Following the recent death of Stephen Covey, I have been revisiting his most famous of books, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. On my way to meet a client I take time on the train to read about Covey’s first habit: be proactive.
In this first habit, Covey targets the opportunity for self-determinism that sits between stimulus and response. This is about the difference between an unconscious reaction and a carefully chosen response. Covey uses the story of Viktor Frankl who, in the Nazi death camps in World War II, realised that (in Covey’s words) “he could decide within himself how all of this was going to affect him”. Covey is careful to differentiate between being proactive and taking the initiative. He says:
[Proactive] means more than merely taking the initiative. It means that as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives. Our behaviour is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate feelings to values. We have the initiative and responsibility to make things happen.
This assertion tests me – because I hold the view that emotions have a wisdom to which we need to listen. But quickly I settle into an understanding of what Covey is saying. Given my own values for example, I would choose to view the emotion of anger as a sign that some need is not being met and to recognise that I am telling myself some story about how someone else is responsible. If I act on the stimulus – react – without thinking, I am likely to lose my temper. If I respond in line with my values, I am bound to take time out to process my emotions before choosing my response. So far, so good.
Covey offers a further idea which is the consequence of taking this kind of responsibility and which challenges me greatly:
[…] 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”.
Later he refines this idea by adding:
It’s not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us. Of course, things can hurt us physically or economically and can cause sorrow. But our character, our basic identity, does not have to be hurt at all.
Any time we think the problem is “out there”, the thought is the problem”.
When we think the challenges in our businesses are down to the market, when we think we have a “problem” member of staff, when we complain that our wife/husband/boss/sister doesn’t understand us… when we wish that things outside us were different, we are not being proactive in Covey’s use of this term. When we focus our attention on those things we can do something about, we are being proactive.
Covey offers a number of ways to apply this first habit, of which I highlight just one:
1. For a full day, listen to your language and to the language of the people around you. How often do you use and hear reactive phrases such as “If only,” “I can’t,” or “I have to”?
Please let me know how you get on.