Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

May 4, 2006

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

I didn't want to write just another "I like it/I don't like it" review of this book because to all appearances I was the only person in North American that hadn't already read it. I thought, instead, that it would be nice to do a more in-depth analysis of the Seven Habits system from an Objectivist standpoint. I've noticed that a lot of new Objectivists seem to have difficulty benefitting from non-Objectivist works because they dislike some proximate characteristic of the author; in the case of Stephen Covey, that would be Christianity and thus a good-sized helping of intrinsicism.

In The Seven Habits Covey's religious views are most notable in two areas: when Covey discusses selfishness or self-centeredness and when he touches on the basis for his oft-cited "correct principles, which he believes are self evident. Sadly, this is not the case.

For an Objectivist to get the most out of the book (and avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater) some mental translating is in order.

For instance, if you pay close attention to Covey's words about selfishness, you may notice that what he's really talking about is thinking of yourself, your wants, in a vacuum, divorced from context. In other words, he's talking about an irrational Nietzscheian egoist, not a rational Objectivist one, as though one can derive no selfish enjoyment from the happiness of those one loves. The wording he uses to describe a proper egoist is "principle-centered", which is, surprisingly, the type or personal "center" he recommends. It helps you become consistent and increases your personal security and power. This is an unusual insight, and it's only the beginning.

As for he "self-evident" principles, this can largely be ignored. Covey doesn't seek to prove or defend his principles(in fact, he doesn't really come out and state them), instead he seeks to demonstrate how reliance on correct principles can change and improve your live through various concrete, practical applications.

It really is fascinating to see how well Covey's ideas, built up through personal observation and experience, match up with Objectivist principles and ideas. His "Abundance Mentality" is none other than the Benevolent Universe Premise. Habit 2, "Begin with the End in Mind", is literally the Aristotolean principle of Final Causation that was later further explored by Ayn Rand. Habit 4, "Think Win/Win", is a fundamental look at the operation of the Trader Principle, the idea that you must seek mutual trade to mutual benefit. Life is not a zero-sum game where another's profit is my loss.

Approaching these ideas from a novel direction, however, Covey brings to light some aspects of these ideas that are not usually approached. One that I found particularly interesting is Covey's depiction of "interdependance". At first I found the term mildly worrisome, thinking he was about to turn mystical and start referring to people as some kind of collective organism, but he turned out to be headed in a different direction entirely. He explains that only truly independant people can decide to form relationships and become interdependant, namely relying on others that are reliable so that everyone can accomplish more with their limited time.

I've occasionally encountered the thought that independance means total self-sufficiency or having nothing to do with anyone else under any circumstances. Are you lonely? You're not independant. Do you prefer an active city to a desert island? You're not independant. Personally I find this both silly and undesirable. Truly independant people are secure enough to recognize that there are great benefits to be gained from working with other people--in a certain context--and act accordingly.

The book isn't perfect: Covey does pay some lip service to altruist ideals like "service" and "helping others", but fundamentally it really is only lip service. The Seven Habits is not about helping other people, but about helping yourself become a better, happier, more effective person. That's advice that anyone can use.

Rating: 4.5


softwareNerd said...

Thanks for the review. I have put it on my "list".

A lot of non-Objectivists give good advice. There are even some Sunday TV-show preachers who give lots of correct advice of the "God won't help you if you wallow in your self-pity; He only helps those who help themselves" type.

As an aside: I think this has to do with the nature of knowledge. The prime means of acquiring knowledge is not to start from basic principles and work toward practical applications, but the other way around: starting with "this works" or "this is true" and then work backward to principles. [Though it works both ways, and together -- which is what integration is all about.]

So, some folk give a lot of good advice and yet work it backward into some religious principles.

The CrazyHumanist said...

I read about 3/4s of this book about 10 years ago, when still a Christian. Interestingly enough, it was a major first step in helping me to start to thinking outside of Christianity, and in terms of independence. I had not been exposed to Aristotle or Objectism, or any other philosophy at that point, so it was an important book for me.

Great review, by the way.

Jennifer Snow said...

Thank you. :)