As a scared and confused 20–something, I needed help. I had floundered the first few years of college, achieving significantly below my academic potential. I enjoyed being with people, but was riddled with anxieties about relationships and about my value in the eyes of others. When I was in public I behaved in ways I thought would build the image of me in others minds I wanted them to have. In private, I veered between inexplicable anger, crushing depression and intense anxiety.
I looked for help, and found it many places. One that might seem unlikely was a book well-known at the time as a “business” book. I opened the cover and found it was much more. I opened the cover and found a framework for thinking about life that would, over time, alter the painful and fruitless path I had set out on.
Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is, in reality, much more than a business book. It is a profound explication of what it means to live well within the confines of reality, of what it means to fit oneself to the moral structure of life. In short, it is a book about having character.
This may not be obvious to those with only a passing familiarity with the book and there are a lot of those people. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has sold more than 25 million copies, so it is a book many people have heard of. At some point early in its life, the publisher rewrote its subtitle, changing it to “Powerful Lessons in Personal Change”. Its original subtitle, “Restoring the Character Ethic” better captured the point of the book.
Early on, Covey explains his project. He began by surveying every piece of literature he could find on the subjects of personal development, success, and happiness published since 1776. He found that after the early 20th century, the literature shifted from emphasizing the cultivation of virtues to emphasizing techniques for managing others impressions. Covey calls this the shift from the “character ethic” to the “personality ethic.”
The mission of the book, then, is to lay a foundation for a cultural restoration of the character ethic. It doesn’t take much looking around at our culture to see that his mission met with, at the very least, limited success. Twenty-six years after the book’s publication, the personality ethic continues to dominate. Sequestering this book within the genre of “business” books effectively reduced its influence across the broad spectrum of society.
But, that is not the only reason we’ve not seen a widespread revival of the idea that personal character is the key to success. Multiple factors, from the glorification of immediate gratification by advertisers to a generation of millennials more concerned with advocating for “social justice” than in doing the hard work of cultivating personal character, have kept us moving along the same trajectory Covey criticized. Over the course of its nearly three decades in print, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has become an increasingly countercultural book.
If its impact has been limited on a cultural level, the ideas the book contains have changed individual lives. Mine is one. As a young person, I was blown away by the foundational concept of the book: that reality has a structure, that it is governed by principles one can know and live in harmony with. My education had, until that point, been built entirely on the modern notion that reality is simply a series of random occurrences set atop a mountain of meaningless matter. Any patterns or institutions that provided structure were mere social constructs, illusions made by people, that could be easily altered or deconstructed. After ingesting this view, hearing that reality had a predictable design was liberating.
The structure of reality is such, Covey said, that we live well within it be adhering to certain universal principles. Covey explores these principles in real-life terms, examining how we can consistently choose harmony with them. These patterns of consistently choosing to live in harmony with reality are the habits mentioned in the title.
Over the years, I can’t say I have lived these habits perfectly. No wise person would expect to. I can say that to the degree I have practiced them, my anxiety, my depression and frustration have decreased to the point where whatever vestiges of them remain are easily managed. What I had never been told, and what I got from Covey, was that the cure for my suffering was not in having other people like me, or in achieving any outward success, but in cultivating my own character. This idea: that I was in charge of who I became, that I could prepare for the difficulties of life and choose to respond well when they came, was a kind of door. By walking through it as a young person, I found greater wisdom, peace and security than I could have expected.
The book has stayed in print so long because the problems it addresses are perennial. Every thinking person wrestles with them. If you too are searching for solutions to them, you couldn’t find a better place to begin than by working, in your own life, to restore the character ethic.
You can purchase the book here.
Thank you for reading this post. If you found it valuable, please share it on social media using one of the buttons below. You may also want to support my work by leaving a tip in the tip jar on the main page or by supporting me on Patreon.