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Personal growth starts with looking inward, but eventually shifts 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.
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 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 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 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.
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.
Sr. Insights Manager