The Winding Path: How I Started a Lifetime of Personal Growth

winding path personal growth

Update from Last Month: I told you last month (when writing about “How to Grow Outside Your Comfort Zone”) that I was going to send out five magazine pitches every week. I’m happy to say I’ve done it, though I’m going to take some time now to try to build up a portfolio of printed clips from student press, as the response rate to my queries wasn’t very high.

I’ve also made a real effort to be less shy in my first couple of weeks at Goldsmiths; I’m going to a graduate event this afternoon which I’m a little nervous about, but I’m already starting to feel more confident striking up conversations with strangers!

This is quite a change from five years ago, when I was an 18-year-old undergraduate. When I first went to university, personal growth wasn’t high on my list of priorities. Playing online games, getting hideously drunk on a regular basis and alternating between anxious dieting and stuffing my face with junk food all dominated for the first couple of years. But when I reached my third year, I signed up for a course called Springboard, a “Women’s Personal Growth Program”.

Step 1: Getting Interested in Personal Growth

I’d known about the Springboard course in my first and second year, but I’d hesitated to join it – even though it was free. I was worried it would be “feminist” in a militant way (I had a lot of platonic male friends, and didn’t want a series of man-bashing lectures), and I thought “Personal Growth” sounded new agey and “not me”. But I decided to risk it, and signed up for the course in my third year.

It would be no exaggeration to say that Springboard got me started on changing my life.

Far from being “new agey”, I found that personal growth was eminently practical. Although I was not someone who struggled much with procrastination and time-management (I’ve always been quite an organized person), I found the sessions on relationships and goal-setting very useful. The course ran across four full days, about one every couple of months, and I was invigorated and inspired after each.

As a result of Springboard, I began:

  1. Going to the gym regularly (a habit that has lasted – I wrote on my blog Alpha Student how I’ve just paid £180 for 15 months of gym membership at my current university, so I’m committed to sticking with it for a while longer yet!)
  2. Setting my own priorities. I decided to settle for a 2.i (which is considered a good degree, the grade that about 2/3rds of people on my undergraduate course achieved) instead of aiming for a First, which would have required about twenty hours of extra studying each week. I spent the extra time writing a novel.
  3. Evaluating my relationships. One friend in particular was draining a lot of my energy. I felt unable to end the friendship, because I knew he had few other people to turn to when he was having a difficult time, but I did stand up for myself more.

Step 2: Reading About Personal Growth

The Springboard workshops also had a great resources table, with books, leaflets and magazines. I picked up a copy of Mark Forster’s Get Everything Done (And Still Have Time to Play) to flick through, and was quickly hooked. Forster’s approach to time management was different from the advice that I’d come across at school and university – things like splitting tasks into “urgent and important”, “urgent and not important” and so on. He explained why traditional methods of time management don’t work – and I found that his methods did work for me. You can see from the following quote how his advice is refreshingly different from some of the regularly trotted-out tips:

“One of the most effective ways of planning is to imagine yourself in the future as having achieved the goal. Then, looking back, describe how you got there. Imagining yourself in the future looking back is far more effective than the way we usually plan, which is to look at the goal from the present and try to work out what steps we could take. This is treating the goal as a problem to be solved. While looking back at it from the standpoint of the future treats it as an achievement that we can describe.” – quoted from Plan Backwards on Forster’s blog.

I bought Forster’s other books and have re-read each several times, and also began following his blog. His advice is aimed primarily at business executives, but I found a huge amount that was applicable to me as a student (and which has helped me now as a freelancer).

His method of “self-coaching” helped me through my finals, and I graduated with the 2.i grade that I’d been aiming for. I’d also finished the novel I was writing. The one area of my life where I was struggling was with finding a career – or even just a job… My days of regular student loan payments were over, and I was dipping into my savings, which I felt guilty about.

Step Backwards: A Personal Growth Hiatus

I spent the summer back in my family home, sending out job applications and feeling more and more down and discouraged. I found re-adjusting to family life with parents and siblings difficult. Well-meaning people at Church kept asking how the job hunt was going…

I felt at a loss. The one thing I’d wanted to do after I graduated was an MA Creative Writing program at the University of East Anglia – but competition for the course is very fierce, and I didn’t even get interviewed.

I was twenty-one and felt like a failure. For some reason, I’d convinced myself that I should do anything to avoid living at home after university (I realize now that my parents would have been happy for me to stay as long as I wanted, but I had it in my head that I shouldn’t impose on them). I could only see my boyfriend once a fortnight, and wanted to live nearer him. When I was offered a job in technical support in London, despite the role being a poor fit for what I really wanted to do, I took it.

Step 3: Writing About Personal Growth

It was around a month after I started working in tech support that two things happened. First, I started thinking “Is this it?” The first few weeks had been relatively interesting –I was learning a lot of new things. But I was starting to realize that the usual day-in-day-out sameness of work wasn’t going to suit me …

The second thing that happened was I read Steve Pavlina’s article 10 Reasons You Should Never Get a Job. I wished I’d stumbled across it at the start of the summer…

Despite making me rather depressed about the day job (in fact, I tried to repress my feelings for a while and convince myself that I’d done the right thing), Pavlina’s article led me to read others on his site. I found time to finish the rewrites of my novel, working in the evenings and at weekends, and then began writing short stories in 2007.

From reading Pavlina’s articles about how much he made from blogging, I became interested in “pro-blogging”. I’d kept a personal blog on and off for several years, focusing on university life, but I’d never come across the burgeoning field of professional, topic-based blogs.

During 2007, I wrote a couple of articles about eating healthily and exercising around a 9-5 office job – I’d been reading slimming magazines regularly since my teens, but was growing frustrated with the lack of practical advice in them for full-time employees. The magazine I pitched the articles to was uninterested, so I went to my fallback plan … starting a blog on the same topic.

I launched The Office Diet on January 1st, 2008, hopelessly misunderstanding how search engines worked, and convinced that I’d get lots of traffic from New Years Resolution-Makers searching for “diet”. (I know all the bloggers out there reading this are laughing at me now!)

I also began to read a lot more blogs, particularly ones focused on personal growth. Pick the Brain, Dumb Little Man, and The Change Blog rapidly became new favorites. I now staff write for all three of those – a job that I didn’t even know existed a year ago!

University: Take Two

I’m back at university again, at Goldsmiths College in London, living out my dream of taking an MA in Creative Writing. This time, I’m much more focused. I want to get the most I can out of my two years at Goldsmiths, and I’m trying to attend as many extra seminars and events as I can. As I mentioned last month, I’m focusing on being a bit less shy and trying to make new friends.

I’m also very keen to carry on working on myself: I’ve realized that personal growth is a never-ending quest. The time, space and support structures available at university make it – for me – a wonderful time to experiment, to learn more about myself, and to gradually get closer and closer to being the person I want to be. As part of this, I’ve launched a new blog, Alpha Student, where I’m sharing my past and current experiences with other students to encourage them to make the most of their time at university.

If you’re currently a student, please take some time to step back from the whirlwind of daily life to think about what you really want to get out of your time at university – and what you want to do with the future ahead of you. I wish I’d not burdened myself with the imagined expectations of others; I should have stuck with what I wanted to do (write!) when I first graduated.

Even if you’re not at university, what I’ve learned is that it’s never too late to get started on personal growth. I wonder what would have happened if I’d taken that Springboard course in my first year as an undergraduate – I suspect it would have led to even greater positive change in my life.

It would be great to have some of your experiences of personal growth – especially if, like me, you got started on it as a student. And if you’ve got any advice or comments on anything I’ve written, I’d love to hear that too!

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar

19 thoughts on “The Winding Path: How I Started a Lifetime of Personal Growth”

  1. Hi Ali,

    This is one of the best articles I have read in awhile. I love when people can tell an inspiring story about their journey. One thing that stands out is that you know this is a lifetime journey. I will continue to follow your writing because I think your best is yet to come.


    1. Thanks, Jeremy, it always means a huge amount to me to hear that people enjoyed reading my pieces. Yes, this is indeed a lifetime journey, and instead of asking myself “is this it?” I now ask “what next?”


      Ali Hales last blog post..Are we having fun yet?

  2. Hi Ali,

    Thanks for sharing your personal story. It’s always good to read other people’s paths.

    You can read all you want about personal growth, but nothing happens until you apply it. And to apply it, you need to have awareness of where you are, having reasonably accurate assessment of what you’re doing and where you need to go next. Obviously you’ve done that, or otherwise you would have never gotten farther along on the road. You can be still stuck at the bad-fit job, reading about personal growth! (but never doing anything about it)

    Pat yourself on the back, you’ve come a long way!


    Ari Koinumas last blog post..Book Review: Steve Pavlina’s Personal Development for Smart People

    1. Thanks Ari! You’re completely right, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of reading about something and never actually DOING it. (I used to read a lot of books about writing without ever finishing a story …)

      Thanks again,


      Ali Hales last blog post..Are we having fun yet?

  3. Ali,

    Thanks for the update. I really liked your point about having jobs that you didn’t even know existed a year ago. I think it is an indication that (1) we are living in an exciting time and (2) if you have the courage to answer “no” to the question “is this it?” then your dreams may just become a reality.


  4. Ali,

    I enjoy your writing style and admire you for the paths you’ve taken in your life. How wise you were to seek out and implement personal growth, especially taking a different view of time management. Reading Steve Pavlina’s blog was a wise move as well.

    I’m happy for you that you discovered pro-blog for blogging is definitely a perfect fit for you, among your other writing goals.

    Thanks for sharing your personal journey with us.

    Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D.s last blog post..Make Someone’s Day and Yours Too

  5. “Far from being “new agey”, I found that personal growth was eminently practical.”

    I agree, well at least that it can be, you can make it about dolphins and rainbows if you like (or bleached teeth and power suits also if you want) but it doesn’t have to be that way!

  6. Great post! Without meaning to, I’ve followed the same path as you and am getting the same great results. It’s important for us to believe in ourselves. If we don’t, no one else will. Best of luck!

  7. Another inspiring post +_+

    Keep up the good work!

    Personal growth is indeed a journey. One beautiful aspect of it is that we can harvest the fruits along the way…

    This way it’s less about reaching our destination and more about being here and now.

  8. Thanks Ali. One of the things I appreciate most about your posts is your openness about where you are right now and where you’ve been. I can get how developing that openness has been an achievement in your personal growth journey and how refreshing it must be to talk with you. — Best, Chris

  9. Ali
    Far from being new agey, personal growth is really just learning about ourselves and applying positive change. You are fortunate to discover the joys of personal growth as a young adult. I am a testament that it is never to late…

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  10. I am a student, going onto my next level of growth. I am going to continue to follow your blogs for the great amount of insight they share, and I as well will share my experiences with those that I think I will be able to help. You are a great inspiration thank you!

  11. Hi Ali,

    Very well written. Thanks for sharing. I particularly like your point about imagining yourself having achieved your goal and looking back on your ‘journey’ as an effective planning technique.

    I have read several of Steve Pavlina’s articles too. Great site isn’t it.

    One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in terms of personal growth is overcoming procrastination and taking action. Here how I used mindfulness to overcome procrastination in 3 steps : Hope you find it helpful.

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