I need help. I’m struggling with words. I’m trying to capture what excites me and motivates me to start a new chapter in my life.
Here’s the challenge: the word I am drawn to has received a very mixed reaction at best, and often a very negative reaction. What’s that word? It’s “growth.”
Growth has always excited me. I’ve come to believe that we humans have unlimited potential for growth – it’s why I cringe when I hear the phrase: “achieve my full potential.” I don’t believe anyone can achieve their “full potential” – no matter how much of our potential we achieve, there’s always more potential waiting to be drawn out. That’s why I keep saying that we’re not “human beings,” we’re “human becomings.”
Of course, growth has many different meanings. For many, growth tends to focus on physical size – whether of the body, a community or an economy. The desire is to find something that’s easy to measure, and that leads to an emphasis on physical entities – people and products.
For me, growth has a different meaning. It focuses first of all on growth of insight into the world around us. But it doesn’t stop there. Growth of insight has little value until and unless it is translated into growth of impact that is meaningful. That requires action, but it shifts the focus from the action itself to the impact achieved and how meaningful that impact is, both for those who are taking action and those who are benefiting from the action.
Why growth has a bad reputation
So, why does growth seem to have such a bad reputation? There are many reasons, but I believe that it stems from a zero-sum view of growth. In this view, one person’s growth can only occur at the expense of others. If you win, I lose.
How does that work? Well, let’s start with environmental impact. For many reasons, we have embraced a view of economic growth over the past couple of centuries that has led to serious damage of our global ecosystem, including pollution of water, the growth of carbon emissions and pollution of our atmosphere. While many have benefited from this economic growth, even more have suffered from its adverse effects.
Another force at work involves our shrinking time horizons when we pursue growth that is narrowly focused on material goods. We’re not focused on long-term economic growth; we’re focused on short-term material gains. If we’re focused narrowly on material goods in the very short-term, the quantity of goods is fixed – the only question is who will acquire them – you or me? Once again, while some will benefit from economic growth, it will be at the expense of others.
What’s the alternative?
As growth has acquired a bad reputation, many people have rallied around a number of other words – sustainability, regeneration, circular economy, and resilience are perhaps some of the most prominent ones.
What strikes me about all of these alternatives is their focus on holding on to what we have, or what we had. Take sustainability – we want to sustain what we have. Or regeneration – we want to generate what we once had. Or the circular economy – it’s all about re-using what we have. Resilience has many different meanings, but the one I hear most frequently is the desire to be able to “bounce back” to where we once were before some disruption happened.
While they tend to focus on somewhat different elements, they all share a static view of the world in the sense that the resources we have are a given and the question is how to re-use them so that we preserve what we have, or regenerate what we had, and reduce damage to others.
While the aspiration to avoid environmental damage and waste is certainly something we should all embrace, these alternatives strike me as inherently limiting. Is that all there is? Don’t we have the potential to create much greater meaningful and positive impact with far fewer resources over time?
Maybe there’s another perspective
What if we move from a zero-sum view of the world to a positive-sum view of the world? What if we believed that opportunity has the potential to expand for everyone, not just for a privileged few? And what if we believed that expanding opportunity generates even greater opportunity for everyone? What would that require?
First, it would require us to take a longer-term view of the world. Rather than just focusing on the short-term, we would need to look ahead and imagine how our ability to achieve greater positive impact can increase over time.
Second, we would also need to take a broader view of the world. Rather than just focusing narrowly on how to increase our own well-being, we would need to recognize that by increasing the well-being of others we can set into motion an increasing returns dynamic where everyone would achieve more and more of their potential and the well-being of all of us would expand significantly.
Third, we would need to deepen our view of impact. Rather than focusing just on material goods as a metric for growth, we would need to see that our greatest impact can come from motivating others to achieve more of their potential. The growth of others will help all of us to accelerate our own growth. This unleashes a powerful network effects dynamic where the more people who are motivated to achieve more of their potential, the more everyone will be motivated to achieve more of their potential.
Finally, we would need to focus on emotions as a key driver of motivation. If we’re driven by fear, we tend to narrow our focus to ourselves in the short-term. If we can cultivate hope and excitement, we can begin to see more opportunity for all, not just for ourselves. This, of course, is the theme of my new book, The Journey Beyond Fear, that will be published next month by McGraw Hill. I’ve come to believe that our emotions are shaping how our world is evolving and that there is a need to cultivate emotions that will help us to move forward in spite of the fear that is consuming more and more of us.
Back to growth
If we adopt a positive sum view of the world, now growth begins to become more attractive. The more any of us grow, the more all of us will be able to grow. And the potential for more growth becomes unlimited for two reasons.
First, as I’ve already indicated, we all have unlimited potential, so none of us will ever achieve our full potential in terms of delivering meaningful impact to those around us. Second, we live in a world of exponential improvement in technology performance that can help us to amplify our impact in ways that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago.
Growth focuses on the actions we’ll need to take and the impact we’ll need to achieve to help us to evolve flourishing societies and ecosystems. A key element of these flourishing societies and ecosystems is that they will continue to provide opportunity for all of us to increase our impact over time, while at the same time minimizing, and ultimately eliminating, any damage and waste that might occur as a by-product of growth.
This is why I’m reluctant to abandon growth as the way of framing the opportunity for all of us. What am I missing? Is there a better word to describe the opportunity ahead? I’m open to any and all suggestions.
And, just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that this opportunity will be an easy one to address. There will be many obstacles and challenges along the way. At a personal level, we need to find ways to move beyond the fear that consumes more and more of us and limits our potential for impact. We’ll need to cultivate emotions that will motivate us to take bold action and significantly increase our potential for impact. At a broader, social level, we need to focus on transforming our institutions and our societies so that they create environments that will help us to move beyond fear and provide us with the tools we’ll need to significantly increase our impact in ways that support a thriving global ecosystem and society. It will be a challenging journey, but a journey very much worth pursuing.
I’m seeking help in choosing the right word to frame the opportunity ahead. I’m attracted to “growth” because it highlights a dynamic and expanding opportunity that, if pursued in the right way, will lead to expanding opportunity for all. But, I also understand, that it can lead to some very negative reactions. I’m just not sure I can find a better word. Any and all suggestions are welcome. It will become the “north star” that will frame my efforts on the journey ahead.