The Origins of Personal Development

Personal development is a messy subject. Depending on your background and influences you may consider it stupid or you may think of it as hippie and woo-woo stuff. Perhaps a lame infomercial in which people are telling you how to lose 50 pounds by eating just pizza comes to mind. Maybe you imagine a successful and rich business man or maybe you imagine a Buddha. And each one of those is valid and true to a certain extent.

But before going into the history, let’s try to define a little bit better what is personal development. What does the dictionary have to say about it?

What is Personal Development?

The word development is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “the process of growing or changing and becoming more advanced.” Simple and straight to the point. Therefore, the definition of personal development should be:

”the process of growing, changing, and becoming more advanced that a human being undergoes.”

Personal development is a natural process. Just as for a tree is to grow and blossom, ours is to constantly improve – it is a need, not a luxury.

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Although the term “personal development” or “human development”, or “life mastery” seems new, it isn’t. The way we interpret and give meaning to it may have changed but human beings have been pursuing self-mastery since the beginning of times. Don’t you believe me? Hear this out.

Personal Development in The Past


In the 6th Century B.C, Siddhartha Gautama was born. Son of a king, he was given everything he desired – women, the best food, alcohol and the most expensive clothes. Until he reached his late 20’s, he had very little experience of the world outside the walls of the palace, so one day he decided to investigate the town he lived in. There, he was faced by the realities of the human condition – old age, death and suffering. Astonished for seeing the universal suffering that was taking place, he committed to discover a way to relieve it.

We all know how the story ended. Siddhartha became The Buddha and spent the rest of his life teaching what he had learned. He developed a technique through which people can free themselves from suffering – meditation. Whether you are a Buddhist or not, meditation is a scientifically proven method which increases your happiness, makes you calmer, more grounded, centered, and focused. Leaving aside all the dogma that pervades Buddhism, it provides a way that helps you master yourself.  However, personal development was not just happening in the East, it was also occurring in the West.

The Greeks and Personal Development

The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, even though he was born more than 2000 years ago, is said to be the father of modern personal development. He defined it as “a category of practical wisdom, where the practice of virtues leads to eudaimonia”[1] – where eudaimonia can be understood as “happiness”, “human flourishing” or “living well”. He grasped and practiced self-improvement two thousand years ago! And not just him: Plato, Socrates, Heraclitus and Plotinus were on the same journey of becoming whole human beings. Check out a Plotinus quote:

“Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So, do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labor to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiseling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendor of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.”

It is clear as the day that he was speaking of self-mastery and personal development 2000 years ago!

Another civilization that was big fan of personal development were the Romans. They developed a philosophy, called Stoicism, which said that “the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting this moment as it presents itself, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain”[2].

If this is not self-mastery, what is it then?

Personal Development Now!

It is not that self-improvement is a new and passing trend, it has been with us since the begging of civilization. Not only in the East with the Buddha, Confucius or Yogic teaching, but in the West with the Greeks and Romans. Many of these ancient people were incredibly wise. In other words, they were masters of their own life.

We praise and adore these guys, we think that they were the cornerstones of human understanding, but when people hear about personal development they think of it as bullshit and cheap psychology. But can you see the irony? We post Plato’s or Aristotle’s quotes on Facebook below a picture of you in the beach but when we have to apply what they were teaching we think it is just another infomercial.

Every human on Earth is on the path of development, whether they are conscious of it or not. We came here to improve, to be better, to actualize our potential, to become the best version of ourselves, to create, and to enjoy life and every facet of it.

And if you are not doing it, you are missing so much… You are not living life fully, you are half-assing it, like most of the people. I hope this is your wake up call.

[1] http://classics.mit.edu//Aristotle/nicomachaen.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism

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