Learning and Teaching The 7 Habits: Introduction and Habit 1 – Be Proactive

Getting Myself Unstuck: Re-Reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

I’ve felt stuck lately. Truthfully, I have felt stuck on-and-off for years. I felt the crushing disappointment earlier this year of failing out of my financial sales job, and I have not been nearly as consistent as I’d like on good habits such as meditation, exercise, musical practice, and practice on social dynamics. I did have the achievements of getting into a good business school for my M.B.A, and earning an R.O.T.C. scholarship. But, I want to do better, because I know my potential! So, I’m re-reading and finding new self-development books to break out of old ways of thinking and doing, and getting myself moving again on an upward spiral of development!!

I’ve written before about Stephen R. Covey’s classic 1988 self-development book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. An excellent former work colleague introduced me to it, and I’ve found its lessons useful and well-communicated. Today, I want to begin a small project, of re-reading the book and writing my findings in a blog post series here. Covey suggests in his introduction that The 7 Habits is worth re-reading and studying thoroughly, with a mind towards teaching its lessons to someone else. The purpose of this and the other posts in this series will be to increase my own understanding of and commitment to the 7 Habits, and to help other readers get a deeper understanding.

I’m not going to belabor Covey’s explanatory stories and personal experiences. I’m writing with the expectation that the reader has read The 7 Habits, or plans on likely reading it in the near future.

Yesterday, I read the introductory sections of “Inside-Out” and “The 7 Habits – An Overview.” Today, I read “Habit 1: Be Proactive.” Let’s start with what I got from the introduction.

Character Ethic vs. Personality Ethic

“Inside-Out” and “An Overview” explain Covey’s approach to successful living, starting with its foundation. Central to this approach is the difference between what Covey terms the Personality Ethic and the Character Ethic. The former is surface level, seeks shortcuts, and focuses on techniques. The latter runs to the core of how a person thinks of himself and tends to behave when no one is watching and is perceived on a deep psychological level, e.g. what he “Is.” This Character Ethic is based on the principles that govern human effectiveness.

Closely related to these two Ethics is the difference between Primary Greatness and Secondary Greatness. The former can come only from character, and is the glory of internal consistency with oneself and with principles in thought, feeling, and action, and the influence of this greatness in the lives of other people, while Secondary Greatness is merely the externally visible results such as financial success, popularity, or the movement of people to one’s will through insincere interaction.

Covey fully recognizes the importance of technique: social skills, positive thinking, development of one’s personality. But, he finds that these are all secondary to Character; to the deep core of who and what someone actually is, as this will determine whether they actually end up happy, and whether other people ultimately see them as a great person when all is said and done. Fakers and cheats almost always get found out eventually. So the Character Ethic, that focus on starting with the principles and one’s worldview and habitual thoughts, can create Primary Greatness, and then techniques can work more effectively, when propelled by the energy of a strong character, to produce the Secondary Greatness of social influence, money, career positions, and all the rest.

Personality Ethic Character Ethic
Popular in the past 100 years, as seen in numerous books, videos, blogs, and talk-shows. Supported in Ancient philosophy, some traditional religious views, and self-development writers such as Benjamin Franklin.
Focuses on technique and outward personality. Focuses on character and principles.
Can produce secondary greatness in externally visible rewards. Can produce primary greatness in enduring admiration and personal satisfaction, plus give a firm foundation for secondary greatness.
Promises quick fixes to problems. Promises a long process of honest reflection and habit development.

Paradigm Shifts

The modern concept of paradigm shifts comes from Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A paradigm is a worldview: the lens which colors and affects how one sees the reality in front of them. Paradigms in science shift as skepticism and experimentation reveal new information: the Earth at first appears flat but it is not, the Sun at first appears to orbit the Earth but the opposite is true, the Newtonian Model of physics appears to precisely describe reality until relativity and then quantum physics shake it all up again, etc.

Covey sees paradigms operating and shifting in the social sciences, too: he points to the foundation of the United States as a paradigm shift in Western Civilization, as democratic republicanism replaced the divine absolute rule of kings. Critically, the Character Ethic and the Personality Ethic are both social paradigms. Covey observes with displeasure that the Personality Ethic seems to have become more popular in the past hundred years, as self-help books have grown more popular and people have sought “quick fixes” in a rapidly changing and competitive economic environment.

Covey emphasizes that one what paradigm one holds is critically important to one’s attitudes and choices. Paradigms virtually never describe reality perfectly, they are maps, and reality is the territory. That said, a map of Chicago will help a lot more than a map of Detroit when you’re trying to navigate the city of Chicago! So, it’s important to be open to the possibility that the way you currently view the world isn’t the final say: you must honestly test your paradigm, and when necessary, change it so it better describes reality.

The paradigm that Covey urges the reader to shift to is the Character Ethic Paradigm: he finds it superior to the Personality Ethic for the reasons I described above. It is effective because it is based on principles


Covey argues that as there is an objective reality in science, even if our perception of that reality is imperfect, there are also realities in human thoughts, feelings, and social relations that remain true across cultures, even if cultural practices may subvert or suppress these human realities.

These realities of humanity he calls Principles, and he gives as examples fairness, integrity, honesty, human indignity, and excellence. Adherence to these principles leads to good outcomes for the people involved, and violation of them leads to bad outcomes. In response to questions of these principles’ fundamentality,  he asks us what would happen if we tried to live a life based on their opposites: unfairness, deceit, baseness, uselessness, mediocrity, or degeneration. These would lead to the opposites of happiness and success.

Covey also addresses values. Values differ from principles in that values are concepts, personality traits, or physical things that individuals and groups of individuals hold to be important, whereas principles are important – the former doesn’t necessarily conflict with the latter, but it also doesn’t necessarily align with it. Thieves can have values, but are not acting according to principles.

Beginning with the Inside-Out

Concluding this introductory chapter, Covey explains that his approach with the 7 Habits reflects his focus on Character and Principles. While many people hold a paradigm that all their problems come from “out there,” with their boss, their spouse, the government, or the economy, Covey encourages us to shift our view on our response to external factors, and on our own adherence to principles and development of our characters.

To sovle the problems “out there,” you must first solve the problems “in here.” The 7 Habits begin with developing internally sound practices, and expand outward. Covey believes that much of this truth is common sense to most people on a deep level, even if they lose sight of it through the way they’re raised or have conditioned themselves to think.

An Overview of the 7 Habits

We next move on to Covey’s overview of the 7 Habits he finds critical to personal effectiveness. Covey defines habits as the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire. Knowledge is what to do, skill is how to do it, and desire is the motivation. You need all three to form new habits, and this is easier said than done: Covey likens the starting of a new habit as the lift-off of a NASA rocket out of Earth’s gravity: it takes a massive amount of effort to break free of that gravity, but once you’re out there, you can move whatever direction you want pretty easily and get to amazing places.

The 7 Habits take someone through a progression of maturity, from Dependence, to Independence, to Interdependence.

The first three habits are Be Proactive, Begin with the End in Mind, and Put First Things First. These three get someone to Independence: at this point, the person has attained a private victory, and possesses internal control over their thoughts and actions, along with a plan of what they want and how to achieve.

The next three habits are Think Win-Win, Seek First to Understand Then to Be Understood, and Synergize. These take the Independent person to Interdependence, where he can maximize his potential through useful relationships with other people.

Finally, the seventh habit is Sharpen the Saw, which encircles the other habits and helps maintain the individual’s emotional, physical, spiritual, and social effectiveness over time.

The P/PC Balance

Continuing with his description of effectiveness, Covey enters the fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs. In this story, a farmer owns a goose who lays one golden egg per day: this is, of course, wonderful for the farmer, and he’s getting richer and richer every day. But, the farmer gets greedy and impatient, and decides to kill the goose and take all its eggs at once…only to find that there are no eggs stored in the goose, as they’re produced singly each day: he’s lost his source of income, in his efforts to get too much too fast.

Similarly, Covey cautions, we risk our Production Capacity (“PC”) when we try to Produce (“P”) too much too fast, without putting effort into the investments and maintenance that provide the PC. We can see this with someone working himself to death on a project, with no sleep, no exercise, and no quiet time for meditation or other resting of the mind.

Conversely, some people go to school forever without ever beginning to produce anything useful: they are overfocsued on PC, at the expense of P.

So, having a good balance between P and PC is critical for someone to be most effective in producing wealth and creative works, in having good relationships with friends and family, in staying healthy, and in overall being happy with one’s current status.

Work hard and smart with a plan, and take time to rest, reflect on what works and what doesn’t, and expand your knowledge of your field.

Habit 1 – Be Proactive

As I mentioned above, Covey organizes the Habits sequentially, and this first habit, Be Proactive, helps form the foundation for the rest. The essential lesson Covey wants us to take away in this chapter is that human beings, unlike other animals, can choose our response to stimuli. That is to say: we experience something, we can think about how to respond, and then respond in the way that will align with principles and our goals. Personally, I think Covey doesn’t give enough credit to of the more intelligent creatures out there, like crows and chimpanzees, and, I think humans are more instinctual than he cares to admit, but, his point stands true and useful in the essentials. If you can control your response to stimui, you are that much more independent from uncontrollables such as the weather, the economy, and how much people like you.

Covey tells the inspiring and true story of psychologist Victor Frankl, who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. Frankl experiened the absolute horror of most of his family being worked to death and gassed, and he suffered the cruelty of beatings, starvation, and frequent hateful verbal abuse by his Nazi captors. But, Frankl, drawing on his knowledge of psychology, came to realize that the Nazis could never take away his core individual identity, or his choice of how to respond to his circumstances. Frankl chose to not be mentally broken, and he was not: he kept his hope in the future, and the happiness and purpose he would regain when he would someday leave the camp and be able to write about his experiences and teach new psychology concepts to his students.


So that’s a major aspect of “Be Proactive:” no matter what horrible things may happen to us, we can still choose how to respond. You can give up and sink deeper into your despair, or build on a glimmer of hope to take the positive action that can get you to a better place. You can choose where to focus your attention.

Another major concept for explaining proactivity is the Circle of Concern vs the Circle of Influence. Covey describes this with two overlapping circles: one contains everything we have direct or indirect influence over, and one contains everything we have some mental or emotional involvement in. Some people choose to focus on the things they’re concerned about, but can’t control: these people diminish their own influence, as they do not put energy into the thoughts and actions that can give them greater control over their lives.


But, the people who see the potential for distressing or awful things in their circle of concern, yet realize that they only have so much influence, and then choose to focus on what they do control, will tend to grow their influence. They make the plans, learn the lessons, network with the people, to improve their situation. Their first response to setbacks and challenges is “How can I do this better, How can I get what I want, Let’s find the best route, I’d prefer that this not be so difficult …” Effective people don’t focus their blame on their boss or the government, even if they do recognize that thoe external factors have a bad impact on them. They find the tiny footholds of influence and build on them.

Actionable Steps for Habit 1

Covey gives us solid advice on how to build our Circle of Influence. It all starts with commitments and promises. We can make commit to goals, and keep promises to ourselves: working out on a fixed schedule, applying to so many jobs per week, keeping to a new diet, building a monetary budget, beginning to keep a journal of our thoughts and feelings of each day. With these incremental, internal steps, we can begin to grow that circle of influence to encompass more of our circle of concern and thereby feel more confident, comfortable, and in-control of our lives.

As a challenge of proactivity, Covey challenges us to take a 30-day proactivity test. This test consists in every day paying attention to your mental and verbal language: how often do you use counterproductive phrases like “If only,” “I can’t,” or “I have to”? Even if your circle of influence is truthfully very small, you must begin with it in order to grow that influence. During this 30-day test, you must also track how you feel your circle of influence expanding or shrinking, as you change your thinking and actions.

I’m going to publically commit to this challenge myself today. From today, 23 December, through 22 January, I will focus on my Circle of Influence, and on proactive thought and action. I’ll write the results of that here, as I continue with my re-read and summary of the rest of the book. 

To start this, I’m going to respond publically an application suggestion Covey gives at the end of the chapter.

This suggestion is to think of a potential near-future encounter that could lead to me behaving reactively, rather than proactively, and then think through how to respond proactively, and imagine how the encounter would go.

A situation I can think of is the challenge of applying to summer internships. Internships are important during my MBA program to help me get the experience and connections for a full-time job when I graduate. But, I have the unusual challenge of needing to do ROTC Advanced Camp for a month out of this summer: many employers will want an intern for the entire summer, and may have a hard time accommodating my situation. Furthermore, the entire process of applying for jobs and internships can be frustrating, with “quirky” online entry forms, bizarre personality quizzes, and unreachable hiring managers. The way I could react to this situation, if I were to be reactive, would be to throw up my hands and declare that business employers and H.R. workers are all inconsiderate jerks with no respect or consideration for R.O.T.C. Cadets, and how Millennials have it so hard in this economy and that I might as well not even try for an internship in the first place, because what are the odds it’s gonna be paying, anyway?

That is not a helpful response. It guarantees that I won’t get any kind of relevant work experience over the summer, and will leave me feeling more frustrated and depressed about my career prospects, further hurting my motivation in the future!

A proactive way to respond to the challenge would be to talk to the co-op and career services folks at my school, to see what students in similar situations have done. I could also work on perfecting my resume and cover letters, and try communicating through phone, email, and in-person as much as possible with the companies I’d want to intern for, to get a conversation with someone relevant and see how I can work for them around my irregular summer schedule.

I could still fail to get a good internship. Many of the problems involved are indirect, meaning I don’t have personal control over the outcome. But, I’d have a far, far better chance than if I just let my frustration get to me. And even if I failed, I’d at least know I did everything possible to try.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue with Habit 2 – Begin With the End in Mind, and, I’ll update you on my 30-day proactivity challenge.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post. I’m having a good time rereading this book and explaining it! How will you choose to respond to your circumstances? Reactively, or proactively?

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