A conversation with Stephen Covey

Do you have a life mission? If not, don’t worry! You are like 90% of the people around you. Did you spend most of your life doing, achieving, and running after goals? If the answer is affirmative, do you know where you are headed? Or are you like most of the people walking through Manhattan? If you are familiar with “the city” you should be aware how hard is to find individuals who walk just for the pleasure of walking. In Manhattan people never stops; NYC is the city that never sleeps, always busy, running after something… But, what is that something they are looking for? Many of them may say: “we want more money, more time, more things”. Of course, common wisdom says that more is better, but is it? Having things apparently is good. Although, when you focus solely on having your vision of the future becomes blurry until you forget what you were looking for. Why do people forget what they are looking for? Mainly due to the lack of a philosophy of life. Why should you care about philosophy when the world spins at the speed of light? I know you may think: “here you go, another philosopher of modern times trying to have me believe that philosophy can have any impact on my life”. Unfortunately I am not a philosopher and I am not here to teach you anything about life. What I can do instead is to report history and facts about philosophy and how this influenced generations of successful individuals to become thought leaders.

To be or to have? That is the question

There are two ways to approach life: One way is just go with the flow, do not ask yourself any question about existence and give all for granted.

The second way of living would be to ask yourself questions about existence, life and the world around you. In this circumstance, you will look at the world that surrounds you with mesmerizing eyes. You will think how incredible the feats of nature are. Although you may never know the reason you are here, you can still appreciate life in its entireness.

Which one of the two ways of living you think would make you happier?

If you picked the latter, then you are for having a philosophy of life, whatever it is. Indeed, having a view of life, it means asking oneself questions about existence and finding your answers. It is not right or wrong but just the way that fits most your way of being. Also, philosophy allows you to have a grand framework. Rather than be like a “candle in the wind” that suddenly moves at each wind’s blow, a philosophy of life makes you still, poised, peaceful, a person of character! How? Well, philosophy gives you the life’s principles according to which you will face any situations, small or big, urgent or not with consistency and rationality.

Stephen Covey and modern philosophy of life

For the first time in recent times, Covey built a framework for “a philosophy of life.” While Carnegie gave us a framework on “how to deal with friends and influence people,” Graham gave us a framework on “how to invest”; Napoleon Hill gave us a framework on “how to attract riches.” Stephen Covey instead focused on “how to live.”

Who is Stephen Covey?

Stephen Covey was born in 1932 in Salt Lake City, Utah. After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from the University of Utah, an MBA from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Religious Education (DRE) from Brigham Young University. Stephen Covey wrote the “7 habits of highly effective people”. His book became a best seller in no time. The principles stated in Covey‘s book are not his invention but natural laws (Bio). Stephen Covey’s masterpiece “The Seven habits of highly effective people” is the outcome of an in-depth study of success literature published in the US since 1776.

How do you approach life?

Let me tell you the story of two friends of mine. They were twin brothers: Tony and Albert. They had the same parents, they lived in the same town and they knew the same people. Tony grew up to become the mayor, the person who helped and inspired hundreds of people to improve their life. Albert, instead, became a corrupt individual, he always tried to fool and take advantage of other people. Tony had tried to save his brother Albert, but with no success. I always wondered how is this possible? If they had the same DNA and apparently the same life experience up to a certain point in their life, how could it be that one became a leader and the other a despicable person? Although both brothers seemed to have experienced the same things they formed two completely different personalities. How is it possible?!

Do we all see in the same way?

The answer to this question popped into my mind when I eventually read Covey’s “7 habits”. I remembered the day when we were kids, at the park. We were all learning how to ride a bike. Tony was excited the whole time, and although he fell many times, he stood up and eventually became excellent at it. Albert, instead, at the first fall, gave up and went home moaning about the fact that he would never be able to ride a bike in his life. Therefore even though they were living the same experience, they gave to those experiences a different meaning. That is the power of perspective! But how was it possible that twin brothers, with the same life, the same parents had such a different perspective on life? I later found out they had different role models. While Tony followed Grandpa Tony approach to life, Albert instead followed Grandpa Al approach to life.

How a name can influence one’s destiny (or how we make ourselves to believe that a name can determine our future)

It is incredible to me how a name can affect our existence (How much does your name matter?). Although a name just names, we convince ourselves that they embed personalities and for some reasons we must follow the destiny attributed to it. Tony and Albert believed that names were determining. Since they brought their grandparents’ first names they “had” to follow their footsteps. But what was the difference in life’s approach of Grandpa Tony compared to Grandpa Al? As I later discovered Grandpa Tony had what Covey defines a “character ethic” approach. Grandpa Al instead followed a “personality ethic” approach. Indeed, Grandpa Tony had a framework or principles that guided him through life. For example, Grandpa Tony did not care about people’s judgment. He would only do things based on his wisdom and understanding. Grandpa Al instead, used persuasion techniques. For example, he cared so much about people’s judgment that he would do anything to impress them. Therefore, Grandpa Al would use a different “façade” according to the situation at hand. In the long run, this approach to life created a lot of stress in his life. It should not surprise you though that Grandpa Al died at age 60, with heart attack. On the other hand Grandpa Tony lived a fulfilling life, always helping his community. Still today people remembers him as a compassionate man, always ready to help. He never let others influence his judgment about right or wrong.

Do you have a map?

Indeed, according to Covey each has a different map of the world. The effectiveness of your plan will determine how fulfilling your life will be.

Imagine you are going from point A to point B and someone gave you a map to reach point B. You walk for few hours around the block and suddenly you find yourself again at point A. What had just happened? You look at the map and you realize that point B for the person who gave you the map is instead point A according to your perspective. There is not right or wrong since from that person perspective his starting point was your point B, therefore his map was going from B to A. This example introduces us to an important aspect: First, having a realistic map of the world is crucial. Second, in many cases there is not right or wrong but just the perspective by which individuals looks at the world. You may say things like: “my map is the right one” or “other people are the problem” or “most people don’t understand”. In those cases you are just deceiving yourself. Have you ever wondered why are we able to see crystal clear the shortcomings of other people and be completely blind about ours? Are you the kind of person who looks at the problem and think: “It’s their fault” or “they don’t get it”. If you are, please stop, because you are using the wrong map to get by in this world. Most of us believe to be objective, but are we really? When facing a problematic situation can you understand the other person’s perspective? This leads us to another crucial concept: “paradigm shift”.

Are you able to see from different perspectives?

How many times you heard statements such as: “They never get it” or “They are always wrong”

One day I was walking through the streets of Rome. The city is full of history and each step you take brings with it thousand of years of history. In a paradisiacal place like that armory and love should reign. Although this is not always true: one day I noticed an accident amid a biker and a car driver. Fortunately they were both fine, nonetheless they were animatedly arguing about who did what. The biker would say: “you passed with red light” and the car driver would reply: “you were going at 60 on a 35 speed limit street!” And this was going on for many minutes while traffic on the road was building up. The hilarious part is that when I got back from my walk (over one hour after) they were still arguing. In addition, due to the accident there was a traffic jam and the cops could not seem to stop the two people arguing over who was right or wrong. Of course, they were both right and both wrong. The biker was right in saying that the car driver passed when the light was already orange but he did not admit that he was speeding up. On the other hand, the car driver was right about the biker speed but he did not acknowledge that the traffic light was going toward red. In that moment I realized how crucial perspective is! In many circumstances there is not right or wrong but different angles at which you can look at a particular situation.

Why is it so hard to understand others who think differently from us?

Why then, we don’t use different perspectives to understand each other better? It turns out that is not easy, and it implies what Covey calls a “paradigm shift” (term used by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Think what happened in the 16/17th century, when people believed that the earth was at the center of the universe. Of course, they were not wrong if you considered their perspective. They were looking at the world through their senses. They could see that the stars in the sky looked like small dots. Also, they could not feel the earth moving beneath their feet. Therefore they assumed that the earth was static and the sun moved around it. Even when Galileo Galilei introduced the telescope, and it was clear that the earth was not at the center of the universe people still couldn’t see! Why? Because to see they had to change their perspective, they had to shift their paradigm. Everything they believed up to that point was wrong, and they could not accept it. It was easier for some people to think that something wrong and they live their life in ignorance rather than accept the truth. But how can we shift paradigm? One way would be to challenge our assumptions about life. If you catch yourself always thinking to be right, this may be a signal. Shifting paradigm and developing a better understanding of the world around brings us to the next concept: dependence toward interdependence.

Become independent first and then lead others

Have you ever heard someone saying, “I want to be a recluse”? Of course not! Humans are social animals. We are wired to live with others, be influenced by and influence others. Often I can hear people saying things like: “I want to change the world”; “I want to inspire people”. In our imagination we all seem to have what it takes to succeed. But do we really? It has been shown that we usually overvalue our leadership skills and fall in what are called “ego traps”. (The Most Common Ego Traps)

One of the main reasons of this misinterpretation is due to our habit of looking for an answer outside ourselves. We tend to think that the problem is always somewhere else. This leads to what Covey calls “dependence”. Covey discriminates between three kinds of persons: “Dependent people need others to get what they want. Independent people get what they want through their own effort. Interdependent people combine their own efforts with the efforts of others to achieve their greatest success”. Therefore, Covey’s 7 habits is a path comprised of 6 habits that will get you from dependence to interdependence and the last practice to spin, rinse and repeat. The first three habits: be proactive, begin with the end in mind, put first things first will get you from dependence to independence (private victory). The last three: think win-win, seek first to understand then to be understood, synergize will get from independence to interdependence (public victory). The last habit “sharpen the saw” is about renewing oneself periodically.

 What advice would Covey give to you?

If Stephen Covey had to give you advice he would go through all the habits he taught and applied in the course of his life. Let’s see briefly each habit and how you can implement it:

  • Be proactive. As a human being you have the capability to redirect and control your impulses. When a stimulus comes in your way you don’t have to respond right away. Quite the contrary, you can become aware and then respond. When you increase the gap between stimulus and response that is when you develop “freedom to choose”. The control over your own impulses is crucial. Indeed, in late 1960s and 1970s Stanford psychologist Walter Mishel tested what is called “the marshmallow experiment”. In this experiment a marshmallow was given to kids in an empty room with no games or distractions. The kids were told that if they waited for 15 minutes more they would have received an additional marshmallow. This exercise was used to determine the willpower and “delayed gratification” ability of each kid. It turns out that those who waited for the second marshmallow had less troubles in life compared to those ones who did not. Why? Those ones who were not able to wait were more inclined to develop addictions or commit criminal acts. This is due to the lack of self-control and ability to keep distractions away while focusing on what’s more important. (The Marshmallow Experiment)

Thereby focus is crucial. If you will focus most of your time watching TV and moaning about the global economic crisis, the wars, the government and soon you will become a miserable person. If instead, you will put most of your effort on family, work, friends (all the things on which you have influence) you will be way happier. How to start working in your area of influence? Change your bad habits in good ones. Determine which kind of person you want to be and act upon that (work on your be versus have).

  • Begin with the end in mind. Take a deep breath, clear your thoughts and let’s get ready for a practice that will change your life. Imagination is a powerful force in our life and if you never used it, it is time to start. Let the past go and start molding your own future. Let me ask you this: do you have a vision for your life? You don’t? Realize that you are building a house without a project, how long you think it will last? Therefore it is time to find your vision. How? Picture yourself on your death’s bed. What are the things that you would regret the most about life? Once found out go on and act upon them. Let me tell you an incredible story: in early 1990s Internet phenomenon was just starting. New companies emerged and by the end of the decade the only fact that a company was including in its name .com would make its market valuation skyrocket. In 1994, Jeff was a Wall Street guy. After graduation from Princeton in computer science and electrical engineering, Jeff landed a job on Wall Street. His career in Wall Street was pretty lucrative. One day Jeff was surfing the web and he was stunned by a statistic about Internet usage. According to this statistic the Internet usage was growing at a staggering 2,300% per month! In that moment Jeff had the “Eureka moment”: he wanted to start his own web company. But how? What to do? And Why to leave his lucrative job? Eventually he left a safe job for a risky (almost impossible) venture. In addition, he did not have idea of what kind of product to sell or what kind of investment to start, he went for it anyway. How did he decide? Jeff used his imagination. He imagined to be eighty years old, narrating  the story of his own life. How would have he felt if he didn’t try this venture? Would have he regretted it? The answer was yes he would have regretted it. Eventually that is how Jeff Bezos made up his mind and he became Amazon.com founder. (How Jeff Bezos Started Amazon)
  • Put first things first. If you did the exercise described in the previous point, you should have now a clear vision of where your life is headed. You created the project of your life. Now it is time to build upon it. Start doing things that will get you closer to your vision. How? Stephen Covey offers a fantastic tool called “the management matrix”. Covey discriminates between two group of things: the important or not important and the urgent and not urgent. According to those classification the time management matrix is comprised of four quadrants. In Quadrant I all activities that are urgent and important, such as crises, pressing problems and deadlines. In the Quadrant II all activities that are important but not critical such as: prevention, relationship building, planning and so on. In the Quadrant III there are activities that are not necessary but urgent such as: interruptions, some e-mails, some calls and so on. In the Quadrant IV activities, which are not urgent and not important such as: busywork, some mail, time wasters and so on. Your matrix will look like the following:


Can you guess why the second quadrant has been highlighted? Because this is the Quadrant where you must focus the most. Indeed, if you spend too much time in Quadrant I you will burn yourself out. If your focus is on Quadrant III and IV you will end up being entirely dependent on others, your life will be worthless and futile. If you instead organize your agenda around Quadrant II this will give you vision, perspective, balance and so on. Start now to reorganize your schedule accordingly. You can see a sample at this link Covey’s weekly worksheet.

Toward Public Victory

The next three crucial steps to go toward interdependence are:

  • Think win/win. This step will have you develop the habit of cooperation. If you are not familiar with negotiation, check out William Ury Getting to Yes.

The final objective is to create value for both parties in the transaction not only for you. Although Covey goes further and he formulates the so-called “Win/Win or no Deal.”

  • Seek first to understand then to be understood. This Habit is about “stopping to use techniques and start using empathy.” There is no way you can build a long-lasting relationship in life and business if people around you sense duplicity. (Getting to Yes with Yourself – William Ury). This is really about trying to understand people who think differently compared to you. One good way to practice this Habit is to think of a person that freaks you out. Found it? Imagine having a pleasant conversation with that person, and agreeing with him/her. You must not fake it but feel how that person feels, internalize his feelings until you can finally know that person for the first time. If you do so according to Covey, you will go from transactional to transformational relationships.
  • Renewal: be ready to renew yourself periodically.

Why should you follow Covey’s principles?

Let me tell you another story. I cannot promise is the last I will say since I love stories but I will make it short. I know a person who worked very hard all his life long to reach all the objectives he had. Since childhood teachers told his parents he would not be able to be as good as his older brother and he was doomed to mediocrity. The problem was that our friend did not like school and did not see value in things he was learning there. Although one day as kid he realized that he had to be successful in school if he wanted to reach his goals in life. Therefore, he went on, earned his master degree in Economics and an MBA from a prestigious European university. Considering that this person was coming from a poor family it was a great achievement. Not happy though he pushed further until he got a job in California for a valuable tech company. He worked his tail off until he was promoted to become a manager at a very young age, the first European manager to earn such honor. I cannot tell who this person is but when I asked him: “how did you make it?” He surprisingly confessed: “When I was just seventeen I found, by chance, a copy of Covey’s book, and it became my bible. I never stopped implementing the 7 habits throughout my life!”.

As Victor E. Frankl would say “success must ensue, and only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrendered to a person other than oneself”.


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Gennaro Cuofano, International MBA. Author of "The Enlightened Accountant," and "The Art of Mentorship."

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