Thursday, November 04, 2021

A Holistic Approach towards Personal Development


I'm a little slow to the game as Atomic Habits by James Clear is already one of the biggest hits in the personal development space. The book looks really tiny and small in the premise - It is a powerful tool for you to design and emphasize good habits while diminishing and letting go of the bad ones. But upon closer inspection, it is really a book about engineering lasting personal change. It is well-researched and has set a new bar in self-improvement and hopefully, we can allow academics to replace the horrible gurus that plagued self-improvement over the past 20 years. 

This book had a really strange effect on me. After reviewing it, I realise that we've really been too micro when it comes to personal development. Self-improvement is way broader than that.

Interestingly, the mental model I propose is the Self Development Stack that is similar to TCP/IP or OSI stack we use today on the web. I think there are 7 layers to personal development each with its associated discipline and readings. 

Mastery of the entire stack may take a lifetime of personal cultivation.

So here's my model :

a) Identity

At the highest level is your identity. This is your personality and it may not be totally malleable. The best way to model your personality is the OCEAN personality model where each aspect of your personality has a biological analogue. Agreeable people have higher levels of oxycontin, openness to new experience has a larger amount of neural connections.

You learn more about your identity, you can use personality tests. The MBTI comes into mind but folks also use models like the Enneagram. Our current non-fiction lists is dominated by books based on the DISC personality model. 

b) Philosophy

This is the level where gurus like Tim Ferriss fits in. Personal Philosophy is the operating system of your mind. A Stoic who sees life as an endless series of challenges will have a different worldview of an Epicurean who wants to enjoy himself and immerse himself in different sensations.

Thankfully for the rest of the world, there is still no such thing as pop philosophy. Understanding his segment is hard because you may have to disentangle how you feel about truth (Epistemology), beauty (Aesthetics) or even the nature of god (Metaphysics). If you go far enough, this can even get you a PhD.

This will always be subordinate to your personality. No matter how attractive the Christian Gospel of Prosperity is, I will forever be disagreeable and will prefer to grow my own Tree of Prosperity.

c) Motivations

The following levels are your motivations which I have explored amply in my previous articles. By telling stories about yourself and discovering what makes you proud of your achievements, you will be able to define your core motivations in life. 

The skill you need to master this layer is the ability to craft narratives about yourself. What is your Hero's Journey? Joseph Campbell's writings will be useful in this regard.

For me, growing up in a retail environment saw my parents forever being subject to paying rent to their landlords in spite of being businessmen themselves. So control to me is always about rent-seeking.

I am forever bound to control the chaos in my life.

d) Goals

Below your motivations are your goals. At this stage, this is where you pull out your SMART framework to define the goals that will guide you in your daily life. Goals need to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Bound. 

Popular in the 90s, goals have come under attack as many folks fail in achieving their desired weight and net worth even after paying gurus thousands of dollars. 

Naval Ravikant has possible my favourite definition of that a goal is :

A goal is a contract you make with yourself to stay unhappy until the goal is reached. 

I still think that goals belong to the personal development stack.

e) Systems

If your goal is to attain financial freedom by age 40, a system is a method to turn your earnings into saving and convert your investments into passive income. Even after you meet your goal of becoming financially free, your system can keep running to make you even wealthier. 

Goals set the limits of your personal success but systems can limit how far you can fail.

The current trend is that systems trump goals because systems are designed to kick in subconsciously and kick in when an event occurs. Systems are like Windows Services that run in your operation system. 

At this stage, you need to consider the environment that will anchor your habits in the next step. Suppose you want to trade in cryptocurrencies, your challenges are to have a system to convert fiat to crypto, a system to stake and obtain APY from crypto, and finally a system to spend your crypto. 

Personally, I'm struggling to put a system in place to trade crypto. 

f) Habits

Systems consist of habits which are micro-programs and API function calls that allow the whole system to work.

Your system to convert savings into investments may contain a habit that automatically transfers $2,000 from your bank account to your Interactive Brokers account on your pay-day. Another habit is to buy an equity and bond UCITs ETF through successive limit orders at night. 

This is why you read Atomic Habits by James Clear.

g) Actions

Finally, habits are nothing but a series of actions, all designed to happen instinctively so that you can invest your mental energy into something else. 

This is the hardest part of personal development. Taking action.

Actions are not just bounded by your personal energy, they are bounded by the limited time you have on this earth. 

So there you have it, my Personal Development Stack that can act as a framework to slot all the self-improvement books you read and guide you for further action. I leave this to you for discussion in the forums, a more detailed write-up is scheduled for the Dr. Wealth blog.

Before I leave, I will show you how different the stack is for someone who emphasizes earnings versus someone who focuses savings:




  1. Thanks for sharing your learning and application of the principles in the book to your own personal development and providing a financial context to it.

    1. You're welcome. These are just brain droppings. Hope to do a better one for the Dr Wealth blog soon.

  2. Kind of like bottom-up vs top-down. One school of thought is that changing the core identity will lead to drastic changes and trickle down to actions. The other school of thought is that by changing the small actions, it gradually changes the core. Maybe a hybrid of sorts is best.

    1. Yes, absolutely. I would like to think that both schools of thought are valid, but because the framework stretches from identity to action, it will be very challenging to have a school that covers top to bottom all at once.

  3. Motivation is tough. Not the framework, but the day to day grind.

    I am a "millionaire", but don't have a ferrari or a couple of mistresses. Definitely in your "Saving focus" column. I still spend most of my waking time in a rubbish job and live on 2K a month. Getting harder and harder to find the motivation to go to work each day.

    1. I kinda suspect that you are there and can generate $2k dividends a month. You cn cruise, but I don't think you should quit unless you have a really bad manager. Worse case just look for a different environment. Getting from $1M to $2M is actually easier than $0 to $1m.