Abusive Growth

The word “growth” does not mean what you think it means.

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There is some kind of fashion in US corporate culture: that to advertise and promote “personal growth” as an instrument to—and sometimes measure of—employee satisfaction.

This is profoundly offensive, disturbing, and ultimately misguided.

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An anecdote: I love plants and I share my living space with them. One of my plants is named Albert. Albert was a birthday gift made to me in 2004. Albert came in a 15cm (~6”) diameter pot. Two years in, I gave albert a larger pot. Then two years later, yet another. Albert grew from about 30cm (~12”) height, 40cm (16”) wide to an imposing 70cm (28”) height, 1m (3.3’) wide.

And then Albert withered. In such a large pot, it is difficult, nearly impossible even, to maintain proper humidity throughout all the roots. Enough water for the top layers to remain wet means excess water at the bottom. Some roots rotted; Albert became ill and steadily let stems and leaves darken and die.

In 2016, Albert had reduced back to its original size from 2004, where it remained, finally healthy, ever since. Sure, it sprouts new leaves regularly, and old leaves dry up and detach. However it does not grow any more. Albert is certainly alive. But it has reached a sustainable lifecycle, without growth.

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The problem with the “growth mindset” is that it is based on the false belief that “growth” is inherently good.

It is not.

The word “growth” only refers to something desirable in one particular instance: when there is a natural process where something starts small and needs to grow into its final form.

Continuous growth is rather universally problematic, unhealthy and undesirable.

An infant grows into an adult, then stops growing. A person who never stops growing will develop handicaps and severely degraded quality of life.

A plant grows into the capacity of its environment, then stops growing. A plant that never stops growing takes over its ecosystem, kills other plants and, usually, eventually withers when it has depleted all available resources.

An organ grows into its adult shape, then merely renews dead or damaged cells. An organ that keeps growing is called cancer.

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Here are more examples where the word “growth” designates things opposite to what is desirable:

growth

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One of my best friends recently burned out. She was a young professional, an ambitious and capable person.

Yet het work environment was pushing for “career growth” for everyone.

In my friend’s understanding—in fact, to all my friends understanding—“growth” means more responsibility, more reports, more tasks, more projects.

Then my friend reached her limits, tried to work herself in excess of what is sustainable, and suffered severe burnout. She has been incapacitated for two years as a result.

If the focus had been on evolution instead, to emphasize different responsibilities instead of more, different tasks, different projects, she might have been happy and fulfilled today.

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My generation, and that coming after mine, is said to be “born with the Internet”.

What is not said as much, but what we know and live every day, is that we are also living with growing inequality—higher systemic inequality than that ever experienced by all our older living relatives. It concerns all aspects of life: inequality of wealth, of education, of health, of access to services, of opportunity.

For us, the first thing we think about when we hear the word “growth” is the word “inequality”.

An example: my co-workers are invited to express themselves about their dreams and ambitions when, presumably, they have become more wealthy in time and money.

Some say “I want to improve my qualifications as a pilot.”

Good for them! Meanwhile, the rest of us will continue to figure out how to live another day with depression, spending money to pay back student debt, send remittances to our families, struggle with ever increasing utility bills and rent, and foremost struggle with an overall poverty in discretionary time—juggling multiple jobs with family care (often doubling up elderly care with child care).

The fact is, “growth” is inequally available. The already-wealthy can “grow” their time, wealth, hobbies. The not-wealthy do not have the energy and time available for the investment needed for that envisioned “growth”.

(I am glossing over the obvious here: just looking at money, only the wealthy can afford investing and benefit from compound interest, so that their wealth keeps growing on its own without work. “Normal people” instead spend money on debt interest, bills and general surviving, and never see their wealth growing.)

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When you say… What you think you mean What you actually sound like Say instead…
I want to “grow” my business More revenue Unfocused and inexperienced I want to increase my sales and reduce my costs
I want to “grow” my responsibilities Different responsibilities Unable to keep work-life balance I want to update my responsibilities
I want to “grow” my career A different job Inexperienced, unbalanced I want to upgrade my job description
I want to “grow” my skills Less toil and busy work Over-achiever, unbalanced I want to develop skills to increase my work efficiency
I want to “grow” my team To hire new co-workers Feeding staff like cattle meat I want to increase our workforce
I want to “grow” my strength Less anxiety from uncertainty Unhealthy, unbalanced I want to learn how to be adaptable

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Proponents of the “growth mindset” are keen to pretend that the word “growth” is not about actual growth—as in, small things becoming bigger.

But what is it then, according to them?

The disturbing truth is that the various advertised components of a “growth mindset” do not use the word “growth” in their definition, at all!

See, for example:

  • saying: “growth is learning and progress” without realizing that “learning” and “progress” have nothing to do with “growth”.

    (Hint: semantically, that’s talking about change.)

  • saying: “growth is about collaboration instead of competition” without realizing that “collaboration” and “competition” have nothing to do with “growth”.

    (Hint: semantically, that’s talking about cohesion.)

  • saying: “growth is about improving motivation, innovation or productivity” without realizing that “motivation”, “innovation” and “productivity” have nothing to do with “growth”.

    (Hint: semantically, that’s talking about engagement, resilience and efficiency).

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Here’s the new corporate newspeak:

Growth is Resilience

Growth is Adaptivity

Growth is Efficiency

Sounds familiar? Compare:

War is Peace

Freedom is Slavery

Ignorance is Strength

—George Orwell, 1984

In “The Principles of Newspeak“, the appendix to the novel, Orwell explains that Newspeak follows most of the rules of English grammar, yet is a language characterised by a continually diminishing vocabulary; complete thoughts reduced to simple terms of simplistic meaning.

The intellectual purpose of Newspeak is to express [the ruling class’] worldview, and to attempt to make impossible all unorthodox (i.e. anti-ruling) political thought. As constructed, the Newspeak vocabulary communicates the exact expression of sense and meaning that a member of the Party could wish to express, whilst excluding secondary denotations and connotations, eliminating the ways of indirect thinking that allow a word to have second and third meanings.

This is what is happening here: by equating the word “growth,” which has largely disturbing and undesirable connotations, with other positive words like “resilience”, “adaptivity”, “efficiency”, the corporate “growth mindset” weakens the ability of individuals and groups to talk about strategies to change their circumstances.

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In my ideal world, I would never hear a corporate culture or HR officer ever talk about “growth” again. “Growth” is a toxic word that carries notions of inequality, unsustainability, unhealthy behavior, incorrect work-life balance, and, ultimately, oppression.

In that ideal world, we would talk about “transformation”, “evolution”, “adaptivity”, “resilience”, “openness”, “balance” and “inclusivity” instead.