Potential. Maturity. Growth. Self-actualization. These words constitute the progress that all functioning adults supposedly make as they improve themselves. The desire to feel “finished” is so strong, an entire $10 billion industry has popped up to serve it. And yet the progressivist model of self-improvement suffers from the same flaws as the progressivist model of evolution — or anything: it relies upon shifting goalposts, arbitrary assessments, and a final milestone.
That’s not how life works. Your personal development is never over. As you age, you’re neither automatically gaining maturity nor do you need a set amount. Your “self-actualization” can never be attained because your potential is — hear me out — always increasing.
Why? Your intelligence is generally going to hold steady (assuming you’re taking care of your brain), but the standard shifts downward as you age. It’s considered impressive for a 2-year-old to speak a language well; it’s not impressive for someone in their 60s to do so. The gap between expectation and what you can do narrows; therefore, you have more potential when you’re older, not younger.
Moreover, you simply can do more, the more you know. Many people take years to gain what’s called “emotional intelligence,” which includes the ability to gauge others’ thoughts and feelings, predict their behavior, and respond effectively when they surprise you. Some people call “emotional intelligence” maturity, and that’s as close to a scientific definition of maturity as I could give. As you age, you generally become more mature as you gain emotional intelligence.
All the same, you’re not going to reach a set point of emotional intelligence. There’s a reason grandparents are famous for “just knowing things”: they are highly intuitive and emotionally intelligent. If they were able to live forever, they’d likely keep improving.
By the same token, your professional skills will continue to improve with age. Practice makes perfect: you aren’t going to lose skills by continuing to perform them. This is a hard truth for many young workers who were socialized into thinking the world was their oyster, and it’s salt in the wound for older employees who have trouble getting hired by employers who prefer younger workers. Generational differences aside, older employees will generally be more experienced and more likely to succeed in professional situations, whether as employees or entrepreneurs.
Finally, relying upon a progressivist view of personal development means that you’re bound to the milestones you set, without allowing adjustment for when your priorities change or your skills expand. Why live your life for a future version of your self rather than using your present potential? Why hinge your sense of accomplishment on milestones rather than actual feelings and self-reflection? And why stop at what society says is your benchmark of success? The sky is truly the limit.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.