Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Seven Habits

I'm reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I won't go into the backstory here, but I feel like I'm in a position where I ought to read it so I'm making an effort to do so. One of the things the author does early on is that he asks you, as a reader, to share what you've learned from the book within 48 hours of reading each part. He explains that you will pay a lot more attention and get a lot more out of the book if you know you are going to have to tell someone else about it later. You'll force yourself to avoid skipping and glossing over points that you know you might be asked about.

I'm sure he'd bristle at the suggestion that this is a devious promotional trick, since his entire philosophy is to eschew devious promotional tricks. For what it's worth I think he's probably sincere in his belief that this will help the reader learn. Of course I bristle at the suggestion that I can learn anything by reading his book, and I don't think I read things any differently when I plan on telling someone else about them anyway since when I read things I generally actually read them in the first place. All that aside, though, I've got a blog where I talk about things I'm thinking about so I'm basically doing what he told me to anyway.

Two basic things strike me about the book:
  1. Covey's central thesis - that in order to be happy and feel fulfilled you need to put your internal life and your character above your external presentation of yourself and your image - is pretty reasonable
  2. Covey is a sweltering idiot of the highest degree
In Covey's defense I will say that the odds that I was not going to think the author of a book titled "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" was a superlative moron were extremely slim. The deck was substantially stacked against him if it was his goal to have Humbabella think, "Yeah, that guy isn't stupid on an inhuman scale."

But in his not-at-all-defense, here is a quotation:
uniquely human... animals do not possess this ability... "self-awareness"... the reason why man has dominion over all things... separates us from the animal world... basic nature of mankind... man has the freedom to choose... uniquely human... imagination... conscience... independent will... even the most intelligent animals have none of these endowments... they are programmed by instinct and/or training... they can't take responsibility... can't change the programming... they're not even aware of it... unique human endowments... this is why an animal's capacity is relatively limited and man's is unlimited... if we live like animals... we too will be limited... our unique human endowments lift us above the animal world... our uniquely human potential... nature of man... as human beings we are responsible...
This odious mass of staggering idiocy spans pages 74 to 78 of the 25th anniversary edition I have my hands on. I'm not sure what would drive someone to average saying "unique(ly) human" once a page for five consecutive pages, but presumably it has something to do with that person's free will or their nature as an instance of "man."

Of course that's a side note. Covey may be personally mired in some kind of Christianity-based magicthink about human exceptionalism but though that makes the basis of his theories suspect, it doesn't change whether or not he's basically right.

So is he basically right? Well his basic idea is that if you want to be effective you should live by the "character ethic" rather than the "personality ethic." You should live by your values rather than live to give off a good impression. An easy example is that if you want to be trusted, you should be trustworthy rather than try to convince others they can trust you. The impression others get from you will flow from the truth of your actions.

Yeah, I think he is basically right but with some important caveats. First of all, his idea of "effective" seems to be some kind of monstrous hybrid of contentedness and material success that makes no sense. Second, he thinks that those values you should live by are the same for everyone and flow from "natural law." So he's right as long as we accept that he is a dictionary-perfect imbecile.

On the other hand, this book was released in 1989 and has since sold 15 million copies and was named one of the 25 most influential business management books by Time in 2011. I wouldn't exactly say that the intervening years have been good for "character ethic" or bad for "personality ethic." They haven't been good for valuing productive capacity as much as production. If this is such an influential business management book, why are businesses evaluated on metrics like quarterly percentage change in profits, which represent the very height of the personality ethic of looking good without any substance?

80-some pages into the book I would say that pretty much every good idea he is presenting has fallen further and further out of favour in the mainstream and every bad idea he contrasts those with has come into ascendency. Like most self-help books, the point of the book appears to be to make the reader feel good for a couple of weeks after which they can go back to the miserable life they were leading before. Maybe they can pick up another self-help book.

Of course nothing Covey could write could possibly be as sickeningly moronic as the foreward to the 25th Anniversary edition. Here's a snippet:
As I reflect upon some of the exceptional leaders I've studied in my research, I'm struck by how Covey's principles are manifested in many of their stories. Let me focus on one of my favourite cases, Bill Gates. It's become fashionable in recent years to attribute the outsize success of someone like Bill Gates to luck, to being in the right place at the right time. But if you think about it, this argument falls apart. When Popular Electronics put the Altair computer on its cover, announcing the avent of the first-ever personal computer, Bill Gates teamed up with Paul Allen to launch a software company and write the BASIC programming language for the Altair. Yes, Gates was at just the right moment with programming skills, but so were other people - students in computer science and electrical engineering at schools like Cal Tech, MIT and Stanford; seasoned engineers at technology companies like IBM, Xerox and HP; and scientists in government research laboratories. Thousands of people could've done what Bill Gates did at the moment, but they didn't.

You know, I went to a casino and put down five grand on 33 on the roulette table. I won. Now you may say that was just luck, but just think about all the people standing around that table who could have done what I did but didn't. If you want to read some real galactic idiocy, it's Jim Collins who delivers, rather than Stephen Covey.

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