Self-Development is Crucial to Achieve Success

William Cohen, Ph.D.
Posted: 05/04/2017

There are many methods of self-development, you just need to find the system that works best for you and apply it.

I have spent more than 60 years trying to determine the most effective systems of self-development – by trying them on myself.

These systems include physical exercise – such as bodybuilding, martial arts and yoga – as well as mental, emotional and spiritual challenges, and feats of courage such as a parachute jump. I even walked on burning coals.

When I started out on my journey I was still in my teens: I wanted to discover how people achieved success in life.

My investigations were not limited by culture or geography. It was quite common back in those days to quote the Chinese sage Confucius in everyday conversation. People might say, for example, “Confucius says: ‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.’” Or “Confucius says: ‘Study the past if you would define the future’.”

So, I followed Confucius’ advice. I “did” as he suggested and understood more and I studied other key historical figures as well as more modern thinkers.

The underlying truth I learned was that in almost every case, even when I looked at famous individuals who’d had advantages at birth, considerable self-development was necessary to achieve success in life.

Peter Drucker said that when he was a child his father encouraged him to participate in adult conversations, among his family’s acquaintances was Sigmund Freud who his father described as “the most important man in Europe.”

Today many parents do not encourage their sons and daughters to participate in adult conversations. And while few parents are friends with someone of the stature of Sigmund Freud, much less have frequent conversations with such figures in which a son or daughter can participate. Yet many offspring, even without the advantages Drucker had, often go on to achieve success in life and the one thing they have in common is a system through which they have been able to develop themselves. 

Peter the Great is viewed as the greatest tsar in Russian history. Through military conquest he expanded the tsardom into a much larger empire that became a major European power. He was a war leader. The title of tsar was of course hereditary. So what made Peter the Great stand out in comparison with other tsars before and afterwards? What was his system of self development?

Other tsars typically picked an army regiment and were named colonel in their teens. Peter the Great picked his regiment, but insisted on joining it as a private soldier and serving alongside his men. He did not allow himself to be given special treatment and slowly rose through the ranks like any other soldier.

His system of self-development was based on the merit that he himself demonstrated, not on his advantage of birth, and it helped win the trust of his people and spur reform across Russia.

Peter Drucker, like his Russian namesake, also used a system of self-development to help him reach the top and become “the father of modern management.”  And as Drucker’s student during my doctorate degree, I have learned and applied his methods during my own career.

There are many methods of self-development; not everyone, for example, needs to become an 18th century Russian tsar.

Drucker’s methods involved reading profusely – reading everything from history to how-to books on business and even romance novels – while at the same time engaging with widely differing activities. He served as an apprentice in a company and also earned a law degree.

After studying so many systems, which would I recommend to reach the top? It depends, obviously. Every individual has different strengths and weaknesses, and advantages and disadvantages. The first step is to work out what you need and where you want to go.

Many systems depend on our own self-confidence; which we may need to develop in a given area – just as Peter the Great did. This can be achieved without joining the military, although many military organizations incorporate a “confidence course” to build self-esteem. It usually involves running though a series of obstacles set up in the field within a time limit, some of the obstacles are challenging but can be overcome with practice if you are in good physical shape. I know from personal experience! I once ran such a course without practice, and though I ran it within the time limit, I pulled a muscle which didn’t heal for almost a year. 

Of course, the best way to develop the confidence that you can overcome a challenge is to actually accomplish it. This creates something of a dilemma: which comes first, the chicken or the egg? In order to accomplish something to gain the confidence that you can achieve it, you need to have accomplished it previously.

Fortunately, human ingenuity can overcome this contradiction. Mental techniques can be used to fool the brain into thinking that you have done something successfully even when you have yet to achieve it in reality. These methods require you to imagine doing the task in a relaxed and meditative state.

I once had an opportunity to try this myself.  I was competing in an athletic competition and had had several months to prepare. I had planned my training precisely and was on track to achieve my goals, when a severe pain in my back flared up because of a previous sports injury.  The pain was so intense that I was required to cease all physical activity. 

I remembered reading a Wall Street Journal article about a psychologist who had developed a system of mental rehearsal that executives could use to prepare themselves to make successful public speeches.

During my period of convalescence, I adopted this metal system of fictitious accomplishment. I exercised every day, but in my mind only. Every repetition I did in my mind; I felt every resistance and strain against my muscles. I could even smell the scent of sweat as I exercised. A few weeks before the competition, I was finally able to exercise again. Happily, I discovered that I had not lost any momentum and was able to resume training with the same strength and endurance I had had before my injury, despite the fact that for more than a month I had only been working out in my mind. I went on to win the competition.

You can accomplish anything you set your mind to. The systems that can lead to success are endless. You can find them by reading history and seeing what others have done. Or you can find some way into fooling your brain that you have already succeeded in doing something. All you need is to find the system that works best for you and apply it. Like Peter the Great or Peter Drucker you will be amazed at the progress and results you can achieve by applying just a little effort consistently every day.

William Cohen, Ph.D.
Posted: 05/04/2017

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