on your confidence, leadership, social skills, charisma, earning potential, will power, work ethic, or emotional intelligence.

Now, let me show you why personal development gets a bad rep.

Why There Is Skepticism and Distrust of Personal Development

If you’ve ever thought personal development is just a bunch of generic, useless quotes on positivity, I don’t blame you. In fact, I agree.

There’s a lot of bad advice out there that covers up the good science-backed, actionable stuff.

The internet brought an explosion of millions of bad articles on personal development from tens of thousands of writers. Anyone could start talking about it and this lead to people with no credibility giving bad advice.

But even before the Internet, the skepticism was still there. Some people took solid personal development themes like “visualizing your goal before you achieve it” and stretched it out to the extremes. The most well known example is the Law of Attraction.

The most extremist versions of this tell you that you could just sit there on your butt and the “Law of Attraction” will bring millions of dollars to you just by believing. And doing zero work.

These extreme views came from gurus who sold books and programs. Because enough people bought into this idea, a somewhat scammy industry emerged. But understand this:

Just because there is some bad woo-woo, mumbo jumbo, spiritual advice out there, does not mean all personal development advice is bad.

In fact, the Law of Attraction is technically a subcategory of a subcategory (wealth creation) to personal development. So do not worry about it.

The Internet has lowered the barrier to entry and allowed a lot of advice without evidence to be spewed out. I solve this problem by pulling anything I listen to through one of two screens:

  1. Is there credible science backing up your claim(s)?
  2. Is the advice coming from someone who has achieved substantial success in the area (preferably one of the best in the world and/or started in a situation where I am in)?

These are two tests you can use as well to sort through the B.S.

Why Personal Development Is So Important and Valuable

Many years ago, I was surfing on the Internet and discovered dating advice. It was a shock to my system because up until that point, I didn’t think it was something you could improve. I thought your success with girls was predetermined and based on genetics out of your control.

That moment gave me hope and excitement. From that moment on, I turned into a different person because I knew that I had this secret power to improve myself while others were still stuck in my old mindset. Looking back at myself before that moment, I was just walking through life like a zombie, unaware of the possibilities.

 

Unfortunately, I also came across a lot of bad advice that didn’t work. I learned to filter through bad advice through my two filters:

  • Is there clear proof they’re successful in their field and started in a situation like me?
  • Is the advice backed by scientific evidence?

 

Later on, I stumbled across videos of Warren Buffett and personal finance videos on YouTube. That exposed to the universe of personal development, which includes thousands of interviews of millionaires (hundreds of billionaires), science-based tips to improve your performance, and many other things.

 

My hope was re-ignited because I realized I could improve my wealth, performance, skill, fitness, happiness, and overall success in life as well.

Fundamental Principles of Self Development

When you boil down self development to its core, there are the main topics that people are interested in improving (ordered by how often they’re emphasized):

 

  1. Wealth (making more money)
  2. Happiness (becoming happier)
  3. Mastery (performing better at a skill or even becoming world class)
  4. Health and Fitness
  5. Dating and/or Relationships

 

Personally, I think #3 and #5 are subcategories because they’re not focused as primary topics in self help since the fitness and dating advice industry cover them specifically.

 

As you can see, self help can get very broad because some people expand and emphasize into even more subcategories within these topics. For example, health is a cornerstone to improving your success in each of these topics, so some self-help enthusiasts are also interesting in learning how to live longer and perform better at sports. Love and relationships are a cornerstone to happiness, so people are also interested in finding higher quality dates or making a marriage last longer, so they could be interested in communication skills, empathy skills, or improving how attractive they look with fitness.  

 

As you can see, each of these topics can be inter-related. Depending on your goals, for example, Mastery could be a subcategory of Wealth. Different people in the personal development space prioritize different topics. A more comprehensive list of the main topics covered may look like this:

 

  • Wealth
  • Happiness
  • Mastery
  • Dating and/or Relationships
  • Health
  • Wisdom
  • Spiritual Growth

 

If you see a standard self improvement article, it may not seem to relate to these core principles, but that’s because you’re looking at a sub-category or sub-subcategory. If you dig deep enough for the reason why they want to learn more, it usually comes back to these main principles. Here’s a tree of topics and subcategories to illustrate:

 

  • Wealth (How to earn more)
    • How to get a raise at work.
      • How to be a better manager.
      • How to achieve your goals faster.
    • How to earn more in less time.
      • How to be more productive.
  • Mastery (How to become the best at your craft)
    • How to increase your focus.
      • How to meditate.
      • How to guard and grow your willpower.
    • How to beat your competition.
      • How to be a better public speaker.
      • How to be have more emotional intelligence.
      • How to have a growth mindset.
  • Happiness
    • How to make more money (This guy believes happiness comes from money).
    • How to enjoy life more.

 

If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. These are timeless, primal urges that are baked into our genetics. They are the main goals, though not only goals, of most people.

 

What’s most important for you to know is that you shouldn’t overfocus on wealth and related successes without also balancing happiness and relationship cultivation.

 

Most people make the mistake of only getting good at one of these principles, like wealth. They are told by society that money will make them happy (which is only partially true) so they get rich. But once they are, they realize they are still unhappy, either because their job isn’t fun and fulfilling, they have no friends, or some other reason. This happens so often it’s almost a cliche now. I hear a story like this on every other entrepreneur-themed podcast I listen to.

 

Check out my comprehensive article on the truth about happiness and all the science-backed practices you can do to increase long-term happiness. You’ll find it surprising because a lot of the techniques don’t require much money at all.

 

If you’re overwhelmed by all the different categories you can improve, don’t worry. There are some universal principles that bleed into success in all areas. One is exercise, which studies have shown increase happiness, focus, discipline, and energy, all of which increase your mastery and wealth. Identifying these big practices that bleed down to everything else saves you a lot of time.

 

There are others like improving willpower, sleep, and emotional intelligence, but this is a beginner’s guide, so don’t worry about those for now. Going from no exercise to 10 minutes a day can make a huge impact over the span of your life.  

How To Navigate The Seas of Bad Self-Help Advice

Despite all the bad stuff out there, there is a way to get really good advice:

 

Only listen to people who have achieved exactly what you want. It’s that simple. Reading a book by a billionaire on how to make money is better than someone who has not because they have done it.

 

And if you are really picky with who you listen to (like I am), there are other ways to get even more trustworthy advice. Let’s say you cannot trust a billionaire because there may be survivorship bias at play. Maybe what this billionaire did is what everyone else did and he just got lucky so his advice won’t work.

 

Then, you can take advice from:

  • Scientific studies of thousands of people (A great example is the book The Millionaire Next Door which studies thousands of millionaires or Good To Great which does something similar for successful businesses).
  • Multiple sources of credible people (You can read many books by billionaires, for instance. Or study Napoleon Hill who spent his life studying hundreds of billionaires).

A Foundational Pillar of Personal Development: Mindsets

One thing you will hear a lot is the importance of Mindsets. this is an important foundation of self growth. It is not woo woo or spiritual. It means believing what is true and not letting false beliefs limit your potential.

 

We call beliefs that are not true “limiting beliefs” because they hold you back from your potential. Here are some examples to explain it:

 

  • Barack Obama is African-American who became president of the United States but he could have let his false belief that “only white men can be President” stop him from trying.
  • Helen Keller could have gave into her belief that “women who are blind and deaf can never be successful.” But she did not. She became a world-famous author and political activist.
  • The world believed that the four-minute mile was biologically impossible. Roger Bannister could have let this belief hold him back. But he did not and was the first to break it.  

 

This is just a taste of mindsets and limiting beliefs. There are probably many hidden in your brain now. We have beliefs about how muscular we can get, how much money we can make, how happy we can be, how much we can achieve, how attractive we can be, and how many lives we can save that may or may not be true.

 

Whenever you have time, take some time to think about how false beliefs hold us back. Almost any insecurity you may have (thanks to society and culture) is a potential limiting belief. This includes beliefs about your:

 

  • Gender.
  • Age.
  • Height.
  • Weight.
  • Physical Fitness.
  • Ethnicity.
  • Accent.
  • Education.
  • Experience.
  • Facial Attractiveness.
  • Social Skills.
  • Lack of connections.

 

The list goes on. Now, I am not so extreme to say that “all insecurities are unjustified.” Maybe you actually cannot become a professional basketball player if you are two feet tall. Having said that, this exercise may root out real limiting beliefs:

 

Exercise: Choose one trait you are insecure about. Find one person in history who has achieved what your goal despite having the same trait. You will sometimes be surprised that he or she exists. To give you an example, I am a bit insecure about being Chinese American. But then, I realize Bruce Lee and Jeremy Lin have achieved great success despite their race.

 

Now, limiting beliefs are just one part of mindsets. There are money mindsets, social skills mindsets, and performance-based mindsets. Do not get overwhelmed. You do not need to know them all to do well (or even close to all of them).

 

For now, just work a bit on the limiting beliefs exercise when you have time and you will do better than most people.

 

But just to give you an idea of what the other mindsets are, here is a money mindset: “Wealthy people are kind and giving.” This is a mindset that is highly useful for people and unnecessary for others.

 

Some people were told by their parents that “all rich people are evil and greedy.” This mindset blocks them from becoming rich because they have this deep-seated psychological block that prevents them from becoming what they despise. And obviously, this generalization is not true. Not all rich people are evil. Some are more giving, charitable, and selfless than poor people.

 

A great book for further reading on money mindsets is The Millionaire Mind.

3 Steps To Get Started

If you are reading this you are either a beginner or someone who wants a refresher on fundamental self development.

 

With personal development being such a broad topic, you could have many goals. Some people just want to be better public speakers because that is their job. Others want to improve their social skills because they are an introvert.

 

Therefore, I want to give you 3 exercises you can be applied to almost anything that will have the greatest impact towards your success in achieving these goals. I recommend doing each one at a time so they become habits more consistently. It is harder to juggle multiple things.

1. Proper Goal Setting

I mentioned goal setting earlier as an example, but I want to show you a proper way of doing it. It is more than just writing whatever you want down on paper. The big problem with a vague goal is that it is not measurable and therefore you cannot hold yourself accountable.

 

If you have a deadline and a number to measure, you can easily answer with Yes or No when the deadline arrives and you ask yourself if you accomplished your goal.

 

A good acronym you can use is S.M.A.R.T. goals. It stands for:

 

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-Sensitive

 

 

Making it specific narrows down what you have to do to solve it. A broad goal like “I want to be rich” leaves you confused with what steps you should take. But a specific goal like “I want to pitch my idea to 5 people” makes it clear what action you must take.

 

Making it measurable, as mentioned, keeps you accountable on whether you accomplished it or not. “I want a cool life” is not as good a goal as “I must email 3 people to network with” because it has a number to measure your progress.

 

Making it achievable helps you take actual action. Setting out to build a wall can leave you overwhelmed and confused on what to do. Instead, if you set out to “lay my first brick for the wall”, you are not intimidated to start and you know there is a good chance you can get it done (which actually encourages you to do it).

 

Making it realistic is kind of the same thing as achievable. I do not like this one but hey, it spells “smart.”

 

Making it time-sensitive stops infinite procrastination. Without a deadline you can keep putting it off for years until you are so old you are about to die. Setting a deadline like 2 weeks or 1 hour or 1 month keeps you focused. Keep in mind that the longer the deadline is away, the more room you give yourself to procrastinate and get off task. So preferably, keep the deadlines short.

 

The S.M.A.R.T. Goals process is not perfect. The R is repetitive. And it also kind of makes you believe that you cannot set big, impossible goals (which is not true). But it is more than good enough to help you do better than the average masses. From my studies of successful people, I think you should set brave, crazy goals but use the S.M.A.R.T. process to break them down into realistic chunks that move you forward. A dose of reality is not always a bad thing.  

 

Here is a Before vs. After comparison of someone who gets introduced to the S.M.A.R.T. process:

 

Before: “I want to be rich.”

 

After: “I want to make $100,000 a year in 2 years from now. In the next week, I will reach out to 15 prospects to pitch them on my freelance writing services to try to make $100 more.”

 

You see how different this is? The former cannot be measured. “Rich” can be defined differently for different people. $100,000 is rich to one person but poor to another. It leaves so much room for you to remain confused, procrastinate, and do aimless tasks.

 

The one thing I want to add to this is to write down your goal with a paper and pen at least once a day. Writing it down will burn it into your brain more than typing. This aims as a constant reminder to keep you moving forward in the right direction.

 

This may seem overwhelming or intimidating but it is actually not a lot of work. It takes a couple seconds to scribble down a sentence on paper. And you can start out with once a week and work your way up to once a day.

2. Visualization The Right Way

Before you roll your eyes and call this fake, hear me out. This is not about holding hands and hoping money will fall into your lap. And it certainly is not the “sit there and do no work and money will pour into your life” process I called out earlier. You do have to be willing to put in the work, but you will get results if you do.

 

The visualization I am talking about is about:

  • Having a process that reminds you to stay on track and avoid unproductive activities.
  • Get you used to how you would feel when you achieve your goal.
  • Identifying any mindset blocks that prevent you from achieving your goal.
  • Keep you focused on an outcome.
  • Keep you alert for opportunities that will move you towards your goal.

 

When you think about it, this type of visualization is something all the best athletes of all time do. They visualize their game winning shot before they take it.

 

Here’s the simple process I want you to follow:

  • At least once a day, visualize in as much detail as you can your goal coming true as if it is happening now. The more detail the better.
  • Walk through the motions of the event(s). You may, for example, see champagne bottles popping and your family cheering as your business makes its first million.
  • Act it out as if it happening now and put emotion into it. Nothing of importance was ever accomplished without emotion.
  • (Optional) Walk back that moment until now to figure out what you have to do to get there. This is optional because sometimes, you do not know yet. Doing this often will put your brain on alert at all times to give you ideas on how to get there though.

 

For more reading and research on visualization, read the book The Laws of Success by Napoleon Hill. Hill spent his life studying the richest billionaires in history in person. He had access to 500 of the wealthiest people in the world thanks to his connections with Andrew Carnegie. That’s credibility you can trust.

 

3. Habit Formation

“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” -Warren Buffett

 

Humans are creatures of habit. Most of what we do on a daily basis is automatic habit because it lets our brain focus on more important tasks. This includes breathing, brushing your teeth, driving, morning routines, showering, exercise, workout, watch TV, eat junk food, waste time on social media, what books you read, and what you do at work.

 

Therefore, it is better to learn how to form good habits and break habits early on. As Warren Buffett says, the older you get, the harder it is to break habits.

 

The good news is that there is a lot of modern scientific studies that can help you master your habits. A fantastic book on this is called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. But if I were to summarize the book, the core concept is understanding how habits form:

 

A trigger reminds you about the habit. -> You do the behavior. -> A reward or pleasurable feeling cements the habit.

 

For a bad habit, identify the current trigger and reward around it. Then, replace the behavior with a good one while keeping the trigger and reward the same.

 

For example, I have a YouTube-addiction. I love watching videos online every day. It eats up hours of time. The trigger is usually a feeling of boredom. I know there is a lot of productive stuff I can do, but it is not fun. The reward is a feeling of pleasure, fun, and happiness from the entertaining YouTube videos. And sometimes, even a small sense of productivity since I occasionally watch useful How-to videos.

 

In this case, I replace the behavior of Youtube-watching with a productive behavior that will give me the same reward: exercising outside while playing Pokemon Go or taking hip hop dance classes. I still have fun and enjoy my time, but it also moves me towards my goals of fitness.

 

A bonus tip is to remove temptation. I installed a site blocker so that YouTube cannot be visited to tempt me. These sites have all sorts of psychological triggers to pull you in and get you watching more so I set up a system so it does not even show up.

 

Studies show that a human’s willpower is a limited resource that gets drained and replenishes with rest. Willpower is drained when you:

  • make decisions.
  • resist any temptation (no matter how small).
  • do things behaviors you do not want to do but force yourself to do (like exercise).

 

Therefore, it is important to avoid needless drains of willpower. This is why President Obama never decided what suit to wear or what breakfast to eat in the mornings. And some say this is why Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg always wore the same thing every day.

 

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” -Barack Obama

 

Of course, you can use a similar process to form great habits. Let’s say you want to turn cold calling prospects into a habit as a salesman. Your trigger is going to work every morning and being told you have to call prospects. Your routine is to call them. But where’s the reward? Sometimes, you do not have any. You may get 100% rejections and just feel bad.

 

What about adding a delicious snack each time you make a call? The well-known top salesman Brian Tracy does this with sales teams he coaches. He lets them eat M&M’s after each call whether successful or not, which rewards them for making the effort. I believe it would be even better if you chose a snack that is healthy and delicious.

 

With habit formation, it does not happen overnight. You may screw up one day. You may give into temptations. But that’s normal. Forgive yourself and as long as you are moving in the right direction slowly but surely over the coming months, you will start seeing results.

Conclusion

As you can see, I take a practical approach to personal development. I try and strip away the B.S., bring in the scientific evidence, and emphasize credibility. At its core, personal development can change your life for the better.

 

What is taught here does require actual hard work. But if you are willing to put in the hard work and have the patience to keep consistent at it, your results will come.

 

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