My Critique of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Self Improvement by Stephen Covey – YouTube

This video is a summary of a book I read many years ago. Worth revisiting, yet I’ve moved on. Covey doesn’t speak to me at all now. Yes, he teaches skills that are useful, skills I use every day toward my vision of growth and freedom. But I don’t think Covey is teaching for self-emancipation and growth, he teaches us to stay slaves.

The seven habits are: be proactive; begin with the end in mind; put first thing first; think win/win; seek first to understand, then to be understood; synergize; sharpen the saw; and inside out again.

My views on this book are complicated. Encouraging readers to actively work toward their goals is admirable yet like pretty much all of the self-help genre the seven habits is tainted by self-satisfaction. Covey is privileged as a member of a white middle-income Morman community and as a person with his health. Consequently, his book is riddled with success bias and I get the impression that the author views unsuccessful people as failures; it is their fault. My view is more complicated: Learned helplessness is a thing, finding yourself in a position where your options are limited is a thing, people in power frustrating personal growth is a thing, bullies are a thing; shit happens. That is not to say doing what you can is bad, just that often the results are not as magical as Stephen Covey would have us believe.

His first suggestion is that learning to pause rather than react when in crisis is helpful. His next suggestions, the ideas of working in your area of influence and of working toward long-term goals, are both standard personal growth suggestions. It troubles me, that the reality of other’s power is ignored. Bullies can derail you forever, ignoring this kind of reality is normal for the self-improvement literature. In fact, so much of the self-improvement literature is saying, “If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” My issue here is that this is too optimistic and simple. Sometimes quitting is the best thing to do. Giving up, changing your goals; that is necessary and healthy: Change the environment. Move. Look after yourself. Get out of the toxic place. Burnout and depression are real consequences of staying in impossible places.

Covey tells, us to “begin with the end in mind”, asking us to imagine our funerals; “What will people say?” I don’t spend any time considering my funeral and what people will say about me. I just do the best I can and leave it at that. To be honest, I think this habit of Covey’s is manipulative. It says do what others want. Do what the group wants: blend in, don’t rock the boat, and don’t trust yourself. Rubbish. Follow your own path. I do my best to, “Have fun, and do good” and “I do the best I can, with the time and resources I have”. For me, goals are about balancing my time and energy, enjoying life as well as contributing, and not putting so much time, energy and worry into projects that I burn out. It is important too that my having fun includes passions Covey would frown on. I like sex and chocolate and music.

Covey introduces the urgent and important matrix as a way of managing your time. Do the important stuff first, like spending time with loved ones, on personal projects, and planning. Put first things first. This frame is one I use every day and is a helpful beginning to taking charge of your time. It is one technique I find helpful. But it’s one technique and we need more. Others I use are a todo list, setup using the importance/urgent idea, and a daily schedule; for example, I spend at least 15 minutes twice a day writing here. That’s a process goal. My experience is that process goals give focus and work well. I would achieve little without them.

I want to comment on the next three of Coveys habits here: Think win-win, seek first to understand, and seek synergy. These are all about working with other people. And he gives sound advice which works and is pretty standard from the self-improvement literature. By all means, follow his advice. The challenge is this. Seeking to work with people in an open cooperative way makes you open to manipulation and being used by and conned by others. As individuals, we have a responsibility to ourselves to look after ourselves. Of course, typical of the genre, Covey does not acknowledge the risks and suggest how to manage them.

The final habit is, “Sharpen the saw”. Keep learning every day but to what end? This is, in my view, the most important habit and Covey misses the point. Learning skills to improve our marketability, how others can use us, or how we can use others; that’s Covey’s point. He is fundamentally manipulative here. My position is: We learn for fun and to emancipate ourselves: That is not Covey’s message. Nothing here about learning critical thinking. Nothing about learning to question. Nothing about exploring alternatives to the North American, white male, hegemony. Covey teaches us to be good wage slaves, good managers for the Board, good white Anglo-Saxon parents but not change agents; not free. That is a problem. I’m reminded here of a favorite Carl Sagon quote, “The business of scepticism is to be dangerous. Scepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, including, say, high school students, habits of sceptical thought, they will probably not restrict their scepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials and 35,000-year-old channellees. Maybe they’ll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Perhaps they’ll challenge the opinions of those in power. Then where would we be?” (Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark). I don’t think Covey has his readers best interests at heart. I don’t think he wants us free.

Why is this? I think Covey is a slave. I think Covey suffers from magical thinking, after all, he is a Mormon and that nonsense taints his thinking. Please treat his message with care. Look after yourself, think for yourself, grow in directions for yourself. Use the skills he teaches for yourself. Be bigger than Covey’s vision of you. Remember, there is no magic.

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About sustainabilityandbeauty

My passion is telling the stories of possibility, seeking a sustainable and beautiful future. My training is in science, chemistry, environmental science and teaching.
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