I recently finished one of the most influential books I have ever read – “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by the late Dr. Stephen R. Covey.
The book teaches timeless principles regarding how to approach life and the people in your life. There are many takeaways, and I wrote many notes. Here I want to share just a few ways in which the book affected me and how I am trying to put its precepts to work.
Covey focuses first on the personal state of mind, how you view yourself and the world around you, and teaches how to identify a personal mission.
Part of that personal outlook is being unafraid of your own shortcomings. I’m sure many of us have been in a classroom feeling confused but feared showing ignorance by raising our hands. It can be hard to admit what we don’t know, but how do we learn and grow if we don’t ask questions? “Admission of ignorance is often the first step in our education,” Covey said.
I have resolved to never again be afraid of my own ignorance and ask the necessary questions in order to grow. I will not hide from my own shortcomings but rather embrace them as opportunities to change and seek the help I need to do it. We fear looking bad in others’ eyes, but the reality is humility has the opposite effect. As people see you actively and openly trying to improve, their perceptions of you will also improve as they see you as “a changing, growing person,” the book states.
Also important is giving others the same benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to take offense at others’ mistakes, particularly if they affect you in a negative way. But dwelling on the shortcomings of another is paralyzing. Covey characterizes this as taking the outside-in approach to life rather than starting with the inner self. He said, “What I have seen result from the outside-in paradigm is unhappy people who feel victimized and immobilized, who focus on the weaknesses of other people and circumstances they feel are responsible for their own stagnant situation.”
Working on your own character will positively affect those around you way more than trying to fix people. If you want strong relationships built on trust and integrity, then you must work to become more trustworthy and live with integrity. In short, give to your relationships what you want to get out of them. Take control of what you can control.
The book talks about acting with a purpose that we ourselves have defined. Covey calls it “beginning with the end in mind”. When you do that, “you can make certain that whatever you do on any particular day does not violate the criteria you have defined as supremely important, and that each day of your life contributes in a meaningful way to the vision you have for your life as a whole.”
This powerful concept has changed and continues to change how I organize my time. The book encourages writing down a personal mission statement. This was a wonderful process that helped me nail down my priorities. There are many tasks that I have passed on to others so I can focus on those more within my skill set and that fit my personal mission. I’m continually evaluating how I spend precious time and making adjustments.
In addition to personal character, the book teaches much about working with others effectively. It teaches when you are loyal to those not present, it will build the trust of those who are. It taught that you should look at interpersonal problems as opportunities to build relationships and not as negative irritations. It taught that in leadership positions your basic task is to increase the standard of living and quality of life for all stakeholders.
Covey made many fantastic points on how we treat and work with one another, especially in arenas of competition, disagreement and negotiation. I recently watched the first episode of “The Men who Built America” from the History Channel. These business leaders did much to make our country what it is today. They were also often portrayed as paranoid and ruthless individuals who would stop at nothing to defeat their competitors. Present day business titans interviewed in the show often refer to business as a game that must be won at all costs. But I think these men who “built America” could have done so without the all or nothing mentality.
Constant paranoia and disdain for others is not the right way to run a business. It is not the right way to run government. It is not the right way to run a life. We must remember that one’s actions have an effect on many – this rings true in business, government, families, and many other environments. We must not look at those around us simply as pawns in a game. Every human soul is of equal worth. Covey speaks of seeking first to understand then to be understood, or looking at situations from the other’s point of view. He encourages taking opportunities to find win-win solutions. This is more than compromise, where each side has to give up something. It is working together to find third-alternatives that are better than the original options.
The book speaks against the tendency of sorrowing in others’ success and happiness. For some reason, it is easy to think “more for them means less for me.” Not true. Another’s success does not mean you are a failure. There are opportunities for all. We can either fight others for the same piece of pie, or we can work with others to continually make the pie bigger. The latter is the “abundance mentality”.
I highly recommend this book to anybody. If you read it with an open mind and a desire to make personal improvements, it will help you immensely. It will help you in your work. It will help you in your relationships. It will help you in your life.