Growth flourishes in favorable environments

by Derrick Darden, PhD – (Photo JCM)

At some point, a person feels the need to evolve, to enter a new dimension of life. Maybe they want to improve a skill, a behavior, or an action. Perhaps they want to advance in their career, in their relationships with others, or change their mindset or grow their spiritual knowledge. But for growth to happen, the person’s environment must change.

We all know how growth happens in plants. It starts with a seed that must be implanted into fertile soil full of nutrients to form roots. It also needs sunlight, air, and water, which, through the process of photosynthesis, helps the growing seed produce its own food source. In the right conditions, the seed begins to grow into a plant, and that plant grows to its full potential. If one of these elements are absent, the seed my never take root or achieve full growth. If you plant a seed in an environment where one of these elements is absent, growth is inhibited and the seed’s full potential is never realized. The seed remains dormant.

That principle works the same in your life and mine. For growth to happen, your environment must be conducive to growth. It must have the right nutrients to stimulate growth. If you want to change your current situation or circumstances, you must change your present environment. John Maxwell writes that “Growth is the only guarantee that tomorrow is going to get better.” If you don’t have the resources and the know-how, start from where you are.

I realized at an early age that growth only happens in its proper environment. I remembered when I was 12 years old, I was sitting on my mother’s hardwood floor and watching an interview with my favorite television personality, Mr. T. “I was born in the ghetto, but the ghetto was not in me,” he said.

His words changed my life.  They taught me that if circumstances are not what you want, then change them. 

My circumstances at that time were poverty, crime, and a drug-infested neighborhood. I had no role models to look up to. The adults around me had the look of hopelessness and despair. They may have had dreams and ambitions, but when you looked into their eyes, the flames of ambition had gone out. The adults in my neighborhood accepted the destinies that the environment had given them. I refused to accept defeatism, cynicism, discouragement, and hopelessness. I had dreams, hopes, and a desire to succeed. I did not accept the status quo. 

Music was my way out. I had developed a talent for the trumpet, and my mother scraped up enough money for me to take music lessons at a performing arts academy in the city I was living in. Taking music lessons allowed me to escape the impoverished and dangerous neighborhood for a few hours each week. I was taught by excellent music instructors who not only cared about the instrument, but the person. They demonstrated to me to the quality of life I was seeking. They became my role models. Upon graduating from high school, I received a two-year music scholarship to college. That was my ticket out of the ghetto. Later I joined the military and played the trumpet in the Army band for several years.

What happened? I wanted out of my environment, I did not accept my circumstances, and I did not give up on hope, even at a young age. I got the opportunity to be in a different environment that nourished my growth – not only in developing my skill as a musician, but as an individual. I flourished in that environment and that led to my growth journey. I never looked back. 

What does a growth environment look like?   

In order for a seed to grow, it needs the right soil, sunlight, air and water.   

My mentor, John Maxwell, always taught that your environment is helping you, not holding you back. This one statement helped me examine my own workplace environment. John asked us questions that helped us examine our present environment, such as:

  1. Are you in a place where others are ahead of you, or are you the go-to person? Are you the smartest one in the room? Then what and who is pouring into you? You are not getting the necessary nutrients for growth. If you are pouring everything you have into others, who is pouring into you?
  2. Are you challenged on a constant basis?

In the military, on every assignment I went to, something was always wrong. Logistical processes were not in place so customers were not getting their supplies and materials on time, which upset them. Or a morale problem amongst the workers compounded the unhappy-customers problem. Sometimes I complained to my peers that I always got the most challenging assignments. It was then that I recognized another of John’s principles: you must get out of your comfort zone to grow. When I finished the assignment, the logistical processes were far better than the previous ones, the morale within my area of responsibility was very high, and my customers were giving my operation rave reviews.

At first, I didn’t understand why I always got the hard and challenging jobs. Later I realized that the military was giving me a new growth environment with each new assignment. As the saying goes, with each promotion comes more responsibility. I must have made a lasting impact on my senior officers, because they expected my performance to be top level. My performance in my military career lead me to exponential growth, higher compensation, and bonuses. 

If I embraced challenges, you need to also.

Another statement that helped me evaluate my present environment was: Are others growing around you? The answer to this question reveals the state of workplace or organization, or your peers. Are others getting promoted? Are they recognizing their workers’ abilities and strengths? Is this recognition due to workers doing extraordinary in workplace assignments and exceeding performance standards?  

Military organization inspired and motivated me to take on challenging assignments and be not concerned about  getting my hands dirty. Adding value to the organization is important to me.  Complacency is not an option, nor is just earning a paycheck. This motivated me during my journey of growth. The environment had to be nourishing, challenging, and motivating. If your workplace is toxic, or complacency is the norm, find something else that will help you develop and grow.

Even life after the military, I never changed my mindset. This framework is forever embedded in my mind. Always seek the best environment for continual growth. 

In my last job in California, even after working for 10 years within the organization, promotions came very slowly, even though I used the same approach discussed above. Morale there was at an all-time low. Nepotism, jealousy of the bosses’ favorites, and a toxic work environment inhibited growth. Through several turn of events within the organization, a shuffling from the top down gave me the opportunity to accept a temporary developmental assignment 1700 miles away. The assignment was challenging but rewarding. It gave me insights into my field that I never knew existed. In fact, the work was so advanced that my 10 years on the job in California had not prepared for it. It was so advanced that my old notes and files from previous work were too elementary for the assignment. Boy, did I feel outside of my comfort zone. 

However, the staff was supportive, and there were plenty of opportunities for me to get up to speed.  After several months the developmental assignment ended. I wanted to remain at the new workplace, and I made my request known to the higher-ups. After a lot of convincing of senior management, my potential was recognized, along with my work ethic, and an agreement was made to keep me on.  I never looked back.

Just as my military experience had taught me, I took on the hard assignment. This has encouraged and fostered my growth. I’ve had a few failures, but these were not my enemy. Many in the office are more advanced than me, but I am quickly catching up.

Lastly, leaders must create a growth environment within their organization or areas of influence. I came to realize that as my ranking became more senior that I had a responsibility to help others that worked directly for me to grow. I had to create a growth environment. I used the same framework and list that I was taught, I applied it to help others. 

  1. For people to grow you must set the bar high. Provide them with a challenging environment.  
  2. Give them challenging work, nothing beneath them. And if they do not know how to do it, train them the right way first, then expect them to maintain the standard.
  3. Cultivate an affirming atmosphere. Nurture and nourish your people for growth.
  4. Model growth in front of them. Lead from the front, not the rear. I always say: “The most valuable gift I can give to other is a good example.” There is nothing more confusing than a person who gives good advice but sets a bad example. To quote (again) John Maxwell: “A pint of example is worth a gallon of advice.”


Remember, growth is the only guarantee that tomorrow will get better. If you don’t know whether your present environment is a growth environment, do an assessment.

Are others more advanced than you?

Are your assignments challenging?

Is your environment affirming or toxic?

Are you excited every morning about embracing challenge?

Are others growing around you?

The bottom line is that a growth environment aids in growth. It doesn’t hold you back. Lastly, if you are a leader, you are responsible for helping others grow and creating an atmosphere of growth. Grow leaders, don’t just tell them what to do.