Thursday, April 20, 2006
# Posted 10:14 PM by Ariel David Adesnik
Although one doesn't expect these guru types to approach their subject from a scholarly perspective, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Covey wrote his doctoral dissertation on the history of self-help literature in the United States, from Ben Franklin to the present.
The hypothesis of Covey's dissertation is intriguing. He argues that self-help literature underwent a transformation in the first decades of the twentieth century. Whereas pre-transformation self-help literature focused on teaching its audience to achieve success by becoming better human beings, post-transformation literature emphasized the pursuit of tactical advantage in social relationships, almost to the point of being manipulative.
The classic text in that tradition is, of course, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (which I read in high school and found very insightful at the time, although I no longer remember much about it).
Covey's objective is to reverse this transformation and return the self-help genre to its emphasis on building character. Thus, he distilled the Seven Habits from decades of experience as a consultant.
One might consider the habits themselves to be either common sensical or banal. They include such maxims as: Be Proactive, Begin With the End in Mind, Think Win/Win, and Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.
I'd have to say, it's pretty much impossible to disagree with such advice. The problem, of course, is that we've all heard such advice repeated ad nauseam since childhood. Sometimes we follow, sometimes we don't.
The question, then, is whether Covey's method of teaching these good habits can succeed where our parents' and our teachers' imploring has so often failed. Perhaps. I found the real strength of Covey's book to be not his abstract principles, but the stories he told about how he had helped numerous both firms and individuals change their fortunes dramatically by following his advice.
The example that stayed most in my mind is that of a tyrannical CEO who was so critical of his executives that they never bothered to take the initiative, since the reward for good work was only more criticism. Covey's advice to the subordinates was Be Proactive. Forget, at least for a while, about how much you hate your boss. No, he shouldn't be that way, but you can't change him, especially not by being sullen and resentful.
Not surprisingly, most of the executives rejected this invitation to self-abasement. But one of them decided to study the CEO more closely, anticipate his needs, and deliver on them before even being asked. Although the initial response was not encouraging, over a matter of months, the boss's attitude toward this one executive changed dramatically. Instead of lecturing him, he solicited his advice. Although painful at first, Covey's advice did not just result in this executive being promoted, but in being treated with true respect.
The downsides of Covey's book are that it is very heavy on the jargon and very repetitive. Instead of seven habits, four or five would've been enough. Alternately, feel free to skim the second half of the book very lightly. As for the jargon, I won't bother you with it here, but I recommend taking a quick look at some Covey's diagrams, which remind of me of some of the illustrations (see above) that accompany the cabbalistic, or Jewish mystical texts of the middle ages.
Finally, as a political scientist, I couldn't help but notice a few of Covey's strange remarks about the body politic. Early on, he asserts unequivocally that there are universal laws of human behavior and that the Seven Habits seeks to embody. Covey never really elaborates on how one can discover or demonstrate the existence of such laws, but such information certainly would be useful.
At another point, Covey suggests that political conflicts such as racial tension in South Africa or Israeli-Palestinian violence could be resolved if both sides embraced the Seven Habits. Although that approach probably wouldn't hurt, my sense is that the Seven Habits cannot resolve conflicts grounded in existential questions of race, religion and security.
Such kooky asides are infrequent, however, and hardly take away from the numerous merits of Covey's book. In the final analysis, I think that if millions of people have read Covey's work and taken it seriously, the world is much better for it. (3) opinions -- Add your opinion
I agree with your observations here. I generally look askance at the whole self-help genre, but a few years ago I was trapped in a place for a while with only this book to read. Perhaps it was the circumstances, but I really liked it - especially the emphasis on re-orienting self-help towards character building. Glad to see you liked it too.
My major bitch with COvey is that he made that grammatical abomination "pro-active" an acceptable word in polite conversation.
Damned near as bad as "disrespect".
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