by Stephen R. Covey
Reviewed by Daniel Farber Huang
June 28, 2020
I first read this book at a point in my life when I was working in investment banking, flying around the country or around the world on a regular basis, pressing as many meetings into a day as possible with institutional investors or clients to discuss various deals. Although much of the work pulled me away from being at home as much as I wanted to be there, it nevertheless was exciting, rewarding and energizing to do.
I came across this book at the right time, because I had mistakenly been equating activity with productivity. (My best meeting record at the time was 17 meetings in 3.5 days.) What’s more, I read it while on airplane trips going from one city to another so that underscored how I was probably scurrying too fast to be as impactful as I thought I was being day after day, month after month.
Even though Stephen Covey wrote the first edition of this book three decades ago, it is definitely worth sharing. Because of its value even today, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People is the first entry into our new series “Nutshells: Big Ideas, Condensed,” where we present the best ideas concisely so readers can add these useful insights, strategies and kernels of wisdom into their personal mental toolboxes.
Nutshells: Big Ideas, Condensed
By Stephen R. Covey
In order to better understand what drives us as we go about our lives, one needs to recognize that we each have our own, personal perspective on the way the world looks. But to accurately understand our perspective, we need to view the lens through which we see the world, as well as the world we see, and that the lens itself (our experiences, good and bad, and our knowledge) shapes how we interpret the world. Every person has their own lens, and it is entirely possible that other people do not view the world your way. It doesn’t mean they are wrong, nor are you, but it is okay to disagree as long as you have dialogue about it.
Most of what we focus on in our daily lives can be put into two general categories. Urgent and Important. They are not the same things. “Urgent” things that tend to take up our time and attention include getting to work on time, making dinner, running errands that need to be done today. “Important” things are longer-term payoff efforts that are easily pushed aside, but make the difference in our quality of life, such as getting exercise for our bodies, eating right to reduce our cholesterol, spending time talking to others we care about, showing others we care about them.
Because we are a culture that loves “to do” lists, which are mostly short term, urgent tasks, a better way to prioritize your time spent is to make a list of the things you want to accomplish that entire week, not simply that day. It will help you recognize the larger tasks that warrant your attention and hopefully help put those in the right priority.
ONLY YOU CAN CHOOSE HOW TO REACT:
One interesting example given was the story of Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a psychiatrist and a Jew. He was imprisoned in the death camps of Nazi Germany. His parents, his brother, and his wife died in the camps or were sent to the gas ovens. Except for his sister, his entire family perished. Frankl himself suffered torture and innumerable indignities, never knowing from one moment to the next if he would be sent to the ovens or if he would be among the “saved” who would remove the bodies or shovel out the ashes.
One day, naked and alone in a small room, he began to become aware of what he later called “the last of the human freedoms” – the freedom his Nazi captors could not take away. They could control his entire environment, they could do what they wanted to his body, but Viktor Frankl himself was a self-aware person who could look as an observer at this very involvement. His basic identity was intact. He could decide within himself how all of this was going affect him. Between what happened to him, or the stimulus, and his response to it, was his freedom or power to choose that response.
In the midst of his experiences, Frankl would project himself into different circumstances, such as lecturing to his students after his release from the death camps. He would describe himself in the classroom, in his mind’s eye, and give his students the lessons he was learning during his very torture.
Through a series of such disciplines – mental, emotional and moral, principally using memory and imagination – he exercised his small embryonic freedom until it grew larger and larger, until he had more freedom than his Nazi captors. They had more liberty, more options to choose from in their environment, but he had more freedom, more internal power to exercise his options. He helped others find meaning in their suffering and dignity in their prison existence.
Frankl used the human endowment of self-awareness to discover a fundamental principle about the nature of man: Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.
Because people are, by nature, proactive, if our lives are a function of conditioning and conditions, it is because we have, by conscious decision or by default, chosen to empower those things to control us.
In making such a choice, we become reactive. Reactive people are often affected by their physical environment. If the weather is good, they feel good, If the weather is bad, it affects their attitude and performance. For proactive people, whether it rains or shines makes no difference to them. They are value driven, and if their value is to produce good quality work, it isn’t a function of the weather or the people around them or their commute.
Reactive people are also affected by their social environment. When people treat them well, they feel well. When people don’t, they don’t, they become defensive or protective. Reactive people build their emotional lives around the behavior of others, empowering the weaknesses of other people to control them. The ability to subordinate an impulse to a value is the essence of the proactive person. Reactive people are driven by feelings, by circumstances, by conditions, by their environment. Proactive people are driven by values – carefully thought about, selected and internalized values.
Basically, it’s not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts or helps us.
One final point, and is something worth thinking about: How many people on their deathbeds wished they’d spent more time at the office, or watching TV, or complaining about small things? The answer is, No one. They think about their loved ones, their families, the way they lived their lives and those they have served.
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