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Use The Stages of Personal Development to Fully Flourish

Personal development is really a spectrum composed of levels, each with their own version of self-help – we’ll call these the stages of personal development.

Often we think of personal development as a sea of different theories, practices and teachers, some of which we like, some of which we don’t, and we fight to defend our version of what it is. We argue for Eckhart Tolle over Tony Robbins, or for Steven Covey over Pablo Coelho.

I’m here to take you beyond the fighting, misunderstanding and confusion.

This unites many subfields into a common framework that you can use to supercharge your self-improvement efforts.

And you’ll get some cool exercises for doing just that – stick with me!

The Stages of Personal Development: Keys

There are certain key features to this model you should know before applying it to your own personal development:

  1. We have a Home stage – the stage of personal development that’s most relevant to us at this point in our life, the one we usually operate from. This defines which types of inner work we identify with and the ones we reject.
  2. The strongest indicator of our Home level of personal development is why we are pursuing a certain goal, rather than the goal itself. However, it is true that each level has characteristic goals and aims associated with it.
  3. Our tendency is to ascend through the levels, though there are no guarantees this will happen.
  4. The stages of personal development above our Home stage seem alien and irrelevant to us. We tend to demonise them.
  5. We’re able to access stages of personal development below our Home stage without them dominating our identity. In other words, later levels include previous ones.
  6. Though we retain access to earlier levels, we often fail to correctly incorporate their lessons, creating dysfunction and blind spots. It’s best to actively revisit and reincorporate aspects of earlier phases that we’ve left behind.
  7. All stages contribute skills and lessons that are crucial to our functioning and well-being.
  8. These stages of personal development are tied to the fundamental stages of human development.

The 4 Stages of Personal Development

Stage 1: Improving One’s Lot

Let’s begin with what is typically thought of as personal development: the stage where we are looking for tangible short-term results, progression and an improvement to our external life.

Here our focus is on the next five to ten years of our life and we seek practical outcomes.

To find this stage in yourself, look for themes of achievement, materialism and mobility. The defining attitude of this stage is: “Rise up and be the winner, the richest, the most successful.”

Here are the fundamental goals of this stage:

  • obtain: money, property, possessions
  • achieve: promotions, status, recognition
  • win: succeed over others, be number one

The need to achieve has both positive and negative effects. For one, it can provide us with motivation in abundance, through which we may contribute positively to the world, create a lot of wealth, and derive great satisfaction from our achievements. However, the failure to achieve can be a huge source of suffering for us, and unhealthy comparison with other highflyers can be crippling.

Often our ambition drive lacks higher morals to direct it towards sustainable, benevolent causes that benefit both ourselves and the world at large. Take Wall Street for example. In the name of Improving Their Lot, Wall Street brokers brought the world financial system to its knees. That’s this stage at its worse.

Personal development topics typical of this stage include real estate, entrepreneurship, working out, productivity, pick-up, self-esteem, appearance, motivation building and habit setting. Stage 1 gurus include Tony Robbins, Steven Covey and Napoleon Hill.

stages of personal development stage 1: improving one's lot

The transition to Stage 2 is visible in entrepreneurs who sell their fortunes to join communes, highflyers who have major existential crises as they dine on lobster and champagne, and fathers who regret missing their children’s early years to pursue the Mercedes-Benz and the silver Tag Heuer.

Stage 2: Inner Peace

Once we’ve successfully improved our external life, become aware of the limits of striving, or realised how overrated achievement and fame are, we turn 180 degrees and look inside.

Stage 2 is about getting in touch with our internal life. It’s also about redefining our identity free of conventional influences and deeply questioning the mainstream.

We broaden our personal development horizons beyond rich gurus and stacked bodybuilders. Now we’re rummaging through the spirituality section for books on mindfulness, minimalism and yoga. Realising we aren’t as self-reliant as we thought, we refine our relationships with others. This stage has feminine tones, while the previous one had a masculine flavour.

Here are the fundamental goals of this stage:

  • connect – connect with new aspects of ourselves and form strong bonds with others
  • introspect – go deep into our psyche and discover the hidden patterns governing it
  • heal – heal ourselves, heal others and heal humanity

We get in touch with faculties beyond the rational mind: intuition, our emotional life and the present moment. We uncover thought patterns, emotional blocks and subpersonalities. Often this emphasis on thoughts and emotions is taken too far, with everything attributed to them, and no other information allowed in.

Interpersonally, we develop deeper empathy, softer communication and the ability to transmit feelings as well as information.

Rather than striving to be number 1, here we develop an ethical sensitivity and attempt to contribute to good causes. We prefer to earn little and live simply.

A tendency at 2 is to reject 1 outright and get off the wheel of materialistic life. We often look down on Stage 1. The same mindset underlying Stage 2 personal development is also visible in anti-modern, anti-industrial and anti-consumerist views. We attend political protests and do charity work.

While the exploration of our inner world and our new connection to the present can be liberating, the rejection of Stage 1 can be disastrous.

Gurus addressing this stage include Eckhart Tolle, Pablo Coelho and Sharon Salzberg. Oprah Winfrey and Dan Harris are two high-profile people who’ve journeyed through 2 in front of our eyes.

Our self-development practices expand remarkably at this stage. We may discover meditation, yoga, mindfulness, Tarot, sensitive communication, inner child work, trauma work, Eastern traditions, relationship therapy, shadow work, diversity training, sensitivity training and affirmations, to name just a few.

stages of personal development stage 2: inner peace

After we’ve explored Stage 2 for a while, we may get sick of the sensitivity, the anti-materialist bend and the excessive femininity. That’s when Stage 3 appears.

Stage 3: The Centaur

Moving to Stage 3 is another expansion in our personal development efforts.

The essence of this stage is abundance, purpose and integration – the latter giving rise to its name. The metaphor is that we integrate the lower and the higher into a new, flexible sense of self.

We realise all the meat that we’ve left unchewed in our developmental path. There may be a lot of this from our materialistic phase after we rejected it in Stage 2. Here we consciously revisit and revive the earlier stages of personal development.

Another key component of this stage is our vision for a better world. At Stage 2, we can be rather idealistic, like John Lennon in Imagine. At 3, we often become changemakers, using this higher vision to guide us but grounding it in the realities of Joe Bloggs.

We bring back our masculine features, like self-assertiveness, directness, even anger and fieriness. Unlike in the previous stage where we were somewhat allergic to these, at Stage 3 we feel empowered to reintegrate them while retaining higher capacities.

Think of this stage as conscious, tempered individualism. We see our own growth in the context of history, the current milieu and systems like politics, the economy and education. We take all of that into account as we seek our full potential.

The motto of this stage is “I can flourish, and so can others”, or “Express self without harming others”. While Stage 1 was about self-improvement to the detriment of others, at Stage 3 we take care to consider others as we pursue self-actualisation.

Experts of this stage include Ken Wilber, with his Integral Life Practice, and Susanne Cook-Greuter, with her developmental coaching system. Deep Psychology also falls into this category: I cover topics from this entire spectrum.

stages of personal development stage 3: the centaur

Stage 4: Godly

And now we come to the highest stage: the Godly stage. In reality, this is a catch-all for the self-transcendence stages of development.

Here our prime concerns are going beyond our separate identity and refining it so we can be of service to the world.

We get our hands dirty with deep spiritual and consciousness work and seek lasting self-transformation. Not-knowing, unconditional love and deep acceptance typically accompany these efforts.

There is a slew of Stage 4 teachers: think Eckhart Tolle, Shinzen Young, Doshin Roshi, Rupert Spira and Peter Ralston, to name a few.

stages of personal development stage 4: godly

Stages of Personal Development: Three Tips for Full Flourishing

In my Ultimate Stages of Human Development Course, I give three principles for using the levels of human development to grow. Let’s unpack them.

Tip 1: Actively Challenge

Knowing that our goals and motivations are now intertwined with these levels, we want to build the practice deliberately questioning and contemplating our motivations. Why is it we want to reach this goal? What are my fundamental assumptions here?

For example, if our goal is to buy a mansion, by introspecting we’ll find a belief that says: “having this mansion will make me happy.” Under that may be hidden pain that we aren’t willing to acknowledge.

This doesn’t guarantee we’ll move onto higher motivations, but it does bring self-awareness and lubricates the rails leading to higher levels.

Tip 2: Integrate and Anticipate

With Integrate and Anticipate, I mean that we want to include all the previous stages of personal development, as Stage 4 does, and also look to our growing edge: the higher self that we are becoming.

As I mentioned in Key 6, we often poorly incorporate the lessons from previous levels. Don’t fall into that trap. And now you have a map for integrating all those previous selves that you lived out!

At the same time, we can anticipate and welcome what is to come. And we can even begin to strategically introduce it to our lives – this is strategy number 3.

Tip 3: Optimise Surround

Have you ever read a book that inspired you and put you in a different state of mind? Has a song ever stirred you emotionally? Well, this is the power of our surround. This is a broad concept – in short, when I say surround I mean all the information that you absorb from the places you frequent, the people you meet and the activities you invest time into.

A crucial part of growth is to deliberately expose ourselves to material that is above us. It inspires us, greases the rails for higher growth, and helps us to build a home in the higher stages. One powerful book, podcast or course can change your entire developmental trajectory.

Stages of Personal Development Reflection: 4 Questions

Here are four questions for your journey:

  1. What are currently your dominant stages?
  2. Which stage are you growing into?
  3. Which one could you better integrate to be more skillful?
  4. Are there stages you’re allergic to?

Share your insights with me in the comments section!