The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, Self-Help

A popular and influential book that’s often part of college business education.

Arguably, there’s not much new in here, but the book is fairly long, and has a lot of stories, which makes it work for some people.

The habits, with summary descriptions in plan language, are:

  1. Be Proactive – lean toward taking action, taking responsibility, and limiting your focus to things you can affect.
  2. Begin with the End in Mind – have a goal in mind, and work toward that goal, and let go of things that don’t move you toward that goal.
  3. Put First Things First – be centered around your character, develop your character, and let that guide your decisions and actions in concert with the goal.
  4. Think Win-Win – find the opportunities for collaboration, and don’t stay in situations where you need to be in conflict to win.
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood – learn to listen and understand someone else’s situation before you provide your input.
  6. Synergize – put yourself in situations where you can apply understanding/being understood, and also find win-win arrangements.
  7. Sharpen the Saw – practice and hone your skills.

Some of these ideas are now mainstream, like win-win, understand first, synergize, and sharpen the saw. Some are less popular, like be proactive, begin with the end in mind, and first things first. I think only “win win” and “synergize” are words that people might recognize today.

When Covey wrote this, it was a strong counterpoint to other self-help books that were about “positive thinking” or “improving your personality”; the prescription throughout this book is to improve ones character.  I’m not sure if this means that people were more shallow in the past, and needed more character, or if they had too much character, and needed self-help books to help these diverse organizations with people with strong opinions to get along.

Covey has been criticized as being a clandestine proponent of Mormonism.  This is probably relevant, but, as an atheist, I don’t see how this is any different than self-help books by people of other philosophies.  If anything, it is probably a good book for anyone with an outre or weird core set of values, to get along with people who may disagree with those values.

One of the weirder bits of Mormon history I find interesting is that, initially, it was communist.  Members were to give land to the church, and then receive enough land in return to be a subsistence farmer. The landless would be given small farms to be subsistence farmers, as well. This is also a distributionist ideal, and influences some forms of Catholicism.  It’s also espoused by Thomas Jefferson.  All these people supported the contemporary communist idea of land reform, to give peasants enough farmland to survive, and that this be done by taking the land of plantation-owners (who often operate like feudal lords, and treat people like slaves).  (Note, however, that despite these seemingly populist ideals, all these philosophies supported slavery, so the populism didn’t extend past white men.)

So, one of the ideals of these different philosophies is communism.  One of the core values of communism is cooperation rather than competition; this is right in the 7 habits.  This is expressed most clearly in the fourth chapter, “Think Win-Win”, where you aren’t supposed to seek out conflict. Rather, you want to create situations where both parties benefit — that is, by eliminating the inefficiencies of duplicated effort and the bad feelings engendered by competition.  Covey, however, doesn’t seek to encourage win-win for all of society — he states that it can happen only within the confines of a company, and that companies compete against each other in the market. So he limits his scope of actions.

Limiting the scope of action is part of “Be Proactive” in Chapter 1. Covey says to understand the difference of one’s larger “circle of concern” and the one’s smaller “circle of influence.” The scope of his “win-win” is limited by the boundaries of an organization, and within the organization, between parties that can be influenced.  This is fundamentally conservative, both socially and politically.

To effect change, people need to have strong values and character, need to enlarge their circle of concern, and attempt to grow their circle of influence, even if it means going beyond possible win-wins.

I think the book has a lot of useful advice and information, particularly for people who want to be effective at work and socially, but it should be read critically as a somewhat New Age form of conservative ideology that can serve to limit social change.

For sale: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey Self-Help


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