When I was younger, my dad introduced me to personal development at the car auction. I was thirteen and in the middle of a sulk.
‘Life’s like a car,’ he said. “The best ones have a powerful engine, comfortable seats, a great suspension, and the tank’s always full of gas.” My dad’s model of life was a little like this.
- The engine is your thoughts, and strong thoughts make a powerful engine
- Comfortable seats are like values. Life feels more comfortable when you manage your core beliefs and help them guide and motivate your actions.
- The car’s suspension represents your relationships. Treating people with kindness and respect cushions and protects you from bumps in the road
- Gas is necessary for personal growth. Learning, exploring and being curious about your journey lets you map a route that includes all the important sights
“I’m too young to drive,” I said.
“You have a chauffeur. Father Time.”
“Oh. How does he know where I want to go?”
“Your thoughts make a map for him to follow. Sulky thoughts send you to one place. Stronger thoughts send you somewhere happier.”
“But I can’t change my thoughts!”
“You can if you go to the gas station, because that’s where they’re made. Your car doesn’t go anywhere without gas so you have to tell your chauffeur to take you there every day. It’s very important because, with gas, even a weak engine can finally get someplace.”
He glanced at me as the auctioneer started on the next car.
“If I were you, Jessie, I’d bone up on where the gas stations are.”
Your Life is a Growth Business
I liked the metaphor and I knew Dad was telling me to sort out my attitude, but it took me years to understand how significant the story was.
Life is a growth business — but it doesn’t grow everything all at once. Life builds when you keep it fuelled. Stagnation is stifling and unnecessary. Personal development starts with the awareness that you want your life to build in some way.
Books, courses, and people like Tony Robbins, Jay Shetty, Marie Forleo, et al, are like roadside billboards letting you know there are feelings, thoughts and ways of being that would be lovely to have on your map.
So are your friends and relatives. Even the negative ones, because they ignite desires for more positive things. They can drive you to improve your patience and be less quick to get irritated — both useful skills to gain if you weren’t born with them.
The gas station is where you choose what you want. You take your ambitions and fears, things you want to achieve and the problems you have. You sprinkle in the messages from the billboards and let the fuel pump mix it all up into a kind of mental rocket fuel. (More about this later.)
Your map starts to appear and Father Time begins to drive.
There are so many things in our world that we’re not allowed to control. Our biggest asset, however, our mind, is ours to train how we want. But training it is hard, isn’t it?
Growth Opportunities Are Everywhere (Especially in The Things We Don’t Like)
I’ve despised hills ever since school when they made us run cross-country over the devil’s belly (aka the Surrey countryside.)
I’d be the one crawling ten miles behind everyone else; every cell in my body lamenting this life of sorrow. I can’t say I was best pleased when fate moved me and my husband to hill-central at the beginning of this year.
We have a dog that needs walking, but circling a green square of a town-centre park is mega-dullsville. Ugh.
Well, the hills are prettier. And they also have woods, foxes and deer.
A tentative scouting expedition revealed that hills aren’t too intimidating with a dog in tow. He can scamper around looking for squirrels and things, and I can take photos of everything and think about fruit pies and custard.
So that’s what I’ve been doing five days a week (no-go at the weekends because of the clay pigeon shooting that scares my dog.)
Now, here’s where it gets interesting.
The weekend before last, I went to a new place for our evening walk. It was my first time there and the dog led the way because the walk’s more for him than for me.
We meandered down this path and that, him doing his thing and me enjoying the sounds of nature and keeping an eye out for bears and pervs.
All of a sudden, we found ourselves at the bottom of the steep wood, looking up at an ugly climb back to the car park. The dog didn’t care and bounded up. As for me, I wondered who’d find my body and what picture they’d use on the news because I don’t have any photos of myself online.
Anyway, fifteen minutes later, ta-da! There I was, at the top.
My clothes were stuck to my skin and intakes of breaths came so sharp I thought my lungs would burst. But my knees were firm and my back was straight.
Eight months of ambling up and down rolling hills had turned me into the world’s fittest athlete. Result!
I floated home, full of plans to build on my accomplishment. My husband’s an Olympic lifting coach so I asked him for help with my training. The hour-long session was a doozie.
It’s three days later today, and my legs are just about able to move again. Tomorrow I’ll be ready for round 2.
I already know I’m in the personal development danger zone — the habit hasn’t formed yet so my old ways are still trying to seduce me.
I keep my eyes on the gas station and remind myself that even in the most mundane of lives (all I do is work, walk my dog, eat and sleep) there is much to be explored, enjoyed and achieved when you keep your mind open and fuel up every day.
Let me explain how the gas station metaphor works.
Your Personal Development Doesn’t Happen at my Gas Station
Food and water keep your car gleaming and upright, but personal development keeps it moving.
Life improves when you work on these areas:
- The quality of your thoughts
- Understanding and managing your values
- Building relationships and nurturing them
If you fill up at my gas station, you’ll stagnate in your own life because your chauffeur will try to follow my chauffeur even though he can’t see my map and has no clue where we’re going or when we’ll change direction.
You need your own map. Earlier I said the gas station is where:
‘You take your ambitions and fears, things you want to achieve and the problems you have. You sprinkle in the messages from the billboards and let the fuel pump mix it all up into a kind of mental rocket fuel.’
The trip to the gas station takes many forms, and some are easier than others. Here are some ways in which you can cultivate personal development in your own life.
1. Face the niggle
Most people have learned to ignore the niggle that something’s not right. But if you poke at it, it’ll show you what’s bothering you. Maybe…
- People are treading on your values and you don’t know how to stop them
- You’ve got caught in the flow of something and need a way out
- You’ve been afraid to admit you made a wrong decision
- You keep snapping at someone and know you’re hurting them
The realization sometimes comes with its own solution.
Otherwise, there’s a lot of self-help and courses around. But identify the problem first. No sense learning German if you’re going to France.
2. Stream of consciousness writing
Write without interruption until your steam runs out. Then look at the balance between woe-is-me thoughts and actual problems.
You can address actual problems. But woe-is-me thinking keeps you stuck. Look at the language you’re using and re-write some of the sentences using better words (and lessons you remember from billboards) and see how it changes the feeling.
- “Everyone hated my speech,” becomes “Right, that’s over. What should I do better next time and how do I learn?”
- “Sick of this job,” becomes “I’m doing this because it serves a purpose but I’m also doing these other things so I can move on.”
Start catching your thoughts “live” and changing the words you use to think. The gas pump will feed your chauffeur with a better map.
Keep a journal. Personal journals and business journals are powerful access routes to your subconscious mind.
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3. Talk to yourself in a nice tone
The words you use to berate yourself don’t matter. It’s the tone that makes the difference.
Focus on changing the tone. Be less vicious. Say the words in a kind voice. Or in Fred Flintstone’s voice. Never use your mother’s voice unless the words are kind too.
Your map becomes friendly and something you want to travel.
4. Smile more
Smile for yourself, in your mind if not in reality. Make it a proper smile and not a smirk or anything wry.
Practice feeling the smile in your eyes and you’ll automatically feel sunnier inside.
Winter has its place, but sunshine changes the colour of your map and makes things happen.
5) Don’t be on jury duty
You don’t know everything. You know your own battles but you don’t know theirs.
Notice when you give advice that’s really a judgment masquerading as advice.
The masquerade keeps you tight and closed because you’re using it to anesthetize a deeper problem. When you stop judging and finding fault, there’s room for niggles and values to surface and be resolved.
Granted, it takes courage. Your map may even decide to take you through a dodgy area, but you’ll be heading somewhere you’re choosing to go.
6. Spend time alone
No music. No TV. No chirping phone. Learn to make time for your thoughts and enjoy your own company.
Listen to where your minds goes. Make a list of the top 100 things you’re thinking about. It has to be 100 and done in one sitting — it makes your mind reveal proper patterns.
Group your list into patterns and then from the list of 100, pick out the Top 10 most vital issues for you and put them in order of importance. This will tell your map what’s most important to you.
How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci is the book to read if you want to know more about this.
7. Look in the mirror
What annoys you about someone?
I heard once that taking a dislike to someone is because you see something in them that you don’t like about yourself. Maybe it’s jealousy or maybe it’s a blockage in how you think about yourself.
It’s not the easiest activity because it makes you face hidden truths — but it works. It releases something and frees you up in unexpected ways.
8. Understand your values
Your values guide your actions, behaviours and your sense of well-being. It’s normal (and essential) for them to change over time and for some to be more important than others.
But other people can imprint on them too — your peers, parents, the media and the loudest people in your group. That’s the reason for the popular expression: “You are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with.”
When your life doesn’t feel comfortable:
- Are your values being met or being trampled on?
- Are you treating people in a way that goes against your values?
- Is a situation making two values conflict?
“Values” is an ethereal word but don’t get bogged down by it. Think of it as identifying what’s important to you in life.
For example, I value Fun and “Doable-ness” (aka Easy). Walking in the town-centre park was doable but not fun. Walking on a hillside was fun but my schoolday memories proved it wasn’t doable. In the end, fun won. Fun is a stronger value to me than a memory of something not being doable.
The interesting thing is that my doable value changes the more I do things. At some point, my mind may even give it up and see everything as being doable — and free me up from having to stress over banal decisions.
Habits become Opportunities
Build these visits to the gas station into your daily life.
They fit into your day at any odd time and after a while, you’ll automatically see opportunities popping up even where you thought there weren’t any.
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These habits help you connect with yourself in a non-selfish way.
Personal development keeps you on track with how your life’s supposed to be.
Values drive your actions and behaviors. Values change, and often do. You want them to change kindly through reframes and staying in tune with your thoughts, not harshly through tragedy and chaos.
If you want to be there for someone and your values agree, the gas station starts filling you with energy that reflects what you’re thinking and you start seeing things in a new way.
Late nights alone in your study become thorny. You get embarrassed when you speak harshly or impatiently dismiss someone. You think it’ll be nice to have dinner with your family. Your work is important, but they are too.
Your thoughts create new behaviors. You spend evenings with the family and wake up at 5am to fit in an hour of writing before work.
Your chauffeur has started to drive. And the ride becomes comfortable.
Personal Development Starts With the First Breath
You started learning and changing from the second you were born. It was an automatic impulse, totally self-propelled. You weren’t worried about having to give up something in order to achieve something else. You just went for it because you knew no other way.
You grow up open to learning your own way to deal with what life throws at you.
But at some point, personal development flatlines.
You learn to tread water. You know enough to stop sinking and you make that be enough. You ignore the flatness, the stress, the anger seething under the surface. You do what’s expected so you don’t rock the boat.
But rocking the boat doesn’t mean it will tip over. It’s far better to control the rocking before events take over and things spiral out of control.
Build your suspension and your car will drive smoothly over the bumps in the road.
Do you remember what my dad said about building suspension?
Baby Steps Are Your Secret Power
Personal development isn’t a course or a seminar or a book. You’ve been doing it since you were a baby.
Ambling on hills astonished me with proof that I had it in me to start Olympic standard training (well, kind of.) But I never would have known if I’d just carried on suffering the Fun vs Doable conflict. I’d still be circling the green square of the town center park.
Boredom was the catalyst that got me to the gas station.
The gas station jiggled together my dislike of hills, loathing of the town-centre park, love of countryside and commitment to the dog’s mental health and created a map that suited me. I’d have had a different map if I’d thrown in a desire to be fit too, but I didn’t have that desire at the time.
Life builds, remember.
Start with incorporating some of the habits I mentioned earlier. They interrupt your tempo so you start seeing opportunities to grow and change direction.
Your thoughts are making the map and your chauffeur is following it. Remember to fill up with gas.