The 6 Pillars of Self-Development

No matter who you are, there is always room for improvement. After all, no one is perfect (except maybe Natalie Portman). For most people, identifying the aspects of their life that they need or want to change can be quite difficult, as it requires honesty and often painful soul-searching. Even then, actually taking the necessary action to implement and achieve change can be difficult and requires major persistence and motivation.

It is simply impossible to produce a solution or remedy to a problem that hasn’t already been previously identified. It’s like trying to score a goal in a football match that has no goal posts – completely aimless. There are six key components, or ‘pillars’, to each and every persons’ life. While there are certainly others, here are the main pillars which we will focus on:

  1. Family
  2. Friends
  3. Career
  4. Romantic / sexual relationships
  5. Hobbies and interests
  6. Health and well-being

When a scientist wants to understand the world in which he lives, he doesn’t look out of his window and start drawing conclusions. Trying to understand the physical make-up of the world is incredibly complex. In order to understand the world, he needs to look at the world on a smaller, simpler scale. The first step is to break the study of the world down into categories – Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and then, with regards to human affairs, Psychology and Sociology. Still, a scientists’ understanding of physics is still infinitely complex if his methodology involves simply observing what happens around him. To understand his field, he needs to break things down as far as possible. Scientists will therefore look at atoms, molecules and cells to understand the world, as this – while still complicated scientifically speaking – is much less complex than trying to observe the world as a whole.

By breaking down our lives into categories/pillars, we can better start to identify any problems within each category. Trying to identify problems or areas of our lives that can be improved and developed as a whole can be complex and difficult, just like a scientist attempting to understand the world by looking from his bedroom window. As with the sciences, each pillar of our lives have a certain level of cross-over. For example, in the study of human behaviour (psychology), there is the Biological Approach, as well as the Humanistic Approach. These approaches bare direct relations to the scientific fields of chemistry, biology and sociology, but take place within the spectrum of Psychology. In our lives – as with the sciences – there will inevitably be a ‘blurring of the lines’ between the different pillars. Once we’ve established our categories – as we have – the question remains – how does one go about identifying any issues within that pillar? Below we’ll examine each category and attempt to identity problems and how you might go about developing solutions.


1. Family

The very first question to ask yourself for all the pillars is; Am I happy with the situation at the moment? If the answer is “yes”, then a solution isn’t necessary. That said, it’s worth asking, “why?”. Why are you happy with this particular aspect of your life? Maybe you are close with your family, or maybe you see them often and spend good, quality time with them? Recognising why something works is just as important as understanding why it doesn’t. But what if the answer is “no”? As before, the key question is to ask why the answer is “no”. Maybe you don’t see your family often, maybe you don’t get on well with each other or have grown distant? From here, there are several questions that you must raise before you can remedy the situation. This requires honesty on your part in order for it to work. These questions are:

  • Am I putting in enough effort/time/energy to make my family situation a happy one?
  • What are the options available to me to make my situation better?

Usually, the answer to the first question is a resounding “no!”. The solution to most problems is simply to put in the necessary effort to improve the situation. So if your parents live out of town, make the time at the weekend to go and visit. It might be a long drive, but without putting in the effort, the problem will always remain. Say you don’t drive for example, then the second question comes into play. Can you get a bus? A train? Can you arrange for them to come and visit you? The two key questions are the same regardless of the individual circumstances that are causing unhappiness in this aspect of your life.


2. Friends

Typically, most people have the Family and Friends aspects of their lives pretty much set. After school or university, most people have many friends, but with a small group of particularly close friends or ‘best’ friends. Coming up with solutions to a family problem can be very difficult, as individual circumstances can differ wildly and be very personal. Also, with family, you only ever really get one. Family members don’t come and go like friends or girlfriends do. As before, you must ask, “Am I happy with my friends situation”. From now on, we’ll assume the answer is always no. Again, it is your job to get to to the bottom of “why?”. Maybe you don’t have anyone you consider a close friend? Maybe you have drifted apart from close friends due to work or university? Maybe there has been a falling out or you have never really had anyone you consider a close friend?

How much effort are you putting into this area of your life? Are you actively reaching out and trying to maintain contact? Or are you expecting your friends to do all the hard work or organising? What about your options? If you wanted to, could you make new friends quickly? If not, why not? Maybe you are shy and unconfident, or maybe you happen to live on a desert island (either literally or figuratively speaking)!? If you are shy and unconfident, or not good at making or maintaining relationships with people, this requires further investigation. The key is to simply apply the exact same set of questions until you break down the problems to their smallest elements – much like our scientist friend when he observes atoms and cells. Once you have these basic elements understood, you can then ask yourself about possible options or whether you are really doing enough to rectify or develop the circumstances to a more positive or satisfactory level. If you’re shy and unconfident for example, sitting in your room and interacting with your computer games or TV isn’t going to help. As hard as it may be, you need to take action, push and expand your comfort zones and do so with persistence.


3. Career

For most people, this is a major source of unhappiness. Most people end up working in a job that they don’t enjoy, or find unempowering, non-stimulating (either physically or intellectually) and mundane. A large part of this stems from an education system that shoehorns people into a narrow band of choices – usually university. As youngsters, we live in a bubble. Our lives consist of going to school, being at home and playing with our friends. As we enter our teens, this largely stays the same, except we must start thinking about our ‘careers’ or what we will do for a living. Our careers exist outside of our realities as children or teenagers – they are not part of the bubble in which we live. Given that we know very little about that which lies outside of our bubbles as kids, it seems bizarre – not to mention difficult – to have to make choices about what we will do with our lives. The education system is of course supposed to prepare us for this new reality, but in practice it only reveals very small chunks about what to expect, and is primarily aimed at making people pass exams, rather than producing free, well informed, critical thinkers. The great American stand-up comic, George Carlin, summed up the system with typically blunt astuteness;

The politicians… You know what they want? They want obedient workers… people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits…”

Once we enter our new realities, a whole new world of options that we never knew existed becomes available to us. For example, many people go travelling, only to discover that they could become travel writers, photographers, adventure tour leaders, scuba dive instructors or english teachers. Such options as these were never previously known to the traveller (because they weren’t covered in school!), who may well have spent many hours earning money stuck in a job they are not happy with.

So, as before, the question that arises is, “why am I not happy with my job/career?”. For many, they simply aren’t doing what they enjoy for a living, or maybe feel like they don’t even know what it is they wish to do. So, are you doing enough to get to where you want to be career-wise? Are you sending applications? Are you putting in the necessary effort? Do you have a goal in mind? What career options do you have? If none, why not? Whatever it is you do, make sure you don’t “passively accept” your current situation if it is not making you happy. Identify the things that you really enjoy (or make the effort to discover what it is you enjoy), and research how you might earn a living that way. Even if you are working in a job that you don’t like, it’s not permanent – so long as you have or can create options for yourself, whilst putting in the necessary effort to make those options a reality.


Romantic / Sexual Relationships

Along with the career ‘pillar’, this is often another huge source of much frustration for men. For many guys, they are not satisfied with their dating lives. You can categorise the different possible levels of a man’s dating life as such:

  • Single / Inactive
  • Single / Active
  • Relationship / Inactive
  • Relationship / Active

In the above list, the first part of each stage represents your status – you are either a single man or in a relationship. The second part is your sexual activity level, with ‘inactive’ meaning not having sex, or only very sporadically, and ‘active’ meaning you are having at least semi-regular sex. The two stages to avoid are ‘Single/Inactive’ and ‘Relationship/Inactive’. This means you are either single or in a relationship, and in either instance you are not having sex. It is these two scenarios that would most cause a man to feel as though he is not happy with this aspect of his life.

As before, if you are not happy with your dating life…why not? As stated, for most guys, it’s because they fall into the single/inactive category. So, time to ‘fess up… Are you putting in the required effort to get into the ‘active’ box? Are you going out and meeting girls? Are you expressing interest or demonstrating your intent with girls? Are you actually making sure you interact with the opposite sex? If not, why not? The next question, as always; What are your options? Do you have a few phone numbers you could follow up on? Do you have girls within your social circle? Do you find yourself in any environments where there are attractive girls? Could you go out at the weekend and have fun interacting with attractive women? Do you even know how to attract a girl? At the risk of sounding repetitive, if the answer is no, then why? Unless you are actively putting yourself out there, your situation is unlikely to change. Asking these questions will get you to the root of the problem. Only then can you begin to take the necessary steps to overcoming the issue. As the outspoken Indian mystic, Osho wrote:

You are sad. Go into your sadness rather than escaping into some activity, into some occupation, rather than going to see a friend or to the movie or turning on the radio or the TV. Rather than escaping from it, turning your back towards it, drop all activity. Close your eyes, go into it, see what it is, why it is – and see without condemning it, because if you condemn you will not be able to see the totality of it…

And you will be surprised: the deeper you go into it, the more it starts dispersing. If a person can go into his sorrow deeply he will find all sorrow has evaporated. And in that evaporation of sorrow is joy, is bliss. Bliss has not to be found outside, against sorrow. Bliss has to be found deep, hidden behind the sorrow itself. You have to dig into your sorrowful states and you will find a wellspring of joy.”

(Osho, The Book Of Wisdom)


Hobbies and Interests

At this point you should fully get the idea. Are you happy with this aspect of your life? For most people, identifying the things they are interested in is not a difficult task. Are you into sports, music or films? Maybe you enjoy travel or have always dreamed of travelling? If you’re not happy with this aspect of your life, can you hand-on-heart say that you are actively putting in the effort to make these things happen? If you enjoy playing sports, are you a member of a club or team? What about your options? Are there sports facilities nearby? A cinema or movie rental store? What about live music venues? Maybe you keep saying you’ll go to more gigs or join/start a band? Well… Is it a viable option and what are you doing to make it happen? Are your hobbies within your financial means?

This pillar is a good example of where category cross-over comes into play. It’s quite common for people to feel unhappy about how much time they spend (or rather, how little time they spend) enjoying their hobbies or specific interests because they lack time due to work or family commitments. This is why it is so important that you work on developing all of the six key areas that constitute your life simultaneously. How can you possibly develop your hobbies and interests or improve your dating situation if your work hours bleed you dry of time and energy? Well, what if one of your hobbies was your job or career? The cross-over need not be a negative thing.


Health and Well-being

Without doubt, this is the most important aspect of your life. In fact, literally, it is your life. Being in good physical shape will massively benefit all other areas of your life and self-development. If you are not happy with this aspect of your self, then it probably means you are not in good shape. If you’re not in good shape, why not? Are you dieting and eating healthily? Are you doing regular exercise? When doing exercise, are you gradually making it harder over time and pushing yourself to the next level? If you’re not doing these things, what options do you have? Do you have gym equipment – weights, an exercise bike or treadmill? Do you own a bicycle or suitable running shoes? What about a gym or swimming pool? Can you do exercise in your room, like sit ups and press ups? Given the freely available resources on the internet regarding nutrition and keeping fit, there’s really no excuse to be out of shape or over weight.

According to research from the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, more than a third of Europeans (164m) are suffering from a mental disorder in any one year. This not only includes psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety and insomnia, but also neurological disorders such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease. As of 2002, a 25 year old in the UK is between three and ten times more likely to suffer from depression than a 25 year old in 1950. This, despite being subject to the highest living standards since records began.

The absolute cornerstone of self-development is to become emotionally secure. While we all want to improve our dating lives, family and friendships, career, body image and job, we must do so for the right reasons. Your happiness and well-being should not be rooted in your work, nor should it be dependent on a girl or activity. If this is the case, you are emotionally needy and insecure. If you have a deep rooted issue, and seek to rid yourself of this issue through a new job or new girlfriend, all you are doing is temporarily masking an underlying issue. It is no wonder that depression levels are so high given the current state of western consumer society. We live in an age where it is very easy to mask underlying emotional pain. Computer games, pornography, alcohol, sex, smoking, gambling, comfort eating, retail therapy, drugs, God, rage etc… can all be used as forms of escapism from a deep seeded problem. It is important therefore, that you don’t mistakenly use self-development as a form of escapism in and of itself.


Words of Caution

Imagine the last time you bought something new, such as a new pair of shoes or any other such luxury item. How did you feel? Likely, you felt great at first. Maybe for a few weeks you loved your new item. But after a while, you lose interest. You start to crave something else. The new shoes, watch, car… It’s soon forgotten. You want more. You need more – or least that’s how it feels. In her book, ‘Women, Food and God’, Geneen Roth explains this concept. Roth was left on the brink of suicide due to her constant battles with fluctuating weight as a result of her binge and comfort eating. She tried drugs (she became addicted to laxatives for two years), various diets, throwing up, fasting, and gained and lost over 1000lbs overall since adolescence! None of these methods worked, because, as she explains, these methods were not addressing the root of the problem:

Compulsive eating is an attempt to avoid the absence (of love, comfort, knowing what to do) when we find ourselves in the desert of a particular moment, feeling, situation. In the process of resisting the emptiness, in the act of turning away from our feelings, of trying and trying again to lose the same twenty, fifty, eighty pounds, we ignore what could utterly transform us.’ (pp.37-38)

None of this is too say you shouldn’t develop yourself. Drink alcohol, hit on girls, have sex and gamble by all means. This is all relatively harmless fun (in moderation), no doubt! But the reason for asking “why?” when assessing your relative happiness with each life ‘pillar’ is because before you can proceed, you need to be clear that you are not hitting on girls as a form of emotional escape, or changing job to mask deep rooted, inner sadness. A great career, beautiful girlfriend, good car, ripped body or fun hobby should exist to supplement your happiness and well-being – not create or define it. As Roth explains:

the only thing that eating does is add yet another source of sadness: after the food is gone, the original source of sadness is still there, except that now they have topped it with the sadness or frustration or hopelessness about their conflicted relationship with food. Contrary to their fantasies, eating has not taken away their sadness – it’s doubled it.’

Replace “eating” with; retail therapy, alcohol or even sex and it becomes rather clear why mental illnesses are so prominent in western society. So, to conclude, let’s re-quote Osho’s wise words.

You have to dig into your sorrowful states and you will find a wellspring of joy.”