Management guru Stephen Covey, best known for his worldwide best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, died on June 16 2012 from injuries sustained in a bike crash. He was 79 years old.
I read this book quite a few years ago. At the time I was in a bit of a self-help jag and while the idea of seven principles was very appealing, the content was not so very much different from a number of other self-help / management books at the time. Perhaps better organised.
But when I heard of his death it took me to a place when, as a teenager, I discovered Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, possibly the first of the great self-help books. I suspect that those a few years younger than me probably felt that Covey’s tome was the light for them, the way Positive Thinking was for me.
The self-help books were the start of a journey. They told me that anything was possible, that if I tried, I could make my life what I wanted. They gave real-life-stories of people who changed their lives (and I am still a sucker for a good “I-turned-my-life-around” story. And as I move into mid-life crisis territory, the idea of infinite possibilities appeals even more.)
I had the advantage of good health, reasonable intelligence, good education, a supportive family and being born into a western society in a period of peace and prosperity. If anything, my “problem” was too much comfort. There was no burning platform to make me strive to save myself from a life of misery and starvation. Unlike Stephen Covey, who grew up on an egg farm and as a teenager suffered a severe illness that turned him from athletics to academia, my life was comparatively easy and straight forward. If I studied, I got good marks. If I didn’t then the results were variable. I didn’t have to do physical labour and I didn’t have to worry where the next meal came from.
Since my teenage years I read a lot of self-help books until I got to the stage when they all seemed to say the same thing. When I started buying books for their titles and not reading them, I knew I’d done enough. I have listened to tapes, done courses, abseiled and walked on fire (yes really and no it doesn’t hurt). I like to think I have integrated most of what the books had to teach me and discarded the rest (it has to be said some of them are/were a little too new-agey airy-fairy for me. Take what works, discard the rest. It’s not a religion, you can pick and choose.)
There is a body of work now that says that the positive thinking, “I can overcome in any circumstances” attitude has not been a wholly positive thing for society. The would-be lover who will not take no for an answer becomes a stalker. The terminal cancer patient who refuses to accept that they are dying spends their last days struggling and suffering, losing the opportunity to say goodbye and to enjoy the last part of their life.
The underlying assumption is the Great American Dream – that if you work hard enough, or clever enough, you can be wealthy beyond you wildest dreams, a captain of industry, 100% delirously happy all the time, or whatever your dream is. This assumes that we all start with an even playing field – equality of opportunity. And this is plainly not the case. Those born without health, without access to food, safety, education, are not starting on the same playing field. This does not mean that they cannot also succeed or change their lives but their journey will be much harder. And it ignores the intervention of random events – the car-crashes of life, the luck, the lack of luck. Yes your attitude determines your life – but to use the technical language, sometimes shit happens.
The assumption that the life you lead is a direct result of your own efforts leads to a blame-the-victim mentality. If you can’t support yourself and your family, if you haven’t got the health and wealth you need to survive, then it must be your fault. Therefore you do not deserve compassion, or financial support. No unemployment benefits, no single parent benefits (blame the mother, bad luck to the children), no public health care, no decent public education.
And then we become an uncaring society. Society suffers – all of us. Desperate people do desperate things. Don’t make them desperate.
This blog took an unexpected turn in the middle. I don’t intend it to be a commentary on Dr Covey’s works per se, more an exposition and exploration of the assumptions and results of the self-help industry which was so very prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s when I was in my teenage years and early twenties.
I personally feel I got a lot out of various authors but I recognise that there is a debate to be had on the effects of self-help philosophies at a societal level.
For those wanting a quick refresher on the Covey 7 Habits, here they are:
Habit No. 1: Be proactive. Know yourself, be responsible for yourself and your own actions and effects. If you want to achieve something, do something about it.
Habit No. 2 Begin with the end in mind. Often used as the basis of visualisation, but more literally, just know your goal when you start out.
Habit No. 3: Put first things first. This habit is about time management.
Habit No. 4: Think win/win. “seek mutual benefit in all human interactions”.
Habit No. 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This one is about being focussed outwards.
Habit No. 6: Synergise. where the whole is more than the sum of the parts (for example, some teams achieve more because they “bounce” off each other than the sum of all their individual efforts).
Habit No. 7: Sharpen the saw. Keep yourself fit, educated, seek new information.
Not rocket science, but it was pretty good at the time.
If you would like to see Dr Covey in action, have a look on YouTube.