I have a theory that personal development and the English psyche are not the most natural of bedfellows. That’s not to say we don’t want to live fully, investigate our motivations and seek clarity in life; it’s just that we want to do it discreetly, in our own sweet time. It’s a stark contrast to the ravenous US appetite for personal development, a market whose tone is traditionally upbeat, solution-based and affirmative. In business terms, at least, it works: celebrity gurus and international bestsellers have propelled the US market to a worth of billions of dollars.
The UK’s appetite for self-knowledge and growth is certainly there, but Anglo-Saxon habits die hard. We’re not about stadium-sized conventions, affirmations and the devouring of books with titles like Soul Shifts: Transformative Wisdom For Creating A Life Of Authentic Awakening, Emotional Freedom & Practical Spirituality (I’m exhausted already). Instead, quieter forms of self development seem to chime with us. And some technologies are fostering this personal experience.
Take Headspace, the app store hit from UK-based Andy Puddicombe. It’s introduced over 2 million people to meditation, making the concept of mindfulness applicable to everyday life and delivering it straight to our ears. Chances are many of the people plugged into their earphones on your commute to work are listening to Headspace. It ranked as fourth-highest rated meditation app last year and has climbed to popularity by offering a straightforward, no-nonsense approach. No whooping affirmations or high fives here. Just a chance to look inward quietly and privately, when we want.
While there’s a clear sign that the appetite for personal development is growing in this country, subtlety is the name of the game. Yes, we want to find meaning in life, but it’s nobody’s business but our own. This is perhaps what has helped the life coaching industry flourish: the opportunity to seek growth on a one-to-one basis, and increasingly it’s available online. London-based life coach Liz Goodchild has clients across the country, consulting in person as well as via Skype sessions and email.
Liz is certain that, with the life coaches and gurus of the 80s and 90s having left a slightly bad taste in our mouths, quiet empathy is at the heart of our needs. “Stringent goal setting strategies, techniques that don’t get to the root of the problem and in-your-face personalities have given coaching a bad rap,” she says. “People want help from someone who is on their level, who doesn’t sympathise or give advice, but who listens deeply and attentively and asks questions that reveal answers. I see my role as guiding people as they make choices and take responsibility for their actions and the way they live their lives.”
Putting the self in self-help
What Liz describes is a move away from prescriptive regimes, techniques and programmes, giving way to something more freeform and autonomous. And this need for autonomy is, I think, a vital component of personal development for our times. London recently saw the UK’s first spirituality ‘unconference’, Higher Selfie, sell out on its debut. Alongside optional yoga sessions and a small number of headline speakers, attendees were invited to submit their own suggestions for a talk, and take to the stage if enough fellow attendees voted to hear it.
Autonomy sits comfortably with empathy. By placing autonomy at the centre of say, apps (that let us dip in and out as we please), or books (that enquire, rather than tell) or in any of the other ways in which we explore our relationship with ourselves and with the world, we can reflect and make changes privately and fully, without goalposts or fanfare.
It’s an attitude that’s at the heart of Only Do One Thing, a website I launched last November. It started originally as a writing side project, offering a simple daily piece of inspiration (or ‘nudge’) to do one simple positive thing that makes life better. Some days it’s a question to contemplate, on others it’s something to seek out or do. At the time of writing, it’s an invitation to enhance vital life skills by learning the rap in Buffalo Stance (because self-development does not equal piousness by any stretch of the imagination). The ethos is very much take-it-or-leave-it; there’s no way I’d expect anyone to act (or feel like acting) on every single nudge.
I never expected it to be interesting to more than a handful of friends, but it has mushroomed from side project to a commitment to many that I want to fulfil. I receive emails from people who tell me they’ve come to look forward to their daily email offering gentle encouragement to do something that’s good for the soul. More surprising still is that I’ve inadvertently given my own life a sense of meaning and purpose that definitely wasn’t there before.
More of a whisper
Only Do One Thing isn’t a slick app to rival Headspace just yet (watch this space, though), but online seems to be the right place for it to quietly exist and offer up nudges to those who’d like them, when they’d like them. A subscriber told me, “I welcome the idea of growth without the commitment of a course or a coach, or any kind of formality… it’s private. Personal development isn’t about shouting. It’s more of a whisper.”