Stephen R. Covey's «The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People» isn't a quick read. It doesn't want to be either. For Covey, success is based on habitual formation of the character - comparable to the cycle of sowing and harvesting and about as time-consuming.
In this eight-part series, I'm going to present the key concepts of the book and what I've learned from them. This is Part 1 of the series. An overview of the series can be found here.
Intro: Character is a matter of habit
When Stephen R. Covey combed through 200 years of US literature covering How to be successful, he spotted an obvious parting line at the middle of the 20th century. Older works essentially focussed on character ethic, more recent books on personality ethic. Covey frowns upon personality ethics because it is superficial, being focused mainly on public relations and a make-believe positive mental attitude that lacks an ethical base.
The key to being effective (to achieving what you planned), according to Stephen Covey, isn't practicing fancy techniques, but forming your character. He claims that there are some universal principles that resemble natural laws: building any stable, successful society becomes unthinkable as long as these principles are disregarded. To identify the principles, we must become aware of the mental lenses (paradigms) that shape our view of reality. Only then we're able to see where we've been confusing our mental «maps» with reality. Reality, however, is governed by principles like fairness, honesty, dignity the same sense as by natural laws: you can try to violate them, but there is nothing good to be gained from that. Values are merely a subjective selection of some principles, which is why values actually aren't a good base for character formation. They're simply not fundamental enough. Covey says we must align our ways of seeing things (our paradigms) with unalterable principles to achieve genuine success.
The habits of highly effective people
Becoming effective is a personal development, starting inside out, says Covey. Dependent people need to become independent first, then to discover the value of synergy that results form interdependence.
That is why Covey's 7 habits are grouped into three sections. The first one represents the private victory:
- Be Proactive
- Begin with the End in Mind
- Put First Things First
The second one represents public victory:
- Think Win/Win
- Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
And finally the meta level of renewal is covered:
- Sharpen the Saw
There is no quick fix for ineffectiveness. Covey highlights this using a famous quotation by Aristotle:
Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
According to Covey, a habit is the intersection of knowledge, skill and desire: you know how something works; you've gained experience how to do it; and you want to do it - so it will happen over and over again.
There is one caveat, however. It's not objectionable to maximize your gains from physical, financial and human assets, as long as it's sustainable. Since Covey wrote the book at the end of the 1980ies, sustainability isn't mentioned. Instead, Covey calls the concept Production/Production Capability Balance (P/PC Balance). Put into a nutshell: don't overburden the goose that lays the golden eggs. Don't push the envelope to the max, but invest just as much time into the maintenance of the production capability of your assets.
I don't feel comfortable with the concept of principles that are claimed to be as valid as natural laws. The introduction chapter of the book to me sounds more like a pleading in favor of the right choice of values. You don't have to believe in the indisputable landscape of principles. In my review, I've skipped quite a few principles that Covey considers indisputable, mainly those I'd rather call secondary virtues.
See next: Stephen R. Coveys «The 7 Habits» (2/8): Be Proactive. There is also an overview on the series.