Today we are looking at the fifth book on my list of books that have changed the way I think about things: Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
Stop laughing, I know I am not particularly effective. The point is not so much how this book has made me a more successful person, but how it has changed the way I think about things.
While this is a self-help book directed mainly to business people looking to get an edge on the competition, it goes deeper than that. It is a study of human nature, almost a work of philosophical anthropology. What Stephen Covey is trying to do is help people construct their lives on the basis of the deep laws of human nature.
Cynical people like me enjoying reducing people’s behaviors and beliefs to their culture, upbringing and education. We say: “you only think that because you are a 21st century American”, or “if it wasn’t for your crappy education, you would agree with me.” Worse, we like to blame failure (either our own or others’) on circumstances beyond our control: “If only it wasn’t for your domineering parents or your pee-wee football coach or the time you were scared by that spider (etc.) you would be more athletic, charming, kind, confident, and attractive to members of the opposite sex”. It is an easy way to feel intellectually superior without having to accept any real responsibility for failure.
Covey, however, strikes a remarkable balance: on the one hand he fully acknowledges the extent that environment and psychology condition on our action, on the other he insists that human beings are capable, to a degree, of escaping their education, conditioning and upbringing, and taking control of their own lives. For Covey, being human means being able to take full responsibility and redefine oneself according to a primitive, innate sense of right and wrong. He does not claim that this process is easy, rather it is a lifelong task of maturation.
Unlike other animals, humans have the capacity to reflect on their own behavior, identify the factors that limit their freedom, and achieve a sort of self-reprogramming. But for this reprogramming to lead to a happy and fulfilled life, it must be in accord with classical values like honesty, fidelity, enterprise and service; values which are cherished in all the great cultural traditions.
Of course, this is a fancy way of talking about the old Roman notion of natural law, an idea which was adopted by Jewish and Christian apologists way back in the day. The basic idea is that in creating man, God made him to function best when exercising his freedom in some ways, and not in others. While natural law can be nicely summed up in Ten Commandments, we more or less knew all along that we shouldn’t kill, lie, steal, or cheat on our wives.
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People takes an optimistic view of human nature without being naive, and argues for a version of human freedom which leads to social harmony and not chaos, which is why I list this self-help book among the ten that have most shaped the way I think.