The One BIG Thing

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In the self-help world there are numerous books that claim to you give the four essential things you need to do, the five secrets of success, or the six principles to follow. This is compounded by the fact that people love a list, whether it’s the top ten celebrity shots or the hundred best reads for summer. The formula for success often ends up as a list, something quick and easy to digest.

Stephen P. Covey’s Seven habits

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Of course, the big daddy of them all is Stephen R Covey’s 7 Habits of Successful People.

Covey’s genius was not the hours he spent poring over all the self-help literature he could find and ultimately distilling eternal wisdom from piles of failed detritus. It was his knack of spotting the exact time when the world was ready for a simple, memorable, short list of things to practice and follow.

Covey wanted us all to develop what he called a character ethic. When we have a character ethic, we align our values to what he saw as a universal and timeless principle, something that neatly separates principles and values. For Covey these principles are outside us, are eternal, external natural laws, while our values are inside us, personal, internal and ultimately subjective. Our values determine our behaviour, while principles point to our direction and the consequences of choice.

Covey discerns a growth pattern – what he calls a maturity continuum – depicting a progression from dependence through independence and on to interdependence. This growth pattern has to start from the inside out, and the seven habits are what gets you there.

Covey defines habits as ‘the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire.’ You too can be successful if you just do the following seven things:

Habit 1: Be proactive…
Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind…
Habit 3: Put first things first…
Habit 4: Think win/win…
Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood…
Habit 6: Synergize…
Habit 7: This is the secret to continual renewal: sharpen the saw

Having defined the seven, it was a constraint because he had in effect limited his potential for so-called brand extension options. If there are only seven, how can there be more? Eventually, fifteen years later, he wrote the sequel, The 8th Habit:

Habit 8: Find your voice and inspire others to find theirs. What Covey means by voice is your unique personal significance. People who inspire others to find their personal significance are the leaders we need now and for the future.

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Seven? Eight? Why not nine? Why not ten? Why not twelve? For now, let’s stay with the thought. Now, says Covey, we are able to find our voice because each of us has been born with three gifts.

Covey’s three gifts

Gift 1: We always have the freedom to choose. Events happen, but our responses determine how they affect us.

Gift 2: We live in a world that is governed by natural laws and principles – both in the natural realm and the world of human behaviour. Gravity pulls us down, we all age, and positive consequences come to us when we act with fairness, kindness, respect, honesty, integrity, service and contribution.

Gift 3: All of us possess four intelligences – mental, physical, emotional and spiritual.

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People who have mastered the seven habits can, with the help of Covey’s new book, master the last and eighth habit – finding their voice. We express our voice through our intelligences and, as he says, “It is the coordination of our intelligences and limits, which unleashes human potential.” We can turn our mental energy into vision, our physical energy into discipline, our emotional energy into passion, and our spiritual energy into conscience – an inward moral sense of what is right and wrong, plus a drive to meaning and contribution.

Covey’s 5 bad habits

Covey tells us that the 8th Habit is often disinhibited by a set of five contentious ‘bad’ habits: when we engage in criticism of others, complain, compare ourselves to others, compete with others and contend with them.

I don’t know about you, but right now I’m beginning to get lost in all these numbers: 7 habits that are really 8, 3 gifts, 4 intelligences, 5 disinhibitors… help, I think I need something simpler!

Ten tips from a Navy Seal

Covey has, of course, had plenty of imitators! If you want to write a successful self-help book or a best-selling business book, just find a number you can ascribe to your wisdom, build a list and you’ve created a winning structure. Everyone does it that way. Admiral William H. McRaven of the US Navy Seal has done it that way, and it all began with his viral commencement speech to the graduating class of the University of Texas at Austin.

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Beginning with the university’s slogan, What starts here changes the world, McRaven sets out ten principles he learned while he endured notoriously tough Navy Seal training. These, he says, helped him overcome challenges not only in his training and long naval career, but also throughout his life. He explains how anyone can use these basic lessons to change themselves – and the world – for the better. Make Your bed is the book, and here’s his list of ten things:

“If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed” – Start your day with a task completed.
“If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.” – You can’t go at it alone.
“If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.” – Only the size of your heart matters.
“If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.” – Life’s not fair—drive on!
“But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.” – Failure can make you stronger.
“If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first.” – You must dare greatly.
“So, if you – want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.” – Stand up to the bullies.
“If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment.” – Rise to the occasion.
“So, if you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.” – Give people hope
“If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.” – Never, ever quit!

Make your bed? Easy, isn’t it? Well, start by making your bed!

One big thing to remember

Right, I know I must be proactive, get up and make my bed. But does that involve just one super-habit? Is it seven habits, or is it eight? Is it ten tips?

Should we all follow these rules, these tips, these digested thoughts from others? Are these hugely successful people really the best personal guides we can muster? Or is there a deeper wisdom hidden in the act of reflecting, of knowing yourself well enough to follow the much older, gentler wisdom of William Shakespeare who, in his play Hamlet, has Polonius give the following wisdom to his son, Laertes, on his departure to Paris:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!
Polonius: Act-I, Scene-III, lines 78-82

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