Chances are that you, like me, were never taught much about human growth. Here’s a crash course to speed you on your way.

Growth is a matter of needs

Consider a seed. Inside the seed is a blueprint for a fully developed plant. The seed wants to take that blueprint and build, but before it can it must get what it needs.[1]

What the seed needs is water and warmth. Then it can sprout. As a sprout it has more needs: sunlight and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous. Then it can become a more mature plant. And if any of those needs go missing? Its growth will be stopped or stunted. It will not self-actualize.

Human life is similar. We grow when we get what we need.

What does a human need? We need water, warmth, air, and nutrients (way more nutrients than a plant needs). Call those physiological needs. But humans have psychological needs too. We need love and confidence and self worth. We need challenge and failure and success. We need companionship and solitude. We need meaning and purpose and, some would say, a connection with the numinous — what we might call the spiritual needs.

And if any of those turn out to be missing? Not enough Omega-3’s in the diet of the body, not enough affirmation in the diet of the mind? We will fail to grow.[2]

At any point in time we are either growing or failing to grow.

Growth is the point of life

Once you realize that humans (can) grow a funny thing happens. The point of life, once a grand confounding mystery, becomes quite obvious. The point of human life is human growth.[3]

Knowing this can prevent an existential malaise; all that wondering what is the point of life and what is our duty, if anything.

Growth is not selfish

Sometimes when I talk about human growth people say it sounds selfish. “So you’re going to go through life looking out for number one, eh?”

When people are accused of selfishness at a crossroads of growth they often choose wrongly. They stay in relationships they should leave. They stay in jobs they should quit.

One day it hit me that these charges of selfishness are false. The best thing you can do for yourself is to grow. The best thing you can do for others is to grow. People may want you to stay. But people need you to grow.

Besides, the psychological and spiritual aspects of human growth prevent extreme selfishness. We need, for example, to receive love in order to grow. A person can’t go around storing up love and growing unendingly. We hit a point where gathering more love unto ourselves does nothing for us. It turns out we also need to give love in order to grow.

Growth is an organizing principle

The pursuit of growth can come off sounding cold. What about all the other things we value? Relationships, adventure, professions, pleasure… Don’t worry. Pursue growth and they’ll all be there. They’ll need to be there.

The idea of a highest value under which other values are organized is sometimes referred to as the summum bonum. Watch how easily it can straighten out tough questions.[4]

Relationships can be good. Is this relationship a good one? Well, are you helping or hindering each other’s growth?

What knowledge should I be pursuing, there is so much information coming at me! Well, what knowledge do you most need in order to grow?

Should I stay at this job? The work is mind-numbing but the benefits are good. Yes, but are you growing?

If you don’t have any pressing questions this minute, ask instead, What’s getting in the way of my growth? Anyone who can muster a modicum of reflection will be able to identify something.

Of course while these questions are good ones to ask, it need not always be such a conscious endeavor. Humans have a growth instinct. It may be little known, much abused, and much denied by modern life, but it’s there. Find it. Develop it. Follow it.

Growth distinguishes wants from needs

Whenever I start talking about growth and need someone usually recoils in disgust. “Who are you to say what is a want and what is a need?!”

They are often afraid, and rightly so, that someone will assert that they need something ludicrous, like to become a banker. Or maybe that they need to recite a salvific incantation in order to save their souls. People have been burned at stakes because their souls needed saving.

But just because we’ve gotten our needs wrong in the past doesn’t make them arbitrary. Needs aren’t a matter of preference, like preferring some foods to others, but a biological and psychological fact. A need is anything that lets a person grow. A need is anything that, if withheld, hinders the growth of a thing.

Because we’re so ignorant of growth we are poor at distinguishing want from need. The result? Our growth is stunted, our planet is poisoned, and our closets overflow.

If I had only one sentence to describe the America I’d say — a place where wants are met repeatedly despite our unmet needs.

Human growth is more important than economic growth

If you have some reservations about the way the world works — literally, the jobs we have and the way we have them — it’s probably because you live in a society that places economic growth over human growth.

Not that economic growth is always a bad thing. It’s a great thing — when it facilitates human growth. The problem is when it doesn’t. When, for example, what humans most need are things that can’t be bought or sold.

But because of the ignorance of human growth, we don’t know when to say when. We pursue economic growth endlessly.

It should be obvious that modern life isn’t founded on some noble virtue like freedom or truth. What then is it founded on? I’ll tell you. It’s founded on these two questions — two questions that, more than any other, shape modern life today.


Tawdry questions to design a world by, eh? But most people spend their days caught up in their answering, or caught up in “making a living” by helping someone else to answer them.

If only our livelihoods were rooted in the question, What do people need in order to grow?

Fully grown humans are rare

The sad thing is that since we live so ignorant of growth, in an economy so hostile to growth, probably none of us will fully grow. Not you. Not me.

But the flip side of that is awe inspiring. The world has never seen a person fully grown. It makes me wonder just what we are really capable of.

[1] Like the seed we have a blueprint too. Not just for the design of our bodies, height, eye color, etc., but also for the design of our minds. These pre-disposed patterns of mind are, in part, what we call temperament. It’s what, for example, the flawed but ambitious Myers-Briggs test tries to measure.

[2] If you think the industrial food system is falling down on the job of nourishing our bodies, guess how much worse our industrial idea system is.

[3] While I’m confident that human growth is the point of human life, human growth probably isn’t the point of the universe. The point of the universe is probably something bigger in which humans are only a part.

[4]Like growth, the summum bonum is another important and little-known concept that hardly anyone is taught. I first encountered it in Gandhi. He articulated the summum bonum as the “pursuit of truth.” The second time I encountered a reference to it was in W.P. Montague’s Belief Unbound. The third time in Jung’s autobiography.