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 2 of the series. An overview of the series can be found here.
Between stimulus and reaction: Being proactive
Humans can decide how to react to a stimulus, while animals can't. Thats what Steven Covey considers to be the biggest difference between them. It's his explanation of responsibility: response-ability, the ability to choose your response. Our responses are (well, should be!) the outcome of applying our unique human endowments:
- self-awareness - we can be aware of who we are and what we do;
- imagination - we can find new answers;
- conscience - we have an innate ability to tell right from wrong;
- free will - due to our self-awareness, we can decide how to respond.
There is more to it: we needn't wait for a stimulus, but can take initiative instead. Being proactive means both in Covey's view: the responsibility for what we do and taking the initiative. If we choose to believe in determinism instead («It's the fault of our genes / parents / environment»), we turn ourselves into reactive victims.
Reactive thinking leads to a multitude of negative symptoms:
- Self-awareness degrades to awareness only of what «people» say about us - which is not impartial. Others have their own views and interests (of the moment) and project them onto us, unconsciously. If we accept these projections indiscriminately, we do not see ourselves but rather a distorted image, like in a crazy mirror room.
- Language abounds with phrases that suggest a lack of options. «I can't», «they don't let me», «that's how I am» are typical examples.
- Making the decisions that control our lives becomes the responsibility of others.
- In the end, being powerless becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When somebody keeps on talking and thinking about being powerless, he or she loses a lot of energy. The environment, too, starts to believe that a self-proclaimed «victim» is better not be relied upon. Which leads to a reinforcing «I told you so. They won't let me...»
Augment your circle of influence, become influential
Covey's character ethic is different from superficial positive thinking. Looking at reality first makes all the difference, before choosing a response. The 7 Habits don't deal with a «positive attitude». Instead, Covey insists on a simple question: what's next - even if we may be sobered by that look at reality. Even if we're about to loose confidence.
So you won't find instructions for the permanent smile in his book, but a clear distinction between whats feasible and what isn't:
- The circle of influence, versus
- the circle of concern.
By default, our circle of influence is only a subset of our circle of influence. Proactive people handle this gap much better than reactive ones.
- Reactive people focus on everything they're concerned with, whether they can influence it or not. Being «concerned» but feeling helpless is a common result. Thinking circles around terms like fault and guilt. Around things one could not, can not and will not have. Around having to do something. As a result, the circle of concern increases, but the circle of influence decreases like a muscle that doesn't get used a lot.
- Proactive people don't react like that to reality. They focus on their circle of influence. On keeping their promises and standing by their commitments. On what they want to be and what they want to become. They're actively pursuing the enlargement of their circle of influence. This way, they shape the circumstances instead of complaining about them.
The first three habits (Be Proactive; Begin with the End in Mind; Put First Things First) all belong to the category of private victories. They're increasing our direct control within our circle of influence.
Fostering indirect control, influence on others, in short: public victory is the aim of the following three habits (Think Win/Win; Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood; Synergize). Instead of complaining about others who don't do what they ought to, learn to compensate for their weaknesses. Covey sees a lot of potential here, especially in supporting executives. Put your anticipatory skills at work and demonstrate that you can be relied upon. Solve problems and watch your circle of influence grow.
Whenever you have no influence at all (it happens a lot less than you may think), reactive thinking doesn't make sense or may be dangerous, even perilous. For the moment, being powerless must be accepted, but freedom be preserved. As an extreme example, Covey tells the story of Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who wrote down in his autobiography (Viktor Frankl Recollections: An Autobiography) what he experienced in a Nazi concentration camp. Frankl preserved his inner freedom by realizing that his tantalizers had more liberty (options to choose from), but it was him who actually had more freedom (will power to actually make choices).
The strong points of the chapter on proactivity become apparent wherever Covey highlights that there is a huge difference between thinking like a victim and actually being powerless. Being powerless must be accepted, as Covey shows, but it can and must be conquered because giving in is even worse.
At the beginning of the chapter, a certain presumptuousness towards animals surfaces. Humans aren't that superior. Animals, too, transcend the simple stimulus-response scheme depicted by behaviorists.
See the next part of the series: Stephen R. Coveys «The 7 Habits» (3/8): Begin with the End in Mind. An overview of the series can be found here.