Request a demo
Back to Blog

Personal growth starts with looking inward, but eventually shifts outward

June 30, 2022 - 8 min read

Personal growth starts with looking inward, but eventually shifts our focus outward


When people begin a personal growth journey with a coach, many tell us that their ultimate goal is to thrive — that hard-to-define but easy-to-identify state of peak performance, flourishing, and growth. We want to feel good, that we’re making progress on our goals, and that our actions have meaning and purpose.

Coaching has helped millions of people achieve that state of thriving. But even after reaching the upper echelons of the worlds of sports, entertainment, the coaching journey doesn’t end for top performers. To the contrary, the world’s most elite athletes, entertainers, and business leaders actively seek out coaching throughout their careers.

This got us curious. We know that coaching benefits people at all levels and from all backgrounds. But as people achieve higher levels of thriving, do the areas of development they focus on change as well? 

To find out, two of BetterUp’s behavioral scientists, Rainy Gu and Evan Sinar, analyzed data from more than 10,000 BetterUp members. We started by collecting data on members’ level of thriving at onboarding across four domains: cognitive thriving, emotional thriving, physical thriving, and social thriving. We then compiled a list of topics from their anonymized coaching sessions tagged by their coaches.

New call-to-action

The more we thrive, the more we focus on others

The data revealed that people who are low in thriving overall tend to turn inward and seek self-focused, “immediate” coaching topics (e.g. stress management, self-care, improving physical health, increasing productivity). As people achieve a higher level of thriving and increased mental fitness, they begin to focus outwardly on topics related to impacting others (e.g. change management, coaching and developing others, decision making, and problem solving) and long-term growth (e.g. coaching and developing people, motivating and inspiring others, career advancement). Interestingly though, the findings differ by which particular areas they are thriving in: Cognitive, Emotional, or Social.



Coaching topic areas as they relate to overall thriving level

Cognitive thriving

Cognitive thriving is about a person’s ability to take in and adapt to new information (cognitive agility), to set goals and plan for how to achieve them (strategic planning), and to focus their attention and efforts to make progress on a chosen area (focus).



Coaching topic areas as they relate to Cognitive thriving level


People who are low in cognitive thriving skills like cognitive agility, strategic planning, and focus seem to recognize their deficits and focus on immediate areas of development like productivity, time management, finding purpose and passion.

As people achieve a higher level of cognitive thriving, they shift their focus outward with topics like building social relationships and networking, motivating and inspiring others, and career advancement.

Emotional thriving

Emotional thriving is about a person’s ability to understand and cope successfully with their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, whether positive or negative.


Coaching topic areas as they relate to Emotional thriving level


People who are low in emotional thriving skills such as emotion regulation and self-compassion appear to recognize their deficits and focus on related areas of development like stress management and self-care. They also focus on topics like difficult conversations and conflict. This seems to indicate that interpersonal relationships are the primary sources of stress and negative emotions for people.

Like those high in cognitive thriving, people who attain a higher level of emotional thriving focus outwardly as seen in their interest in topics like coaching and developing others, motivating and inspiring, and building relationships. They also begin investing into long-term growth (e.g. finding purpose and passion and strategic planning).

Social thriving

Social thriving is about a person’s ability to cultivate healthy relationships with others, including being able to resolve conflicts effectively, identify and react appropriately to the feelings of others, and demonstrate empathy.0629_social

Coaching topic areas as they relate to Social thriving level


People who are low in social thriving skills such as emotion regulation and self-compassion focus more on immediate and self-enriching social areas of development like building relationships and networking and communication and collaboration. This suggests their top concerns are how they can increase their networks and work best with others. 

As people achieve a medium level of social thriving, they choose topics related to giving and influencing (e.g. influencing and assertiveness, motivating and inspiring others). It appears their top priorities are how they can use their social resources to influence and make an impact. 

At a high level of social thriving, people have the foundation and support(?)  to focus on long-term growth which is reflected in topics like career advancement. However, they also care a lot about stress management, self-care, and physical health. This suggests that there may be hidden costs to maintaining a high level of social thriving. It requires investments of time and effort, potentially at the cost of additional stress and physical health. It seems that maintaining personal well-being and social thriving is a delicate balance!

Should you focus on strengths or weaknesses? The answer: both. 

One through-line of these insights is that people tend to seek coaching on their weaknesses rather than lean into their strengths. 

Due to a number of cognitive biases, humans prefer to minimize potential losses rather than experience the joy of potential gains. Working on our weaknesses can feel like a tangible way to mitigate risk, and that is more emotionally fulfilling for us than the uncertain potential benefits that come from building upon our strengths.

We also tend to view our weaknesses as more changeable than our strengths, which we erroneously see as more permanent aspects of our personalities. But multiple studies have revealed that building on our strengths results in more energy, satisfaction, happiness, confidence, and growth.

So does that mean we should ignore our weaknesses entirely and focus on building up our strengths? 

Not exactly. What seems to yield the best results is a balanced approach. Significant benefits can be had by both improving our weaknesses and cultivating our strengths. In fact, the data seems to indicate that a certain threshold of personal thriving needs to be met before a person can even think about long-term growth or making an impact on the world around them.

Professional coaching helps individuals quantifiably strengthen areas of weakness and build on areas of strength. Coaches serve as unbiased partners, helping individuals personalize and prioritize key areas of growth that yield the highest returns for their particular goals and circumstances. The result of this balanced approach is a level of thriving not commonly seen in the workplace — peak performance

Peak performance is when we perform at optimal levels physically, mentally, or both. Best of all, operating at peak performance doesn’t just benefit us at work. It enriches every aspect of our lives.

Our individual growth journey is a personal endeavor. But a balanced approach along with a dedicated coaching partner can help us thrive across each dimension of our lives, allowing us to not only reach peak performance but inspire and encourage others along the way. 


See how BetterUp works - Watch Demo


Published June 30, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

Read Next

Diversity & Inclusion
9 min read | April 22, 2021

Why women need a coach

Women are disproportionately affected by our challenging times. For companies looking towards the future, providing coaches can help level the playing field. Read More
Diversity & Inclusion
7 min read | June 23, 2021

What do working parents need? A supportive manager is a good start

Working parents were crunched in the pandemic, especially women. But being a working parent is always hard. A supportive manager can help. Managers are in an ideal position... Read More
Research & Insights
5 min read | September 27, 2021

A new kind of leadership for a new world of work

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve tracked over 10,000 BetterUp Members engaged in 1:1 personalized coaching. Our data provide a window into the unique differences,... Read More
Research & Insights
5 min read | October 13, 2021

Data shows since pandemic team performance hinges on this leader skill

Good leaders who lead successful teams have many skills, from influence to humility. Our data shows what is most important to employees and bottom line. Read More
Research & Insights
12 min read | February 17, 2022

Outsmarting the Innovator's Bias: Where future-mindedness and innovation meet

The world today demands innovation. But we tend to overlook the downside of our own ideas. To move confidently (but not blindly) forward, it helps to imagine the worst. Read More
Research & Insights
8 min read | February 23, 2022

Many working parents feel guilt, but some groups feel it more than others

Our data reveals that feelings of guilt among working parents varies greatly between people of different genders and ethnic groups Read More
Research & Insights
7 min read | September 20, 2022

Why workplace friendships are key to managing negative emotions on the job

The latest data reveals that workplace friendships boost productivity, engagement, and helps workers mitigate the effects of stress and burnout. Read More
Research & Insights
3 min read | September 28, 2022

Unpredictability? Workplace difficulties? It all means growth

When we face difficult situations, it can feel overwhelming. The silver lining is that with every difficult situation we navigate, our resilience grows. Read More
Research & Insights
4 min read | October 28, 2022

For many LGBTQIA+ workers, the office can be a lonely place

Our work arrangement can significantly impact our sense of belonging. But LGBTQIA+ employees face additional challenges that leave many feeling isolated Read More

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.