The 6 Stages of Personal Growth and What They Mean for You

The journey of life is a never ending one. It can take you on a roller coaster ride where unexpected surprises and challenges are the rule, not the exception.

As you grow, it’s easy to get caught up in the daily grind without thinking about where you’re heading or how far along the path you’ve come. Sometimes it’s a good thing to be in that flow, but it’s also critical to pause and reflect, and if necessary make adjustments!

If you want to attain personal growth, then it's important for you to be aware of the 6 stages of personal growth; considering what stage you're currently at so that you know which direction your next steps should lead towards.

What are the 6 stages of personal growth?

Stage 1. Unconscious incompetence: You don't know what you don't know

The word incompetence has a negative connotation and it’s often viewed as an insult. But the reality is that stripped from its veneer of judgement, it simply indicates a lack of competence, like when you take your first golf or piano lesson.

So, incompetence (or lack of competence) is part and parcel of venturing into new territory and it’s an unavoidable step to gain more knowledge and skills.

Philosopher Jordan Peterson refers to this as being the “Transforming Fool” and in my new book, Getting Naked,  I share a brief story about the importance of foolishness (incompetence) in our lives! The thing is, when you do something that’s new, there will be things you know you don’t know, which you’re clearly doing something about, and there will also be things you don’t know that you don’t know.

This is your first stage of personal growth. Because this unconscious incompetence is something that you can’t expect or predict (you simply don’t know it’s there in the first place), you’re likely to be disappointed every time you encounter it.

And oftentimes the price to pay for having put yourself in that situation will be high, both financially and in self-blame — perhaps someone who “did know” what to do took advantage of your ignorance costing you dearly in the end (if you ever lost money on a stock bet, you know what I’m talking about).

Now, when this happens try not to beat yourself up and use the experience instead as a teaching moment, with the knowledge that this is an unavoidable stage in your personal growth. You have to live through this experience before you can move on to the next stage.

Stage 2. Conscious incompetence: You're aware of the gap between where you are and where you want to be, but don’t yet know how to get there

The next stage in your personal growth is the starting point to developing any new skill and involves an area where you know you lack competence and want to do something about it.

This stage is also an unavoidable part of your personal growth journey as you strive to expand beyond your horizons. It also includes those areas of unconscious incompetence from stage 1 that became conscious.

This is your learning stage, where you take actions to acquire knowledge in order to improve your future outlook. As you learn and practice over time you become more and more competent, leading you to stage 3 below.

Stage 3. Conscious competence: You have a good sense of what needs to be done in order for you to reach your goal, but need practice to get there

conscious competence

So, now you’ve acquired a set of skills and you’re technically competent — but, you’re still not good at it and you have to think through each task every time you perform it (e.g. “thinking” your tennis swing instead of just “taking” it) making you less proficient.

When you have to think about what you’re doing “while” you’re doing it, you’re the most likely to screw things up. Therefore, this is the stage of making mistakes. Now, making mistakes doesn’t mean that you’re incompetent, it simply means that your competence has not been internalized yet.

The path out of this stage is to practice, practice and then practice some more until your task becomes second nature, leading you to the fourth stage of personal growth.

Stage 4. Unconscious competence: It all feels natural now - you've internalized the new skills and what was once difficult becomes easy to do

Things now become easy for you. Now, when I say easy I don’t mean uncomplicated. Flying an airplane is very complex, but if you have unconscious competence gained through thousands of flying hours, it’ll be a thing that you instinctively know how to do.

You’ll just go through the motions without “thinking” about it. At this stage you have a “feel” for things, you just know what to do every step of the way.

Unconscious competence is the realm of the expert. You still need to practice at this stage, but not to learn to internalize the task, you practice to refine your movements or knowledge and also to make sure you don’t get “rusty.”

For example, some airline pilots that were grounded for several months during the covid pandemic, were feeling insecure when they went back to work as their unconscious competence “threatened” to become conscious again. There is a reason why there’s a pre-season in professional sports where the stats don’t matter!

This stage is the time when you commit to a daily discipline of practice in your craft, whether you’re an athlete, a musician, a therapist of a computer programmer. This is also the stage when you begin to earn a decent income from your skills.

After some time, your personal growth is ready to take a leap into the next stage...

Stage 5. Self-actualization: You realize your full talents and you are now able to see the world through the eyes of your potential

self actualization

Stage 5 is where your talents shine through and you begin to attract the attention of others. Your skills are beginning to be sought after, since the quality of your work is consistently outstanding.

This applies whether you create fine art or paint houses. In this stage, your professional work begins to command higher and higher fees as you move away from commodity pricing (where the market’s supply and demand defines the pricing) to celebrity pricing (where you do).

How do you know you’ve made it to stage 5? You now have a long waiting list of people or entities clamoring for what you do! But, this is not the top of the chain, there’s yet an even higher stage...

Stage 6. Transcendence: The ultimate level of personal growth is when you’re able to transcend our ego by giving back more than you get from life

This is the stage where you’re of the world but not in the world. In this stage you transcend your ego — you no longer draw your identification from what you have, be it possessions or status.

You no longer need recognition, praise, good reviews or critical acclaim to feel good about yourself.

In fact, you know full well who you are, but your ego doesn’t identify with who you are. So, for instance, if you lose the ability to do what’s made you stand out, your world won’t come crashing down. You’ll just pivot to something else and move on with your life.

In this stage, you begin to give back without expecting anything in return. You no longer identify with your possessions or titles. You may have them and definitely enjoy them, but you don’t feel they “represent” or “make” who you are.

This is a stage of total freedom from symbols (awards, recognition, status, fame), in other words, a state of pure being and joy. A stage where you’re no longer happy or sad, rich or poor, you just “are what you are” without attachments to any state or external condition.

You’re equally OK with “what is” whether you’re sitting down enjoying a great read or waiting on the median for a tow truck to come after your car blew a tire.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you’re devoid of emotions. You’re just at peace with yourself and the world around you and take life in stride.

Next Steps

The vast majority of people will make it to stage 4 and stay there the rest of their lives. They will develop a certain set of skills and be quite content with the income or pleasure they derive from them — and that’s perfectly OK.

But if you want to move on to stage 5, you’ll have to be mentally prepared to put rubber to the road along with a tremendous amount of focus and discipline, so that you go through the practice “grind,” where you curtail your leisure time to dedicate any extra time to practising and refining your craft.

So just to be clear, moving on past stage 4 takes a tremendous amount of effort. For example, say you’ve developed a skill as a piano player with the goal of one day becoming a concert pianist, and you’re teaching private lessons in the meantime (the commodity).

In this case, the difference between stages 4 and 5 entails practicing piano regularly 3-5 hours a day every day for several years.

At one point, your effort will pay off when you begin to be noticed in the right circles for how exquisite your piano technique has become and you start to be sought out for live performances until your schedule is jam-packed (the celebrity).

To jump from stages 5 to 6 won’t require more practice, but simply your decision to let go of your ego and become driven by service to others.

When you don’t lose yourself in your “fame” and no longer identify with your status, awards and possessions, then you’ll know you’ve made it all the way!

Be well,

Joel

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