Deep in the mountains of self-help advice, there are a few veins of pure gold. Some of the most critical and transformative concepts in the genre are forever encapsulated in Stephen Covey’s seminal work, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. If you read only one self-help book in your life, The Seven Habits might be the single best choice, full of truly powerful insights that seem obvious and natural once internalized, but without which, life can be significantly more challenging. Covey provides very effective lenses for viewing the world, and even though I read the book in my early twenties, I can still easily recall all seven habits. It’s that good.
One of the key tenets of his philosophy, encapsulated in the first habit, is a method for approaching problems. His words still echo in my mind: “As long as you think the problem is out there, then that very thought is the problem.”
This maxim directs us not to worry about what’s wrong with other people, the world, the situation, finances, and on and on. No excuses. Questions like, “why me?” are useless. Focusing on who’s to blame rather than what you can do to improve the situation is a case of ineffective priorities and a waste of time. I’m not going to summarize the entire book, but it’s hard for me to overstate the influence this book had on me as a young person, and I attribute much of my own success to the espoused principles.
That said, while Covey’s work functions well as “The Lawful Good Manifesto,” life experience has taught me that while it’s a good primer, there are more advanced subtleties, and there are other, darker ways to power that are surprisingly effective. Covey teaches us to focus positively on what we can constructively do to build up ourselves first, and then empower those around us. This is a highly effective primary strategy, but once you’ve implemented this way of thinking, it also pays to recognize that sometimes the problem actually is out there. Once you’ve addressed your own role in the situation and done what you can do to fortify your own position, it becomes wise to acknowledge that there are in fact forces that will work directly against you, by hook or by crook, in true Machiavellian style.
Adopting the Goody Two-Shoes practices advocated by Covey is not always an effective counterbalance to those who are, let’s just call it out: evil. Sad to say, but while most people are mostly good, there are some people who are at a least half-and-half, if not outright bad. It was a grim awakening to realize that those who use deliberate deception and focus on what Covey would call the “personality ethic” instead of the “character ethic” can be highly successful in human organizations. In fact, a degree of psychopathy may be quite adaptive. Believe it.
A responsible practitioner of The Seven would do well to acquaint himself with the dark arts — because there are those who have no use for a principle-centered life who can prove to be powerful adversaries. Being good is a great way to succeed, but being bad, when done well, can be a surprisingly effective habit.
My strategy for dealing with evil is to steer clear when possible, but when your principles are violated, sometimes confrontation is appropriate… that’s probably a topic for another day. Today, in honor of Covey, I’ll revisit The Seven Habits — still the best self-help book available. And maybe I’ll revisit The Prince, too.
“Begin with the End in Mind.” R.I.P.