In its most simplest definition, evolution is change over time. In biology, this change results from a mutation – actual changes in the DNA – or migration, the genes leave one place and go elsewhere, or by genetic drift, in which life circumstances shift the allele (gene form) frequencies in a population.
Alternatively, change can result from environmental influences on the organism. For example, certain species of birds have red/orange/yellow plumage because of carotenoids, which aren’t endogenously made by the birds but are only available in the diet. Changes in feather color, when carotenoids aren’t available, undoubtedly affect the bird’s ability to camouflage itself from predators and attract reproductive partners, paving the way to evolution.
Whether it’s genotypic or phenotypic in nature, change happens to an organism but not necessarily because of what the organism does. An elephant seal can’t stop hunters from killing it (leading to genetic drift); a flamingo can’t make more crustaceans (which provide the carotenoids needed to give the flamingo pink feathers) appear magically in the water. In biology, by and large, evolution happens to the organism.
This is where personal evolution differs from biological. Personal evolution is all about our role in the process. Personal evolution is about the choices we make to grow ourselves in ways that always help us navigate our world more effectively.
Life doesn’t just happen to us. Happiness doesn’t happen to us. Suffering doesn’t happen to us. No. We have a hand in creating those states of being. And, I believe that it is largely by our own doing that we experience personal success or failure, that is happiness or suffering. The choice is ours, whether we want to act in ways that move us forward, toward being our best selves, or to act in ways that cause our regression, moving us toward our more unskilled selves.
It has take my almost my whole life to learn this truth. (Good Goddess, I can be a slow learner!) And even though I’ve learned the lesson, I’m not totally, or even highly, evolved. Not in the least.
You see, personal evolution is both a life long process and an indirect path. It’s not an arc from point A to B; it’s a sine wave. It oscillates up and down but hopefully moving in an overall direction toward greater wellbeing.
Life is like the ocean – still and serene at times, crashing with violent waves at other times. The only constant is that it changes, and when it changes and it’s turbulent, we have to learn how to navigate those waves. This is how we evolve, how we survive and thrive. We learn to adjust and harness that wave energy to support us rather than letting the waves pull us under.
This is personal evolution, choosing to act in ways that support your own wellbeing regardless of what life throws at you. As Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote, “You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf.”