Why personal development's 'incomplete me' concept must be challenged

Dr Chris Dalton, associate professor of management learning, Henley Business School, University of Reading, considers the "incomplete me".

Challenge the notion of the 'incomplete me'
Challenge the notion of the 'incomplete me'

The most fundamental proposition underpinning the personal-development business is "I am not there yet". This leads to the idea that personal development is a journey, that "I" am unfinished business, and this process is just a means to a desirable end. In fact, incompleteness is a deeply rooted proposition in education and training, but is it useful? My final column in this series challenges the "incomplete me" proposition as it applies to your sense of who you are as a manager and a person.

Development in life amounts to a sort of eternal apprenticeship

Question everything

For a proposition to make sense, you need to know not only what question it answers, but also which ones it asks. "I am not there yet" in your personal development, for example, has no meaning until you know: compared with what? And according to whom?

Personal development is loaded, as all concepts are, with hidden assumptions about the way the world is. We don't question what these are if no one else does. For example, personal development requires that you assume a "complete me" is out there in the future, and can be found by comparison with the "incomplete me". From this we get the language and literature of becoming happier, stronger, wiser, better and richer. Such beliefs in plans and goals are strong drivers.

This is not the whole story, though. Think about how you were taught to learn. In formal schooling, and probably when you started your career, the structure, tools and purpose of your study or work were given. Development in life amounts to a sort of eternal apprenticeship; a series of steps in preparation only for, it turns out, the next level of preparation. You learned with, through and from those around you and established a sense of identity.

All this can, of course, feel very engaging, but consider the following:

  • In the development of your management identity, who defined what management is for, and who defined for you what a manager does? Unless you have been doing this critically, you will have (unknowingly) accepted not just the methods and theories of others, but also all their assumptions.

No surprise, then, that most of us feel the need for external validation as proof of learning and development, and no wonder that the "self-help" movement is teeming with experts.

You are not incomplete: just unaware

  • The assumption that you are "not there yet" may be false. What if the point is to be found not in some ideal end, but in the present - where you are, now? What if your presupposition becomes, instead, that you are already there, and the only problem is that you are unaware of it?

  • True freedom in your management identity and practice can come only when you no longer need the validation of others, and the purpose of personal development is not probation for some future state when you finally start being you. You already have all the resources you need for that. No, personal development means waking up to the reality that all those distinctions were - are - an illusion.

Seen this way, a good personal-development programme would then be one that makes you find things out for yourself, without judging your efforts. 

This does not mean that you don't learn, or change, or have goals, just that you only ever do so in the present.

You are not incomplete: just unaware. You are unlikely to find this out from a course or magazine column, but if you can find more flow and happiness at work and develop a passion for what you do, you will have succeeded in starting the very worthwhile journey to exactly where you are.

The Every Day MBA, by Chris Dalton, will be published by Pearson in January 2015.