Why “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” Still Resonates

Recently, I’ve read a whole lot of classic self-help-style books: books on having hard conversations, on healthy teams, on influencing people, and the like. Most of them gave roughly the same advice, usually in listicle form: listen to people, think before you speak, be honest, etc.

King of the pop culture self-help books is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I can’t say that I expected much from the book that made “synergy” the cliché business buzzword of our time. I mean, it’s even got a classically clickbait-y title.

Still, I knew the book was considered a foundational text in the realm of self-help, so I prepared myself to have the same experience as I did when seeing The Matrix for the first time a few years back (“I’m sure this was groundbreaking when it was made, but now these themes just seem clunky and overdone”).

I was astounded to find that there is a reason that 7 Habits has endured as a pop culture icon for so long. Reading Dr. Stephen Covey’s masterpiece felt like getting a condensed lifetime’s worth of character lessons and pep talks from your favorite mentor. Skip all the little books of tips on how to influence people by convincing them that you’re a good listener, and read this instead. 7 Habits is not a quick-fix “meet your goals” kind of book—it’s a book on how to be good at being a human being.

Summarizing the seven big ideas of the book here would be a cheapening of the material, so I’ll focus on just one core idea that really resonated with me personally and as an Atom.

The Principle-Centered Paradigm

In 7 Habits, Dr. Covey hits on exactly what’s been bothering me about most of the “self-help” books I’ve read. They, and people in general, tend to focus too much on personality ethics: how one is perceived by others, their skills and their techniques, and how well they align with acting “right.”

Dr. Covey instead uses 7 Habits to describe what he calls the “character ethic”: the idea that people are at their best and most successful at reaching their goals when they’re being driven by a core set of principles, rather than by a list of DOs and DON’Ts. Principles are “guidelines for human conduct that are proven to have enduring, permanent value.” They’re core ideas, like integrity, growth, and excellence, that we’ve observed over many, many years as wise goals for humans to pursue.

Maps and Terrain

Dr. Covey uses a metaphor to explain why focusing on principles is so important: He refers to principles as the territory, the unchanging qualities that lead to success, and values as our maps, guidelines, and ways of attempting to embody those qualities. He points out that “the map is not the territory” and says we should be careful to align our values with our principles to the best of our ability.

I’d like to extend this idea a bit further and note that the “personality ethic,” a set of techniques and rules for interacting with people, is a little like turn-by-turn directions, in that it only works in one very specific set of circumstances. If you find yourself in any other set of circumstances, you’re going to want a map.

It’s impossible to have a plan for every situation. Things will go wrong, people will do things you don’t expect, and no amount of reading and strategy will cover the complexity of interpersonal relationships. The key to navigating toward our principles is having guidelines, not rules, that help us find our way toward success.

Atomic Principles & Values

The principle-centered paradigm resonated so strongly with me because it aligns so well with the way we run our company:

  • Atomic strives toward a set of principles including integrity, excellence, respect, and growth, among other things. We believe these principles determine success in our industry.
  • We’ve learned that rules, like techniques and strategies, are a crude and ineffective way of trying to force people to move in the same direction without keeping their sights on the principles they’re striving for.
  • Instead, we hold six value mantras that we believe help guide our day-to-day actions toward living out the principles we care about.
  • And so, on the daily, each of us can reference our maps/value mantras when making decisions. In turn, that helps us all drive toward the goal of being a healthy, 100-year-old company.