Personal growth and the rise to the top…


Life is for living – for drinking deep from the well of experience. That is why many of us believe that wild places are so special; they take us out of our narrow protected bubble and open up something deeper, more eternal.

A fulfilled life is a difficult thing to measure. Very soon we start to use nebulous words like ‘well being’, ‘happiness’ and ‘satisfaction’.

We may also have to acknowledge that life is a process – a journey. Some would call this journey a process of ‘maturity’, others would say ‘enlightenment’, others still would call it ‘personal growth’. All these ideas contain the idea that life, in all its joy and difficulties, should embrace transformation; movement from one state of being to another. Standing still is unlikely to be healthy and ultimately it will likely prove impossible.

For a while, many of us (particularly men) come to believe that a fulfilled life is one characterised by success. And because we are competitive creatures there has to be some means of measuring this success so we are always heading for the next achievement, the next conquest, the next acquisition.

I was reminded of this again today listening to a radio discussion about psychopathy with Jon Ronson, author of this book

The word ‘psychopath’ is one of the most overused and emotive terms employed by the media in relation to mental illness, but Ronson’s book goes far beyond the stereotype. He qualified to use the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, and became, by his own admission, something of an obsessive Psychopath spotter.

Whatever you believe about the usefulness of labels like this, the fascination with the sort of people who can commit such acts of appalling cruelty apparently guilt free is almost universal. All the more sobering then is the statistic that roughly 1% of people can be regarded as psychopathic.

Rather than getting stuck with all the high profile serial killers and despots, Ronson’s interest takes us more towards the very place of madness at the heart of our society. At the same time as vilifying psychopaths as not-human ‘others’, he argues that there is something psychopathic about our society, and that many parts of our society actually reward psychopathic tendencies.

Consider this – one of the two ‘factors’ in Hare’s checklist

Factor 1: Personality “Aggressive narcissism”

It is easy to see how an individual with these kind of characteristics could succeed in much of society. It is impossible not to start thinking of people we know, bosses we have had.

I went to hear psychologist Oliver James speak at Greenbelt Festival last year (you can download the talk here.) One of the things I remembered him saying was that in all his dealings with the rich and powerful, including several Prime Ministers, he had yet to meet many who he would regard as psychologically healthy.

However, Ronson goes further than this and suggests that the very institutions of our society can become psychopathic. Banks that loan what they know can never be repaid, therefore condemning people to financial indebtedness for the rest of their lives. Health systems that thrive on the sickness of the population. The creation of all sorts of addictions to gadgets and shiny product in order to ensure profit.

It is almost as if the process of becoming – whether we understand this as a spiritual, psychological or simply biological development – has been replaced by a process of conquest, where success at almost any cost is the only thing that matters.

But success is fickle. The journey to the top is often followed by the journey back down again.

Back to this maturity/enlightenment/personal growth thing. Most of us come to a point when we realise that success is rarely a route to any kind of lasting happiness (even if this is a legitimate aim for any of us.) A life that cuts us off from the social animal that we humans are and replaces this with narrow acquisition is a kind of madness – all the more so for the fact that it is a collective madness.

So for those of us who are climbing to the top, may we succeed. May our enterprises go from strength to strength. But may we also remember that success without ethical responsibility and without the mess of all that humanity may indeed still be success, but it may also be the cause of our own destruction – both individually and collectively.