The way you see the problem is the problem” writes Stephen Covey when describing the first habit. We all see the world through conditioned eyes ( Covey calls it our “window of reference”) which make us behave or respond in a certain way. This conditioning comes from our own influences, upbringing or attitudes and we are shaped and formed by these. We place labels on things, people and situations and generalize based on our own assumptions. Covey starts the chapter by describing three different forms of determinism that people often use to describe the situations they find themselves in and these are often used by people wishing to “pass the buck” to justify their actions. We have all heard these : ” It’s genetic, it runs in the family”, psychic ” it is the influence from my parents” or environmental (influence from surroundings). These are all common methods of escaping taking responsibility for one’s own destiny. They condition us to believe that we are no better than Pavlov’s dogs and once this mentality is instilled in us, it is hard to shake, according to Covey.
This conditioned response is the backbone of Covey’s argument concerning pro-activity. Breaking the general negative response is the key to this and he used notable examples of humans under intense conditions who chose to respond in a way that they determined, Victor Frankl in the Nazi death camps being a good example. He gave the account as a testimony of the situation when, even under totally adverse conditions, one can use the “four endowments” of our freedom to choose to break the stimulus-response cycle. These being self-awareness (deciding how to react), imagination (our ability to think beyond the moment), conscience (the ability to judge right and wrong) and independent will (the ability to choose free of influence).
This self-determination is the crux of Habit1, be proactive and not reactive. That means that while we cannot determine what happens to us, we can determine how we react to it, how it affects us and how we see it. If we see an event through our conditioned eyes we become reactive, make decisions based on emotion and empower the negative forces around us. Proactive people choose a path based on the internalized values they have set for themselves, working with the adage of taking the initiative and acting before being acted upon. Don’t dwell on the problem, find a solution!
Covey further argues that proactive behavior can be emphasized by the language we use. In the same way that we can choose to respond (response-ability), we can also choose to use proactive language. Giving examples of reactive language, he states that “reactive language resolves the speaker of all responsibility, blaming others in the process and saying that circumstances are responsible for my decision”.
The chapter is rounded off with Covey’s advice on shutting out outside influences. Using the example of our Circle of Concern ( the things we think about) and narrowing this down to our Circle of Control ( the things we can influence), Covey says that proactive people focus all their energy on the things they can truly influence and disregard anything that they can’t, thus making proactive behavior easier and more effective. He argues that reactive behavior comes from the fact that we spend too much of our time concentrating on the Circle of Concern. Working hard on the Circle of Influence has wide ranging effects on other people in ways that are fully unexpected. Covey suggests finally taking the 30 day proactive test where one consciously observes the techniques described including language, being proactive in decisive moments and determining problems in accordance with the circle of influence theory.
My own opinion on the First Habit is that if applied properly, it can be the foundation for personal change. Significantly, Covey suggests in the opening part of the book that the habits mean nothing unless we have gone through a paradigm shift and see the world in a different way. I believe this is crucial. The seven habits are no quick fix and take time to implement. A lot can be learned from the first chapter and while much of the theory is common sense, it does make you realize how often we fall into the trap of stimulus-response. Covey conveys the message with true conviction with excellent examples putting everything into context for the reader. As a committed Covey fan, I find it hard to be critical and truly believe that Habit 1 can be implemented fairly easily into everyone’s life by just taking a different view on things. If one is truly serious about living the 7 Habits, this is the foundation. Maybe, as Covey suggests, it takes an event of magnitude proportions for this process to start. Loss of a loved one, work or trouble with finances can all be catalysts for change. He sets the process out in ways that can be easily imagined and if read and implemented properly can make a huge difference.
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