Have you ever been asked the old conversation starter question: "If you could have dinner with any one person, alive or dead, who would it be?" Ever thought about who you'd pick? Depending on your interests and backgrounds, there are many famous names to pick from. If you're a fan of art perhaps you'd pick Van Gogh or Da Vinci. Maybe you'd pick a president you really admire, Reagan, Roosevelt (Frank or Teddy), Obama, Washington or Lincoln all come to mind. You could choose from famous generals from Alexander the Great to Napoleon to Patton and beyond. Or perhaps to spice things up you would pick someone infamous, like David Burkowitz or Jeffrey Dahmer. There's always Hitler too. I mean the man might have been nuttier than a pile of squirrel poop, but I bet his conversation would be... interesting.
But for me there is only one person, Dr. Stephen R. Covey. He is the author of the book that I consider to be the single greatest book of the modern era, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective people.
Every year around this time I get out the 7 Habits and read or listen to it. I find it to be deeply refreshing, inspiring and refocusing. No other book has had such a profound impact on my life, and this is the main reason I re-read it each year. I still remember the first time reading it. I came home from work that day and can still remember standing in the hallway of our house while I raved over the book to my wife. My life had, up until that time, been mostly categorized by disorganization, dissatisfaction and work related conflicts and issues. While I still struggle with disorganization the 7 Habits gave me potent insight into my own background and makeup that both convicted and inspired me to change. Not only that, but it provided clear, logical steps to follow to fix the problems that plagued me for so long. One of the worst days of my life was when I found out that Dr. Covey had passed away. Though I had never met him, I was devastated and felt as though I had lost a personal hero of mine. It is a bucket list item of mine to someday visit his grave.
The 7 Habits is NOT a self help book by modern definitions. The book comes from Covey's masters thesis work where he compared what he called the "Success Literature" of the first 200 years of American civilization to that of the past 50 years or so. What he found was a distinct difference in the writings and teachings of men like our nations forefathers to that of modern self help gurus. He discovered that the success literature of the previous 200 years focused on a person's character, while more recent writings focused on techniques of getting what you want from people around you.
This is something that resonated deeply within me. At that time I was a young husband and father. Not much reveals the weaknesses in your life like small children and a wife depending on you to provide for and love them. I wanted to not simply get ahead, make money, or have the respect of friends, co-workers and society, but I wanted to BE something, a man of integrity, consistency, and respectability. I believed then and still do, that the key to long-lasting love between a married couple is more about respect than it is about money, sex or attraction. To me, the problem in most marriages that fail or become lifeless and loveless, is a loss of respect between the couple.
The 7 Habits is so much more about being something worth respecting than it is about convincing people to respect you.
In his book Covey expounds on the notion that principles are natural in our lives and cannot be avoided or circumvented. Shortcuts may appear to get you ahead for a brief period of time, but you can only fool people for so long. Eventually they figure out who you really are, the paint wears off, the masks are broken. What you are left with when that happens is usually broken or damaged relationships of all kinds be it with co-workers, spouse, children. He goes to great lengths to prove that private victories within ourselves, precedes lasting public victories. That being a better person, developing your character, living honestly and diligently are keys to success. Notions of a great smile, good looks, expensive suits, communication techniques are really just driven usually by selfish motives; getting what you want. And eventually people discover your duplicitous character.
The 7 Habits, therefore, focuses on these principles that guide the natural world around us. It discusses the concepts of dependence (relying on those around you for financial, physical, spiritual, emotional needs), Independence (having an internal strength of character to not allow yourself to be defined by those around you, or for those around you, or how they perceive you, to define what you consider to be right and wrong), and Inter-dependence (the reality that all of life is inter-dependent, and that we as humans must be independent first, to unlock our ability to achieve great things with those around us in an inter-dependent home, workplace etc). For the first time in my life while reading it, I realized that I did not HAVE to be those bad things that defined me.
If I chose not to be.
And that is the real crux of the power of this book. If you are willing to take a hard look at yourself, and take responsibility for where you are in life, it can unlock a world of growth you never knew was possible. But if you are stuck believing that you are a bad spouse because of your spouse, a bad parent because of your parents, a bad employee because of your boss, this book might not be for you.
In a nutshell the 7 habits are:
Habit 1: Be Proactive
This is all about taking responsibility for yourself, your situation and focusing your energies on what you can control. Got a bad boss? Try to be the best employee for them you can be, develop yourself to offset their weaknesses. Stop blaming all your interpersonal conflicts on everyone else, because they simply don't "get you". It is the habit that says: "I am the programmer."
Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind
This is the notion that we should maintain a long term view of things especially our life and how we should live. Have you ever considered your own funeral? Who would you want to speak? More importantly, what would you want them to say? Once you see that END in your mind, you can begin to live each day in such a way that those people who matter the most to you (the ones you would want to say) see you living your life according to principles that drive you (the good things you would want them to say about you). It is the habit that says: "Define and write the program."
Habit 3: Put First Things First
This focuses on the importance of prioritization before planning. Instead of living life off a check list of tasks and to-dos this focuses on figuring out FIRST what's important to you, and making sure you've planned those things in your life. Instead of constantly reacting to everything in life around you, begin to plan and work in important areas of your life that yield incredible positive results. It is the habit that says: "Now run the program"
Habit 4: Think Win/Win
This focuses on the notion that there is enough to go around for all of us, that we do not have to be the center of attention, we don't have to be in charge, and we don't have to win while everyone around us loses. It is, in fact, possible for both of us to win, if we work first to respect one another, our differences and the different ways in which we see the world. Conflicts in Marriage are not won by one spouse, but usually lost by both in the long run. But Win/Win is only achievable if we are willing to believe that we may not be the end all be all sum of knowledge and wisdom in the world. The opposite of this is demanding your way, forcing people to come around to your way of thinking, criticizing the world for not being like you and agreeing with you.
Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
Probably the most powerful of all the public victories in my opinion, this focuses on developing the ability to really listen to a person and trying to step outside of yourself and your experiences long enough to truly understand another person you might disagree with. Have you ever tried this? Have you ever tried to understand someone else's point of view so well that you could argue it for them? Pick a hot topic, Abortion, Gun Rights, Vaccinations. Whatever you feel about the topic, have you ever shut your own mouth long enough to listen to someone else and understand WHY they feel/think the way they do? Or are you too busy demanding everyone understand your opinions on the matter first?
Habit 6: Synergize
This focuses on the power of people working together seeking to understand one another, finding win/win solutions to unlock potential that is greater than the sum of their parts.
Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw
This focuses on the importance of daily renewal in the four physical dimensions of our lives: Physical (exercise, good health), Mental (learning new things, new skills), Spiritual (refocusing our lives on those things that are important to us, living our lives by principles and identifying areas where we need to make adjustments), Emotional/Social (renewing our ability to serve for the greater good of those around us).
The 7 Habits is not for the faint of heart, the proud of spirit, the arrogant of knowledge. This is why I think the book's popularity has waned in recent years. Most people are convinced they're right about everything and the problems are "Out There" and are so busy trying to convince everyone they're right or "shipping out" those who won't "shape up" that they can't possibly fathom a universe of which they are not the center.
The 7 Habits is for the humble who agree to stop blaming the world around them for everything, and take a hard look at how they respond to the world, how they see the world. It is for those who are willing to respect everyone around them, even those who disagree with them. It is for those who sincerely desire to BE something noteworthy and not simply have something.
But if you are willing to read it with an open heart and mind I can guarantee it will change you.