“This book contains the kind of penetrating truth about human nature that is usually found only in fiction. At the end, you will feel not only that you know Covey, but also that he knows you.” – ORSON SCOTT CARD, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards
Promotional quote for the 2004 edition of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
An affable and engaging device Jordan Peterson uses in his book 12 Rules for Life is to make use of personal anecdotes. I have a personal anecdote about The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and why I read it,
A colleague bought me The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as a present and I was touched. I thought ‘wow, somebody really gets my sense of humour and irony’ and laughed delightedly. Yeah, well I had completely misread that and my reaction upset them. To make amends and to show I really valued their gift (which was given with the best possible intentions) I read it so that I could talk meaningfully about it.
It didn’t change my life and it really wasn’t my thing.
But that doesn’t mean these kinds of books are inherently bad. I think there is a kernel of problematicness in the genre (which I’ll get to) and which connects with a wider field where that kernel has grown into something worse BUT there not some kind of toxic mind virus that will turn you into a fascist just by reading them. Self-help books, even Jordan Peterson’s, can provoke a person into self-examination and reflection that may help them overcome personal, relationship or career problems.
People confronting the challenges of career and life and modernity have been seeking advice and giving advice for all of written history. There are elements of this in the writings of the Buddha and Confucious. The meditations of Emperor Marcus Aurelius are not just an insight into the application of Stoicism in the Roman Empire but also handy advice for anybody who finds themselves beset by annoying arseholes when in a management position.
“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.” The Meditations By Marcus Aurelius Translated by George Long http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.2.two.html
Spending time reflecting on what you can change about your circumstance and what you can’t (and hence need to not obsess over) can be good for you. I’m not the primary market for such books but I’ve known people who they seem to have helped.
With the 7 Habits… what superficially bugged me was the management speak, the lecture on what ‘paradigm’ meant (poor Thomas Khun – forever cursed to be misunderstood and co-opted by corporate gurus) and the daft diagrams in which the spatial aspect added nothing other than to convey a sense of being a diagram and hence sciencey. But that’s just me.
What worried me though, the kernel I mentioned above, and what got me thinking about this genre as a kind of semi-ideology was the emphasis on the change of self over change of circumstance. This is an unfair criticism of the book as a whole that does actually acknowledge that change in circumstance can be vital (its where ‘paradigms’ come into it) and the book is far from being a *selfish* book (it genuinely values cooperation and ‘win/win’ outcomes). However, the very nature of such books means that at least locally there is an aspect that sees the solution to change being the individual concerned.
This focus on the reader is inherent in the genre – there’s no way past it for obvious reasons. With it comes an issue when the advice doesn’t work. Habits, modes of behaviour and worldviews are hard to change and they are even harder for an individual to change, so the more substantial the change offered by the advice the more likely it is that it will fail for a given individual. If the book promises success then it is even more likely that somebody will experience failure with it. 7 Habits… doesn’t expect big change or promise big rewards and Jordan Peterson’s book doesn’t either but even 7 Habits… implies that you can become a ‘highly effective person’. So who is to blame if you read the book and try to follow its advice and then find…that you are just an ineffective as you have always felt?
There is an old joke that is in bad taste that goes: I know the secret to lasting weight loss- eat less food! The laugh (if there is in one) might be mocking or ironic – mocking in the case of a cruel person who sees overweight people as weak-willed or ironic in the case of the person who has tried dozens of diets and been unable to lose weight. The point is for many people the advice is simply restating the problem. Diets can sometimes work but generally, they don’t work. Worse they can be damaging for reasons that are the same as the issue with self-help books. The emphasis is necessarily on a change in an individuals habits and behaviour which is difficult to achieve. When a person fails they will feel like they failed themselves – the more convincing and powerful the book is the more a person will feel that they themselves failed rather than that they were given bad advice. The primary market for self-improvement books becomes people who have bought other self-improvement books. Just as diets breed diets (because the previous diet failed), self-help breeds self-help.
Again, I’m not saying trying to improve yourself is toxic or that diets are bad or that nobody has ever gained something positive from either. I’m just pointing at potential (and known) side-effect. This though is not the ‘thing’ I’ve been waving my hand at – the nastier side of all this that is a road to fascism. It is a close twin to it though.
If we fail in our efforts to change our own behaviour, what is it that we blame? Our willpower and that’s the problematic kernel here. An attempt at improving oneself that results in a person feeling not only despondent but feeling like they are actually incapable of becoming better because they lack the willpower to change is a dangerous cycle leading to self-contempt.
It is the corollary to this that is the gateway to something ideological and monstrous. To perceive yourself as inadequate or weak-willed or to see unhappy circumstance as your own fault for being weak-willed is not good but what is extraordinarily toxic is to regard OTHERS in that way. In other words to see people who have problems of one kind or another (from being overweight to being bullied or to being poor or being abused) and thinking the blame lies with that person because they are weak-willed is the common thread that joins the pieces of this ‘thing’ together. It’s how Ayn Rand ties into modern Fascism and why Nietzche is peppered through Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life.