The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989) by Stephen R. Covey

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Nobody but a masochist would derive pleasure from reading an endless succession of self-help books. After being told ‘You are what you think’ for the umpteenth time one’s patience flies out of the window, the eyes glaze over and the mind wanders. Then you come across an author who makes you sit up and think. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People has that effect. I immediately warmed to the author, partly because of his positive outlook. He has what he describes as an ‘abundance mindset’, which means he thinks we live in a world where there’s enough for everyone’s need, if not for everyone’s greed. We’re in a win-win situation. We can co-operate with everyone else on the planet because there’s no shortage of the things which really matter, like beauty, love and joy. This is in contrast to those unfortunates who are imbued with a ‘scarcity mindset’, who think that the good things in life are in chronically short supply. As a result they feel obliged to engage in a constant battle to grab the largest possible chunk of the communal goodies. This places them at loggerheads with their neighbours, workmates and friends, because if I win, they must inevitably lose.

To understand the angle this book takes it’s helpful to know a little about its author’s background. Stephen Covey was born in 1932 to hard working parents who ran a chicken farm outside Salt Lake City. This no doubt explains the book’s regular use of poultry analogies; like chicken and egg situations, walking on eggs shells, having all your eggs in one basket and killing the goose which lays the golden egg. His parents were devout Mormons, and while he claims that he ‘never introduces religion or politics into his books or worldwide seminars’ the influence is clearly there. In a final ‘personal note’ at the book’s close he says: ‘I believe that correct principles

are natural laws, and that God, the Creator and Father of us all, is the source of them.’ To emphasise the point, he then quotes Teilhard de Chardin: ‘We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.’

In tandem with his spiritual beliefs, Covey was also highly ambitious. He set out first to be a college athlete, but suffered a major injury to his thigh which left him walking on crutches for three years. Since he couldn’t be a high-flying sportsman, he set out on an academic career, seeking to excel at teaching and public speaking. He got a degree in business administration in 1952, and his parents fondly hoped that this would encourage him to join the family business – Covey’s Little America. The company had been started by his grandfather, who nearly froze to death on a cold winter’s night when he was working as a shepherd in Wyoming. Building on that experience, and being a man whose long term aims far exceeded his short term assets, grandpa Covey found a way of raising enough capital to build a hotel and lorry park, so that truckers had a warm haven when they needed to make an overnight stopover. This venture made a minor fortune when a highway was constructed nearby.

But his grandson wanted to make it on his own account. First he met his religious obligations, by serving two stints as a Mormon missionary in England. On the second of these visits he was given the task of training novitiates on their first, proselytising mission. This set the pattern of his later work as a management consultant. On returning home he gained a doctorate in Religious Education from Brigham Young University, where his thesis was based on a study of the ‘success literature’ of the last two hundred years. This research led him to the firm belief that self-help books should be based on long term character training, rather than the quick fix makeovers so the sort offered by today’s motivational gurus. This meant a slow process of habit change, along the lines suggested by Samuel Smiles and Benjamin Franklin, rather than the use of spin, charm and Machiavellian cunning. This concept met with my instant approval since my second book, written nearly forty years ago, is called The Habits of Health and takes the identical approach. What matters is not what we say or do, but what we are. We are not only creatures of habits, but also creators of habits. First we create our habits; then forever afterwards our habits create us. In The Seven Secrets of Success Covey sets out a straightforward programme of habit change, designed to take the reader from dependence to independence, and then finally to interdependence. The advice he gives is based on his graduate studies of the self-help literature, for as he freely admitted at the time of the book’s publication: ‘There’s nothing new in all this, I just built the bridge between the theory and the practice.’

The book clearly meets a genuine need for it’s still in print and has so far sold over fifteen million copies in thirty-eight different languages. (It might have entered the best seller lists if it had only sold to his immediate family, for he has nine children, fifty-two grandchildren and a vast contingent of cousins, uncles and aunts) As I read the early pages of the book I felt that our lives had followed a parallel course. Then I read his sales figure, and his phenomenal success as an entrepreneur, and realised that at some point our pathways must had diverged. On the strength of the success of The Seven Laws, he mortgaged his home, drew on his savings and built the Covey Leadership Center, set in a campus with five neo-Georgian buildings and a staff of seven hundred. With a partner, he now owns Franklin Covey, a multinational company with offices in sixty countries. In four years, the venture has generated $500 million, through book sales, seminars, lectures, and spin-off products like videos, training tapes, polo shirts, day planners and chequebook covers. How glad he must be that be didn’t enter grandpa’s hotel business. For myself, I wonder if my career might not have taken a different course if I’d been brought up with the biblical texts that he was given as a child. He was told to ‘Go forth and multiply’, whereas I was forbidden from ‘laying up treasures on earth.’  Could it be that his parents were right and mine were wrong?

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