One of the most important things I didn't understand for quite a long part of my adulthood is the importance of practicing growth in our personal and professional lives and the difference it can make. More importantly, the fact that all of us are perfectly capable of doing so—practicing growth.
After years of struggle, my assertion is that all choices in life come down to these two: growth and the opposite of it, which is decline and withering. When we choose growth, life is meaningful and we are happier. Our struggles become vehicles for our resilience and our sufferings become training for endurance. When we don’t, it causes pain, conflict, and shrinking. Our relationships suffer, our career declines, and our happiness diminishes.
We sometimes equate growth with having or doing more. But it is not always about more or better. Growth can be choosing patience and resilience in a moment of personal struggle and loss. Choosing compassion, and reconciliation in a moment of interpersonal conflict such as disagreement with your parent, partner, or colleague over a decision. In all these situations, practicing growth can make our lives so much better than otherwise.
Yet, we find practicing growth a constant challenge. A struggle I faced and I see a lot of people do. To that end, it is a good question to ask: how do we consistently practice growth?
As I alluded to at the onset of this essay, practicing growth can be hard. Most of us are not taught how to do it. It may seem as if there are a lot of different decisions with practicing growth, but as far as I can understand you can reduce them to two fundamental problems: 1) a willingness and ability to think clearly and 2) developing a system to practice your goal/craft/life.
Clear thinking as a vehicle for growth
First and foremost, growth is a choice, a decision—knowing what we want and don’t want and why. Take offense to that minor slight or not. Practice compassion with a difficult relative or not. Grind through that difficult project or not. Make that presentation or not.
The most important aspect of these decisions is our ability to see a situation for what it is, understand potential alternatives that we have, and choose the option that would lead to our expansion as an individual. Whether we choose courage over fear, kindness over cruelty is a growth decision but we can only make that decision when we can think clearly. If we can’t think clearly, we can’t choose wisely. Our willingness and ability to think clearly is the first ingredient we need to practice growth.
But clear thinking is hard work. That's why so many of us fail to practice growth even when it is the most obvious thing to do.
I first came to learn about my limitations with clear thinking in an encounter with Tyler Cowen, prominent American economist, author, and Professor at George Mason University. I asked him some complex questions, complex to me, of course, not to Tyler. What separates the most successful EV winners from the ones who don’t do well? Why is growth always good? Why/how do you ask such short/direct questions on your podcast? His answers showed me what clear thinking is—they live in the cities where things are happening, do we have a better alternative, my incentive is to learn as much as I can that drives everything else, and so on. I learned that clear thinking is simple and dispassionate. It is backed by a framework that helps you to see things clearly. More importantly, it requires a willingness to overcome our egos and preferences that can blind us.
Clear thinking empowers us to make decisions—we can choose what we want to become and we can choose expansion. With every decision, we ask ourselves “Am I expanding or contracting?”
Once we have decided that we want to grow, what comes next is rather straightforward—developing a system to grow consistently. Building a system to practice our craft and life (what better craft is there than practicing living a good life).
Reflection as a framework for practicing growth
Viswanathan Anand is an Indian chess grandmaster and former five-time World Chess Champion. When Anand was a kid, his mother encouraged him to develop a habit of reflection. After every chess game, she would force him to sit down and make notes on his performance, mistakes, observations about his opponents, opportunities he missed, areas where he could’ve done better, potential reasons he underperformed in one area, and did better than expected in another, and so on. That practice would eventually become a lifelong habit, helping him transform his game. Anand writes in his excellent biography Mind Master:
“As I grew older, this practice slowly grew on me. Putting down my observations right after a defeat when the pain was raw and the sting was fresh, I stumbled upon the solutions I had seen but didn’t act upon or the ones I had overlooked. Not only did it help me spot my mistakes but it also gave me a macro perspective of whether the misses fit into some sort of worrying pattern that needed to be eliminated.”
David Perell calls this framework ‘learn like an athlete.’ Deliberate training is how you improve at anything. Top athletes endure grueling training on a daily basis to get to the top and stay there and everyone can do the same in their profession. I call this a framework for improving anything.
A consistent reflection practice can unlock new opportunities for growth in any area we choose to apply it. If you want to improve your interpersonal skills, or get better at sales, build a recursive closed-loop model of reflection, apply your lessons, and see what happens.
The challenge is that while we understand the benefit of such a practice, few of us really take the pain of doing regular reflection. I have a weekly reflection system with 10/12 questions that force me to reflect on my week—what was my biggest bottleneck this week? What can I learn from this and change moving forward?; How self-aware was I last week?; Am I still proud of the thing I built or did last year?; My regrets; How focused was I last week?; What are current Hamming Problems in my life and work?, etc.
Most weeks I don’t go through all of them because I either feel I’ve more important things to do or I try to avoid the feeling of doing it. These are common excuses we use to find shortcuts around the hard work of growth.
Interestingly, people who do these practices also feel the same way. They don’t enjoy it. But they practice it anyway. For instance, Anand writes in the book that he used to hate the practice in the early days. He did it purely to make his mother happy. However, years of repeated practice turned it into a habit, leading to a lifelong practice of reflection and growth.
We may not always find it pleasant to reflect on all the mistakes and blunders we made throughout the day or week but we should force ourselves to do it and see our own flaws regardless. Like Anand, we will eventually develop enough muscle to endure and at some point, start to see the fruit of our endurance.
All growth demands some tearing. Remember we either endure the pain of growth or suffer the pain of decline.
A massive thank you to Becky Isjwara for reading an early draft of this essay and leaving invaluable feedback.
Originally published on 25 October 2023. Republished on 3 January 2024.