Personal Development Zones – The Roles and Limits of Rest & Stressors

Roger Bannister Four Minute Mile

In order for muscles to grow, they need to be put under repeated stress to the point that they tear. After muscles tear, with proper nourishment and rest, they repair stronger than before. The frequency by which they’re put under weight determines the level of strength the muscles can eventually bear.

Like our bodies, our minds and character are antifragile (a term coined by Nassim Taleb) which means that when put under stress, they grow stronger. Contrast things that are antifragile to those which are fragile or robust. Fragile things, like glass mugs, break under stress. Robust things, like the mythical Phoenix, neither benefit nor are they destroyed from fire. Antifragile things, like the mythical Hydra, benefit from conflict. Friedrich Nietzsche argued that people are antifragile when he wrote, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

There’s a lot of truth to what Taleb and Nietzsche teach us about the role stressors play in human development and there are limits to how severe stressors can be before they go from being antifragile to fragile. Going back to the muscle analogy, in order for weight to build muscle, it needs to push a person beyond what they’re comfortable bearing but too much weight or frequency can be destructive. Torn connective tissue, broken or dislocated bones, heat exhaustion, brain aneurysms or other physical harm can result from over-exertion.

Just as there many who still believe “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, there’s an increasing trend to accept the debilitating philosophy that “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”. It’s this mentality that, according to authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, is leading to a culture that is becoming increasingly unable to bear the struggles that life inevitably brings. Higher rates of depression and suicide are evidence of an overprotective culture, according to Lukianoff and Haidt. The notions of “Safe Spaces”, “Trigger Warnings” and “Microaggressions” are a few examples of the level of protectionism that the rising generation are embracing from well-intentioned “intellectuals”. In their co-written book, Coddling of the American Mind, they point out:

“A culture that allows the concept of ‘safety’ to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.”

In addition:

“Parenting strategies and laws that make it harder for kids to play on their own pose a serious threat to liberal societies by flipping our default setting from ‘figure out how to solve this conflict on your own’ to ‘invoke force and/or third parties whenever conflict arises’.”

They also observed that overprotective parenting and teaching “come with costs, as kids miss out on opportunities to learn skills, independence, and risk assessment.”

Various mental models, such as Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, have been created that can help us understand the role that stressors and limits can play in our development. The following diagram serves as a way to visualize the roles and limits that rest and stressors play in our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual personal development.

Personal Development Zones

Each of us have our own comfort zone – the level to which we feel familiar, comfortable and relaxed with certain things. Rest and healing happen here but growth does not. Each of us have a growth zone – the level to which we are able to bare particular stressors – whether it’s handling a difficult task at work, learning a new subject, public speaking, dealing with loss or anything else that stretches us beyond our comfort zone. This zone is where we grow. Each of us also have a destructive zone – the level to which stressors are causing more harm than we can bare or sustainably endure. Each of us are different and will therefore have varying limits within our comfort and growth zones.

To the person experiencing hardship now, the destructive zone appears much closer than it usually is. Much like the weight-lifter who doesn’t think they can lift another rep, their physical limit is usually beyond what their mind is telling them it is. Humanity’s ability to run a four-minute mile, previously a perceived impossibility, became an exponential recurrence once Roger Bannister did it 1954. To the person who sees their trials with the benefit of hindsight, the destructive zone can usually be clearly seen to be beyond what they thought it was when they were experiencing it.

Analyzing how children learn how to read provides another example for how the personal development zones are applicable. Reading comprehension expands as children read just beyond (growth zone) what their current reading level (comfort zone) is. Introducing a child to reading material that is too advanced (destructive zone) can backfire and cause the child to be discouraged, not learn or give up. Academically, these zones are referred to as the independent, guided and frustration reading levels.

Perspective plays a major role in which zone we’re in. After the devastating war had ended between the Lamanites and Nephites, in Alma 62 we learn that many of the Nephites were hardened by the weight and duration of their hardships. Had I been through their experience, I probably would have been too. Conversely, many were softened and humbled themselves before God. What made the difference between these two groups? Their experiences appear the same but their outcomes are opposites. Choice plays an essential role in how we come out on the other side of hardship. It’s not about how strong we, by ourselves, can be during trials. We are weak creatures. We need God for strength and healing. The difference comes by choosing to depend on God over ourselves for strength and endurance.

After nearly four months of being falsely imprisoned in Liberty Jail during the Missouri winter and with little food or means to stay warm, the Lord revealed to a discouraged Joseph Smith the expanse of the growth zone:

“If thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.”

The distance between where our comfort zone ends and where the destructive zone begins is where growth happens. If we spend our whole life in the comfort zone, we’ll be weak, dependent, afraid and ignorant. We’ll atrophy physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. If we spend time in the destructive zone, we’ll be burnt out, bitter and broken. If we want to be better, stronger, happier and more fulfilled, we need to regularly stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zones.

The comfort and growth zones have current limits but they’re also expandable over time. As our muscles tear under stress, with rest (comfort zone), they regenerate stronger and are able to withstand more weight later. Likewise, after our minds and spirits are stretched for certain weights and frequencies, and after time has been made for renewal, the degree to which our minds and spirits can withstand stressors increases. Growth requires strength and energy. Strength and energy require regular renewal. God rested after six days of labor. He created the Sabbath for our renewal, rest and benefit. Our mortal bodies are designed to require about a third of our day in an unconscious, restful state. The Earth goes through similar cycles annually as the seasons repeat the growth, rest and renewal stages. We can’t and shouldn’t constantly have our bow strings strung tight. All things must be done with wisdom, order and diligence but we should pace ourselves lest we run faster than we have strength.

To add to the long list of opposite periods of time that we encounter in life – To every thing there is a season – I’ll also add that there is a time for growth, and a time for renewal. The philosophy “go big or go home” is an enemy to progress. It’s unsustainable. It serves as the mantra for the newly energized zealot who is about to burn out. Or it’s the excuse of the person who doesn’t want to leave their comfort zone at all. Progress happens one step (and often failure) at a time when we frequent the growth zone.

The benefits that trials can provide were depicted eloquently when Chief Justice John Roberts broke the commencement-speech-norm at his son’s 9th grade graduation by, instead of well-wishing the graduates, he expressed the following:

“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”

Questions To Consider:

  • What are some hardships I’ve experienced that I can learn from?
  • How do I find the line between the growth zone and the destructive zone? What signals do I notice when I’m pushing myself too hard?
  • What signals do I notice when I’ve been in the comfort zone too long?
  • What areas of life do I need to scale back on?
  • What areas of life do I need to stretch myself in?
  • What are some ways that I can unwind?
  • What are my most dreaded fears that I have control over? Those fears are likely ones I can face.
  • Are there any reminders I can schedule to practice leaving my comfort zone?
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Principled Pragmatism

Principle SifterWhen faced with an idea or choice one of the first questions most people ask themselves is- “Is this practical?” but few back up and ask, “Is this even right?” The first question deals with pragmatism (or with what works) while the second question deals with principle (or a fundamental truth, a foundation on which to base all other reasoning and behavior). If we ignore principle and merely look at what will “work”, we often fall victims to silly, expensive, addictive, and/or dangerous ideas and behaviors. We suffer the consequences of our ignorance and moral decadence. We would be better off if we filtered ideas and choices through principle first, practicality second. If an idea doesn’t pass the first test then there is no sense in even contemplating how to execute it. If it does pass the first test then we can contemplate the practicalities of execution. This is principled pragmatism.

The term principled pragmatism is actually a redundancy since true principles are indeed pragmatic. It isn’t always obvious (in fact many times it is paradoxical) but when we base our decisions and convictions on truth- it always works out in the end.

Isaiah Messianically wrote:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

For many sincere individuals, experience and revelation have proven that the Lord’s ways are higher and more practical than ours. Though we may be tempted to believe that our “pragmatism” is more expedient than principle the Lord also taught “lean not unto your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5), “yield to the persuasions of men no more” (D&C 5:21), and “keep all my commandments” (D&C 43:35). It’s been wisely said that, “When someone bases his life on principle, 99 percent of his decisions are already made.” Having made these decisions based on gospel principles beforehand helps alleviate the temptations to make bad decisions when those choices arise.

The pseudo-pragmatism that many subscribe to might be best termed shortsightedness. The pseudo-pragmatist looks at what works here and now but since he failed to consider the principle, there will likely be unintended and/or unforeseen negative consequences eventually—whether in this life or the next.

Look at excessive debt as an example. A father of four on a $40,000/year income who goes into debt for a $70,000 BMW was being a pseudo-pragmatist. He saw something he wanted, asked himself how he could get it, and he went out and executed that plan. If only he had stopped to ask the questions- “Is this even right? Am I being responsible? What risk am I putting my self and family at?” But because of his “pragmatism” he did what “worked” and got what he wanted. Eventually his bills will come due. Hunger, loss of freedom/opportunities, embarrassment, marital issues, and/or bankruptcy will likely afflict him and his family.

Unnecessary spending applies to individuals the same way it applies to families (unaffordable vacations), businesses (lavish executive dinners/bonuses), governments (bailouts, imperialism, welfarism, etc) and other institutions. When spending exceeds revenue (debt, inflation, and taxes) government agents hardly ever consider serious spending cuts (a responsible direction) but instead look for ways to raise revenue (enslave). It seems as though much of the things being considered by agents of government are pseudo-pragmatic. Some could make a strong case that taxes are a form of pseudo-pragmatism since it is using force to take someone else’s property. But what correct principle is thievery or legal plunder being based on? A long list could be compiled of things we do through government that defy principle but are done because it’s “practical”. A few might include:

  • Unwarranted searches/seizures and spying on innocent civilians to prevent crime
  • Pre-emptive war because striking them first gives us the advantage
  • Total War- destroying the moral, lives, and property of innocent people in order to “win” war
  • Economic sanctions because causing a nation’s civilians to suffer usually causes their government to bend our way
  • Torture- using pain, or disfigurement apparently gets our enemies to talk
  • Protectionist regulations and licensure which favors one sector over others because it raises power/gain for government and gets rid of competition for certain industries
  • Bailing out big banks and businesses because it would be economic disaster otherwise
  • Welfarism (robbing Peter to pay Paul) because people will suffer/die if we don’t redistribute the wealth
  • Enforcing social justice because certain groups of people with less opportunities deserve more- even if it’s at the expense of the right and control of property for individuals
  • Inflating the currency because it’s a good way to reduce the national debt and pay for warfare and welfare
  • Maintaining the American Empire because we want to enjoy our standard of living and we don’t want any “bad guys” to become a world superpower

Look at each of these things and notice how immoral and shortsighted they are. Also notice that fear is at the root of all of them. Many excuse or attempt to justify these things because they don’t see any other “practical” alternatives. Though choosing the right may not have immediate/obvious results Joseph F. Smith taught us:

“That through [Christ’s] atonement, and by obedience to the principles of the gospel, mankind might be saved (D&C 138:4).”

Unprincipled pragmatism is a form of focusing on ends at the expense of means. As explained here, worthy ends do not justify immoral means. Paul had to debunk the false idea attributed to him— “Let us do evil that good may come” (Romans 3:8). Elder F. Burton Howard also taught:

“The war in heaven was essentially about the means by which the plan of salvation would be implemented. It forever established the principle that even for the greatest of all ends, eternal life, the means are critical. It should be obvious to all thinking Latter-day Saints that the wrong means can never attain that objective.” (Repentance)

So does something being “practical” automatically make it right? Do the principles “Thou shalt not steal, lie, or murder” take a back seat to Machiavellian statism because fear and aggression seem to work better than love and persuasion? Lest someone assume that this is condoning anarchism then please read the story of King Benjamin (Mosiah 2:14). Did he, an agent of the people, rule by fear and aggression or did he serve by love and persuasion? Government can exist in a proper frame when its role is based on correct principles—not pseudo-pragmatic ones. Our lives can also exist to their fullest extent and maximum happiness when they are based on correct principles.

“Once they are driven off the high ground of principle, so many people then settle for being “practical.” But immorality is so impractical! Provisional morality always emerges once people desert a basic truth. Such individuals are forever falling back trying to develop substitute rationales, drawing new lines beyond which they vow they will not be driven, only to abandon these also under the pressure of growing evils…

Moral uncertainty always leads to behavioral absurdity. Prescriptions which are value-free always prove to be so costly. Unprincipled pragmatism is like advising someone who is hopelessly mired in quicksand not to struggle—so that he will merely sink more slowly!” –Neal A Maxwell (The Stern but Sweet Seventh Commandment)

Ambition: Virtue or Vice?

Before this world was there was a war between opposing ideologies.  One person presented his own plan of salvation before God—“Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor.”  Another Person testified in word and deed—“Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.”  The first person, Satan, referred to himself six times to this ambitious endeavor to save all mankind while the second, Christ, didn’t mention Himself once, but rather glorified His Father. (Moses 4:1-2)

Ambition has permeated much of our society.  Striving for one’s own power, status or wealth are often seen as worthy and virtuous endeavors by the world.  Letting these goals go unchecked, though, can destroy a person’s life along with many around them.  In D&C 121 we learn that “many are called but few are chosen”.  The first reason listed for this catastrophe is because “their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men (v. 35).”  Two verses later ambition is mentioned again, “when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man (v. 37).”

Vanity, that nasty ingredient, when added to ambition produces a recipe for spiritual disaster.  Ambition and her close cousin vanity become tantamount when one’s motives are strictly selfish.  Charity seeketh not her own (1 Cor 13:5) but ambition does.  Ambition and charity are both verbs yet one points a person inward and often fails them.  The other points a person upward and it never faileth (1 Cor 13:8).

When ambition ceases to be about our own work and glory but is replaced with an eye single to God’s glory we are endowed with greater power, honor or wealth than the world could ever provide.  Though flesh and Babylon disguise ambition as an investment, its dividends are temporary and shallow.  Charity, on the other hand, pays dividends for eternity.

Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever. (D&C 121:45-46)