Both personal development and personal improvement deal with growth or expansion. Yet they are two different viewpoints. Personal development is a horizontal viewpoint, while personal improvement is a vertical viewpoint. With the first, you are looking at the horizon, and with the second, at the stars. Clearly, the two complement each other. But they should not be confused.

When you read an article or a book about making your life better, ask yourself whether it is talking about adding a new capability or direction to your life (personal development) or about how you can do what you are already doing, but better (personal improvement). The answer to this question matters, because each viewpoint needs a different attitude in order to succeed.

Personal development needs an adventurous attitude, with some courage on the side. Say, for instance, you decide you want to increase your self-confidence. You’re tired of being shy, and want to feel comfortable in groups. Treating this undertaking as anything but an adventure will get you not very far, not very fast.

Adventures are full of risk, and possible injury, and the unknown. They include blind alleys and monsters and heroes and villains. Above all, adventures take place in unfamiliar territory. And therein lies the secret to not only surviving the adventure, but gaining the prize at the end.

Increase familiarity with the territory. That is the essence of personal development. Enter a new, unfamiliar territory, and become familiar with it. It takes time, and you will stub your toes on unfamiliar rocks once in a while, or step into quicksand, but the faster you can become familiar with the territory, the closer you are to owning the prize.

To use the self-confidence example, you know the prize is out there, of being able to speak easily with others, and to feel comfortable in any situation. Dozens of articles and books give advice on how to reach that prize. So, pick one that seems to make sense, and try it. Give it a good, honest try, and see if it works for you. Some will, some won’t, but the only way to find out is to try. Try another, and another. Be ready for the lumps of embarrassment when one doesn’t work, but also be ready for the glorious feeling of finding one that moves you closer to the prize.

Personal improvement, on the other hand, needs a quality attitude. A quality attitude boils down to one simple premise: making things better is a good thing to do. When you fully understand that, and live by it, personal improvement follows as surely as day follows night. Any and every aspect of life bows to the power of that attitude.

It seems so obvious, but it is not. Very, very few people apply that attitude with any consistency or regularity. It is one of those ideas that everyone agrees with, but almost no one considers as a guiding principle. They haven’t looked at the corollary, the logical conclusion, of that attitude: making things worse is not a good thing to do. And most of all, they haven’t looked at the fact that those are the only two choices.

It is a fool’s errand to try to make things the same, or keep them the same. The universe will only allow that for a very short time, before some random factor will come slamming in to change things. Very seldom does the universe change things for your benefit; the laws of probability alone dictate against it. So if you are just trying to keep things the same, in the long run you are making them worse.

Making things better, then, is not just a good thing to do, it is a necessary thing to do. What things, you ask? All things. Every action you take, every email you write, every conversation you hold. The questions should be at the top of your mind every moment: am I doing this as well as I can? How can I do this better? How could I have done that better? What do I need to know to do my job better? Lots of questions, all looking at improvement.

It is really quite astonishing how much life can improve when you make it happen.

So there you have it, the difference between personal development and personal improvement. You can walk both roads, concentrating on one or the other at a given time, or both at the same time. But I hope you find them easier to walk, now that you have a map of each.

One last note. This article needs to be read a few times to get everything from it. Once more with an attitude of adventure, and then again with a quality attitude, trying to read it better. (Remember that phrase above, “Every action you take”? Reading is an action. End of hint.)

Don Dewsnap has spent years studying quality and its principles and applications. Now he has put his knowledge into a readable, useable book: Anyone Can Improve His or Her Life: The Principles of Quality. Find out more about this book at If you deserve a better life, you deserve this book.
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