If we took a poll of Earth scientists and their colleagues, what fraction do you think might have read Stephen R. Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People?
This book was first published in 1989. To call it a best-seller is a bit of an understatement. It has sold 15 million copies in almost 40 languages over the years. That makes Stephen Covey the J. K. Rowling of non-fiction. Not sure anyone’s run the statistics on this, but let’s suppose there are maybe a billion people on the planet comfortable reading such a book in English. The 15 million figure then works out to about 1.5% of those folks. So if our community is representative of the larger population, maybe one in a hundred of us have bought the book. Some smaller fraction has read the book all the way through. So how many of us have actually read the book? Probably not so many.
For a long time I was one of the 99%. I heard about the book only belatedly, maybe sometime in 1990. By that time there was already quite a buzz, and I lapsed into a mental posture that is ashamedly all-too-characteristic…I thought to myself…What’s all the fuss?…this is just a fad…no book can really be that good. By stumbling along in this fashion I succeeded putting off buying a copy for a year or so.
Then I succumbed. And was surprised. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. Marked it up, wrote in the margins. Then read it a second time. Became one of those obnoxious people who go around telling everyone the seven habits and a little bit of the background of each. On one such occasion, when I was the lone American sharing a jumbo jet with a few hundred Pakistani laborers flying home to Karachi from a week’s work in Singapore (another story for another time), I got the guy in the seat next to me so interested in the book he asked to have a look. I gave him my copy. Told him it was his to keep; I could get another when I got back to the States. He thanked me effusively and started to read. But after about half an hour he returned it, saying the marginal notes were “too personal.”
Fact is, I was hooked at the get-go…when Covey gave his thumbnail history of management self-help books. He said that back a century or so, these books were all about principles and values (honesty, hard work, putting others first, etc.)…but that more-recent books were focused instead on how you and I might manipulate each other to get what we wanted in the short run. [Sound familiar?]
Why bring this up now?
Because in reflecting about how our community is doing…those of us in the business of Earth observation, sciences, and science-based services…it seems we’re progressing relatively (emphasis on relatively; we have shortcomings here too) well in pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. However, hardly any of us would rate ourselves as “highly effective people” in partnering up with our host society and putting our knowledge and understanding to work for everyone’s benefit.
Yet that is what we all desperately want. Our little bit of knowledge has made us realize humanity is very inefficient at natural resource extraction. Our observations and science show that in the process we’re destroying vital ecosystem services on which we depend. And that by ignoring extreme but rare events we’ve put ourselves and our towns and cities and our economies in jeopardy to natural hazards of every description. The result? We’re always flirting at the margins of adequate food, water, and energy for the world’s seven billion. We’re overfishing the oceans. Killing off the charismatic megafauna (that is pointy-headed-speak for lions and tigers, elephants, and rhinos…). Our landscape is pitted and pocked, scarred and blighted. [Maybe it looks good where you live; if so, that’s because you’ve exported your resource extraction to places out of sight, out of mind.] Disaster losses are mounting in response to our growing numbers and our failure to learn from experience.
But when we try to share this knowledge and these concerns with others for the good of all, we find ourselves arousing suspicion, mistrust, irritation, skepticism… Worse yet, upon reflection we find that some of these negative reactions are deserved.
Why this failure at what matters to us most? Could we do better? If so, how?
Maybe we’re ready to accept some outside advice. Maybe Stephen Covey’s habits hold some clues. Over the next few posts, we’ll see what Stephen Covey might have to say to us as individuals and as a group about how to be more effective.
Want to get started? Here’s some material from his website:
Habit 1. Be proactive.
“Your life doesn’t just “happen.” Whether you know it or not, it is carefully designed by you. The choices, after all, are yours. You choose happiness. You choose sadness. You choose decisiveness. You choose ambivalence. You choose success. You choose failure. You choose courage. You choose fear. Just remember that every moment, every situation, provides a new choice. And in doing so, it gives you a perfect opportunity to do things differently to produce more positive results.”
WHH: So when environmental scientists, or emergency managers, or science journalists, or aerospace engineers find sharing our story to be a hard slog, our starting point should be the admission/self-awareness that we are the problem.
“Habit 1: Be Proactive is about taking responsibility for your life. You can’t keep blaming everything on your parents or grandparents. Proactive people recognize that they are “response-able.” They don’t blame genetics, circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. They know they choose their behavior. Reactive people, on the other hand, are often affected by their physical environment. They find external sources to blame for their behavior. If the weather is good, they feel good. If it isn’t, it affects their attitude and performance, and they blame the weather. [WHH: He mentions weather! Our work does matter!] All of these external forces act as stimuli that we respond to. Between the stimulus and the response is your greatest power–you have the freedom to choose your response. One of the most important things you choose is what you say. Your language is a good indicator of how you see yourself. A proactive person uses proactive language–I can, I will, I prefer, etc. A reactive person uses reactive language–I can’t, I have to, if only. Reactive people believe they are not responsible for what they say and do–they have no choice.”
WHH: Sounds as if when our message appears to fall on deaf ears, whether those ears belong to a convinced or unconvinced environmental scientist, a political leader, a journalist, a teacher, a business executive, a member of that “general public,” we shouldn’t blame that on “their” shortsightedness or ignorance or any sinister intent. We should instead look inward. Agency budget shortfalls? Our fault. Others’ inaction? Our fault. People skeptical of our message? The problem starts with the message and the messenger.
Covey goes on:
“Instead of reacting to or worrying about conditions over which they have little or no control, proactive people focus their time and energy on things they can control. The problems, challenges, and opportunities we face fall into two areas–Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence.
Proactive people focus their efforts on their Circle of Influence. They work on the things they can do something about: health, children, problems at work. Reactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Concern–things over which they have little or no control: the national debt, terrorism, the weather. Gaining an awareness of the areas in which we expend our energies in is a giant step in becoming proactive.”
WHH: So, if you and I want to be more effective going forward, we’d do well to invest a little time sorting out how this principle plays out in the specifics of our lives. There’s no formula here; you and I, each of us, have to work this out for ourselves.
Don’t know about you. As with Covey’s book, I came across the word “proactive” belatedly. Have struggled with the word ever since: What’s all the fuss?…this is just a fad…no buzzword can really be that important.”
But tell you what. Today and going forward, I’m intentionally going to be more proactive.
Next time…maybe we’ll look at how Covey’s second habit might apply to us as well.
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I thank my father all the time for handing me a copy of Stephen’s son’s book when I was about 12 or 13 years old – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens (Sean Covey). Since Stephen practiced and mastered these principle-centered leadership concepts on his own family, Sean breaks the habits down for kids in an incredible way. When I ‘grew-up’, I read the adult version of the book and found it refreshing, but the teen version is what I remember most vividly. Consider extending the teen version of this book to a teenager you know!
Thanks, Elizabeth…good to hear from you. This is a great testimonial/addition to the discussion.