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Which Americans Are Really “Highly Effective People”?

Thirty years after its publication, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has shaped our culture in significant, lasting ways. Yet many of the upper-middle-class, successful Americans who cultivate Stephen Covey’s habits fail to apply his most essential, all-encompassing principle—the one that guided his entire vision of the good life.

Walk into many managers’ offices in America and one will likely see the same books: How to Win Friends and Influence People, Good to Great, and Built to Last. Perhaps most ubiquitous of all is Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a text owned by millions of Americans, and the first non-fiction audiobook in US publishing history to sell more than one million copies. One generation removed from its first edition in 1989, it’s worth asking how effective Americans have been at implementing the habits identified by the prolific educator and businessman—and which Americans are worthy of the label “effective people.”

In one respect, the lessons of 7 Habits have become so deeply integrated into American professional and corporate-speak that they are easily ridiculed, even by those who don’t know their source. For example, Habit 4, “Think Win/Win” is comically parodied on an episode of “The Office”:

Michael Scott (the boss): Just hold on, please! Okay, if we do lose/lose, neither of you gets what you want. Do you understand? You… you would both lose. Now I need to ask you, do you want to pursue a lose/lose negotiation?

Angela (employee): Can we just skip to whatever number 5 is—win/win or whatever?

Michael Scott: Win/win is number four, and number five is win/win/win. The important difference here is with win/win/win, we all win. Me too. I win for having successfully mediated a conflict at work.

Then there are the workforce eyerolls elicited whenever a manager or motivational speaker starts talking about Habit 6, “Synergize.” One of the running gags of the movie Anchorman 2 is the pillorying of “synergy.” No matter how charismatically and engagingly Covey or anyone else explains it, it still sounds like a made-up word that needlessly complicates the simple idea of productive, collaborative teamwork.

Mockery aside, the book wouldn’t have sold 25 million copies worldwide if it didn’t communicate valuable lessons with personal and professional utility. Indeed, at least one cohort of American society—the technocratic elite—has extensively benefited from broad application of Covey’s principles. Practical philosopher Andrew Taggart describes some of America’s most successful corporate leaders as “secular monks” who live rigorous lifestyles defined by self-restraint and a crystal-clear professional vision. They “embrace a secular ‘immanent frame,’ ascetic self-possession, and a stringent version of human agency.” They pursue “life hacking,” and follow the advice of entrepreneur Tim Ferris, who urges the collection and application of the “right field-tested beliefs and habits” that “maximize unique strengths and focus on developing [good] habits around them.”

That all sounds eerily similar to Habit 1, “Be Proactive,” which focuses on taking personal responsibility for one’s life and decisions. It’s also reminiscent of Habit 2, “Begin with the End in Mind” and its emphasis on personal and professional mission statements, as well as Habit 3, “Put First Things First,” and its focus on wisely managing one’s time and energies. American technocratic elites, with their embrace of healthy diets, organic food, strenuous exercise regimens, yoga classes, and “self-care” are also experts at Habit 7, “Sharpening the Saw,” which teaches the importance of “balanced self-renewal,” and managing one’s physical, social, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs.

Yet, in other ways, comparing 7 Habits with mainstream liberal culture in 2020 reveals a significant divergence from what Covey had in mind when he developed these principles in a more conservative, Republican-dominated 1980s America. For example, Covey argues that individuals must begin “from the inside-out,” meaning that they need to start working on themselves—their problems, their failures, their weaknesses—before they can begin addressing external dilemmas. He contrasts this with the “outside-in paradigm,” where people allow themselves to be defined by external stimuli. Such people “feel victimized and immobilized [and] focus on the weaknesses of other people and the circumstances they feel are responsible for their own stagnant situation.” Yet the climate of much American culture—and certainly our university culture—is precisely the opposite. Professors tell students that they are victims of influences and trends outside their control, for which they should demand redress.

Covey sees such victimization as undermining human freedom. “Until a person can say deeply and honestly, ‘I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,’ that person cannot say, ‘I choose otherwise.’” It is a strange paradox that secular academic elites harp so insistently on “agency,” while promoting a paradigm that is so thoroughly reactive and disabling in its language. This, argues Covey, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such individuals “feel increasingly victimized and out of control, not in charge of their life or their destiny. They blame outside forces—other people, circumstances, even the stars for their own situation.” Today we see the manifestation of this paradigm whenever people indict “dead white men,” the “patriarchy,” and “unconscious bias” as the predominant hindrances to achieving their ambitions.

The “outside-in paradigm,” according to Covey, also subverts marriages. He explains:

If I have a problem in my marriage, what do I really gain by continually confessing my wife’s sins? By saying I’m not responsible, I make myself a powerless victim; I immobilize myself in a negative situation. I also diminish my ability to influence her—my nagging, accusing, critical attitude only makes her feel validated in her own weaknesses.

Much better to focus on yourself: “your paradigms, your character, and your motives.” This is because the one thing individuals have control over is themselves. He exhorts married persons to embrace the mantra: “I can stop trying to shape up my [spouse] and work on my own weaknesses. I can focus on being a great marriage partner, a source of unconditional love and support.”

This bleeds into another area where Covey’s vision has become increasingly at odds with our zeitgeist: his emphasis on commitments to other people, which prioritizes relationships over personal independence and autonomy. He urges readers to keep their commitments and attend to little things in relationships in order to secure what he calls social and emotional “deposits.” Behind this exhortation is Covey’s fundamental belief in human interdependence, that humans need the kind of stability and security found in faithful, loving relationships. He observes:

Interdependence is a far more mature, more advanced concept. If I am physically interdependent, I am self-reliant and capable, but I also realize that you and I working together can accomplish far more than, even at my best, I could accomplish alone. If I am emotionally interdependent, I derive a great sense of worth within myself, but I also recognize the need for love, for giving, and for receiving love from others. If I am intellectually interdependent, I realize that I need the best thinking of other people to join with my own.

Those who fail to mature into this more robust paradigm, explains Covey, are the kinds of people who leave their marriages, abandon their children, and forsake social responsibility.

Unfortunately, many forces at work within our culture actively oppose the development of healthy interdependence, even when they claim to foster community and relationships. As I’ve argued before at Public Discourse, the “digital community” of various social media platforms offers a superficial sense of community that is a poor replacement for the kinds of social and civic associations that bound together previous generations of Americans. The nature of twenty-first century communication also impairs empathetic listening, a principle Covey emphasizes in his dictum, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Cable news television, Facebook, and Twitter have devolved either into echo chambers or forums where thinly veiled biases and contempt for the other reign supreme. Covey charges us to offer frequent, sincere apologies, and be quick to forgive. Yet our “cancel culture” aggressively censures and excommunicates any who violate the sexual and political ideologies of the Left. Indeed, activists openly discuss the supposed virtue of not forgiving.

The technocratic elite and its dominant institutions (academia, Hollywood, major corporations) actively promote a vision of life focused on individual autonomy, sexual liberation, and materialistic consumption. This filters its way deep into all American classes and sub-cultures. Yet most meritocrats actually abstain from these excesses, instead embracing a somewhat formulaic bourgeois lifestyle of family commitment and personal restraint. When those in this class do indulge in the destructive lifestyles they promote (or at least condone), they possess tools that blunt the trauma of their poor decisions—access to good medical care, extensive insurance policies, and self-renewing retreats or vacations. Members of the poorer classes, alternatively, are little sheltered from the calamitous effects of divorce or addiction.

There are two interesting trends here. The first is that upper-middle-class, successful Americans have deeply imbibed certain lessons of Covey’s 7 Habits while rejecting others. The second is that members of America’s working class have had little exposure to Covey, and even if they have, do not possess the resources to apply them. I’m sure the blue-collar American working two jobs and sixty-plus hours a week would love to be able to “sharpen the saw,” especially if, like many employees at America’s top companies, he or she was given paid time off to exercise or engage in “self-care.” I’m sure many would be happy to journal, reflect, and write detailed schedules if given the necessary time and mentoring. What unites these two trends, I would argue, is the failure of those who learned Covey’s habits to apply his most essential, all-encompassing principle, the one that guides his entire vision of the good life.

In his discussion of Habit 2 (“Keep the End in Mind”), Covey argues that “by centering our lives on timeless, unchanging principles, we create a fundamental paradigm of effective living. It is the center that puts all other centers in perspective.” He rejects paradigms that are spouse-centered, money-centered, work-centered, pleasure-centered, friend-centered, self-centered, and even church-centered. One wonders, what is left?  In his “A Personal Note” that concludes the book, Covey gives us his first principle:

I believe that correct principles are natural laws, and that God, the Creator and Father of us all, is the source of them, and also the source of our conscience. I believe that to the degree people live by this inspired conscience, they will grow to fulfill their natures; to the degree that they do not, they will not rise above the animal plane.

Covey, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, follows this remark by citing Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin and Anglican poet T.S. Eliot. Here lies the problem that explains the paradox of an America that has both adopted and dismissed the teachings of 7 Habits.

The technocrats abandoned God and traditional religious institutions—with their focus on personal accountability and social responsibility—in favor of a consumerist form of eastern mysticism (e.g. yoga, crystals) or what sociologist Christian Smith calls “moral therapeutic deism.” At the same time, as Yuval Levin argues, nepotism and the prioritization of diversity over morality among the ruling classes led to their losing both their trustworthiness and integrity. Moreover, they have used their sociopolitical power to peddle the same agnosticism and moral relativism, seeping deep into the American social fabric, and persuading their fellow citizens to dispense with religious and civic institutions in favor of autonomy and consumerism.

Thus, the very institutions that for generations had inculcated the kinds of habits championed by Covey have eroded or disappeared, leaving only the shell of his vision intact among those who appreciate its secular, pragmatic benefits. As a result, though his books and seminars reached millions, few Americans are actually effective in the transcendent, life-affirming manner envisioned by Dr. Covey.

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