How to evaluate personal growth


Note: I don’t differentiate between personal and professional growth in this essay. Professional is considered a subset of personal.

New Year is upon us, and along with resolutions for 2015 many of us try to take a look at 2014 and find some promising changes. Did I become a better entrepreneur? Am I smarter than before? Am I going in the right direction? Do I even know what direction to go?

It can be hard to evaluate personal growth, but it’s very important to get some idea about it regularly. Seeing that you’re getting better is a huge motivation boost.

It’s easier with measurable things, for example, with programming. A year ago I didn’t know Ruby on Rails, today I can build simple things with it. Several months ago I’d spend days setting up the working environment, today I have made automation tools to deal with it in minutes.

Back in the university it was also pretty comfortable: I got marks and I could see if I’m getting better. I could also measure the time needed to complete assignments. Working for someone is another position where you have delegated some part of the evaluation to a trusted party: your boss, your team or your clients. Getting a bonus or a raise or just a positive comment gives you some idea. Since January 2014 I’m working on my startup. There are of course measurable things there too: sales, clients, feedback. Just like in school or at work they measure the outcome, and you can get some idea of what it took to get there. But being an entrepreneur (god, I still feel so sketchy saying that), it’s a bit different.

Working as a software developer for some company, you have some tasks, some context and some defined goals. There is a relatively small set of skills you use and assess. Mainly, programming, communication, learning, teaching. So, if you meet all the deadlines, keep your team and clients happy and learn and adopt new things — seems like those skills are getting stronger. In other words, you are able to connect the outcome with your actions and skills.

The difference you’d feel as an entrepreneur in a startup is that the number of skills and actions is larger. Not that entrepreneurs are better than developers! Au contraire, they are worse: they don’t have a chance to focus on a single thing for long periods of time, they have to deal with lots of things, using different skills, but still have the same number of hours in a day as everyone else.

As a result, when your startup, say, gets more sales, you can’t always clearly see the path from actions and skills to this outcome. Yes, you can see the feature your team completed to get there, but that’s not deep enough.

It gets worse: sometimes the path isn’t there at all. Maybe, you had nothing to do with this increase in sales. Or maybe “nothing” is exactly what you did: sales increased because you didn’t do what you wanted, didn’t get in the way.

Startups are about learning, but measuring learning is hard. How your actions and skills affect the overall business is a topic for another discussion, let’s get back to personal growth. So, it’s the end of the year, there’s definitely been some progress over the months, but did I become better? It is very possible that I didn’t grow at all — my team did, my co-founder did, but not me.

Maybe, one way to tackle this is to imagine you-from-the-past dealing with today’s issues. But that’s impossible, unfortunately. That person is gone, you’ll never have access to your past, unless they invent a time machine. But even if they do, and you go there and ask you-in-the-past “what would you do in this situation?”, and get an answer (along with “what the hell, who are you?!”), what next? How to determine if your present answer is better and if it shows your superiority? But fear not, there is a way to evaluate personal growth! It’s called… embarrassment.

About 12 months ago I was convinced I have to spend weeks writing a huge project description and business plan, then hire 5 best developers and designers I can find, work for several months and release this awesome, successful and fantastic product everybody would love. If you’re into startups you know this is a bad bad idea. I know it now, and I feel embarrassed about considering that a year ago. Did I become better in thinking about startups? I’m pretty sure I did.

The best way to preserve this embarrassment material is to keep a diary. Write about your ideas, actions and thoughts every day, and review them in the future. Of course, if you’re embarrassed by everything you do in the past — that’s a bad sign. But if you have nothing — that’s even worse. So, hopefully, a year from now I will feel embarrassed about some of my current ideas and actions. The hard part is to accept the idea that you’re never perfect, you’re never the best. The idea is not to be the best, it is to be better.