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The Constant Misinterpretation of Stephen Covey's _7 Habits of Extremely Effective People_

7 Habits is an incredible book. Rather than focusing on just improving how you act, it focuses on changing your perspective -- your paradigm -- and your way of thinking. It understands that there's no quick fixes, and the only way to truly change how people interact with you and view you is to work on yourself from the inside. In fact, it's probably one of the best self-help books out there at the moment. Unfortunately, that's caused a bit of a problem: it's a little too popular.

That might sound weird. If it's such a good book, why shouldn't it be popular? Its popularity isn't a problem in itself, but rather the people who are picking up the book. It's been picked up by so many corporate, middle management types and taken so literally while simultaneously so insincerely that its impression on pop culture can be summarized in Weird Al's Mission Statement. Stephen Covey uses a lot of special, nontraditional words to explain his ideas and solutions. They're not normal words. So when middle managers try pushing it on others forcefully, those words and their definitions get mangled in a game of telephone. They become meaningless buzzwords at best and doublespeak at worst.

When I picked up the book and looked at the table of contents, I cringed. I even considered setting the book down and just skipping it. How many times have you heard the phrases Synergy, Sharpen the Saw, Think Win/Win or probably the worst, Paradigm Shift? They're fine phrases, and Covey's use works. It's used once, explained in a few paragraphs, and continued to be used for the rest of the book. But other users don't give their audience that same care. Beyond that, they misuse the words or overuse them, throwing them out when they don't need to be.

Of the habits of Public Victory, people care so much about Thinking Win/Win (habit 4) and Synergizing (habit 6) that they forget about the most important habit: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. It doesn't help them immediately like Thinking Win/Win or Synergizing does. But it helps invest in their trust relationships. It's a personal investment to help things run smoothly, like replacing oil in your car or having an IT department. It might seem like a sunk cost, but the reality is that without those deposits, things would be much worse. Not following habit 5 leaves only room for trust withdrawals. There's no room to build trust. Without it, followers might think they're Synergizing or Thinking Win/Win, but they're actually reaching much, much lower than their actual potential. It's like reaching first base blindfolded and thinking you just scored a home run.

But most importantly, the middle managers wrecking these ideas who even acknowledge the habit completely misunderstand the idea behind Habit 5. It's not just its title at face value. It's not just seeking first to understand and then to be understood. It's also extremely important to put enough time into convincing your partner to understand you. It's about filling up what Covey calls the Emotional Bank Account. Put in an ironic way, they have an abundance paradigm of the EBA when it should be a scarcity paradigm. If the EBA is out, no one will care or listen, and they'll even reject it. And once that happens, you're screwed. You're not going to get anyone on board with your views. Not that it matters anyways, because look back at what I first said: it's about fixing yourself. You can't change others, but you can change the most important factor in your deals: you.