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The Teachings of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Habit 1 – Be Proactive (Part 1)

October 19, 2023
The Teachings of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - Habit 1 - Be Proactive (Part 1)

Today we’re going to begin with Habit 1 – Be Proactive, or the habit of personal choice. Before we begin, there’s an analogy that will tie in later: the two ethics.

The character ethic is like the roots of a tree, meaning things unseen. One famous definition of character describes it as what we do when no one is watching (witnessing or supervising). The other ethic is the personality ethic, the part of the tree that is seen. And so the core philosophy, the core belief of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is that strong leaders, effective leaders have to come from the character ethic.

So let’s talk about being proactive, the habit of choice. As we begin to understand the effective paradigm of leadership, we start by realizing we are a product of our choices. A lot of people believe that their life and their business is a reflection of what’s happened to them directly. Their business results are the reflection of their employees, or the weather, or the competition’s cheap prices, or the supplier’s high prices. And the reality is we’re all a product of choices, not circumstances.

This habit goes to the heart of being proactive in terms of understanding that we’re never at the mercy of anything. We’re never a victim, right? I Cause, Permit, or Allow everything in my life to happen. As a matter of fact, I often repeat to myself, “CPA” to remind me of that exact idea. And the reason is because my life is a product of my proactive choices.

The Blame Game

Now, those choices aren’t always great choices, right? I didn’t end up in prison for 13 years because I was making great choices, I can tell you that. But whether I make a bad choice or a good choice, I know that the result will reflect that decision, good or bad. And no one’s responsible for that except for me. So, for example, if I have an employee that I think is a really bad employee, I have to take responsibility and understand I made the choice to hire them. If I’m in a business partnership and I don’t like it, I don’t like how they’re acting, I can’t blame that person. I made the wrong decision by getting into that partnership. What I do about the situation is another story, but I have to start by pointing the finger at myself first.

One of the things I can tell you from my perspective over the last 25 years of personal and business development is that we have to see OUR role in everything that other people have “done to us.” That’s true personal responsibility. For example, when I was in prison, my son’s mother ran off with some other guy. I became angry. I didn’t want to kill him necessarily, but I remember wanting to hurt and torture him.

But after a while, as I began to mature and started practicing these principles, I began processing information differently. Maybe if I hadn’t gone to prison, she wouldn’t have had a reason to leave. My new outlook helped me realize she was simply moving on with her life, as she wasn’t the one behind bars. You see, when I could see my part in the role of what other people were “doing to me,” then I became responsible. Because I could have made better choices, right? I didn’t have to make those choices that got me imprisoned.

Short End of the Stick

I think when you look around your life, there will be people, circumstances, and situations you don’t like. You have to see your role in creating those situations. Being responsible for our choices and understanding that we all have a choice. And those choices have consequences. Dr. Covey used to talk about there being two ends of a stick. At one end is the choice, and at the other end is the consequence. When you pick up a stick, you pick up both ends of it, right? Some people think they can make a poor choice and avoid the consequences. You might short term, but eventually, it’s going to catch up with you. So being proactive, being responsible, and being a strong leader is understanding that you’re not at the mercy of someone else, but you’re always a product of your choices.

Dr. Covey used to call it “carrying your own weather.” In other words, you’re responsible for your mood. You are responsible for how you respond in situations. So you have to learn to carry your own weather, your own response to situations you may not control. We have to understand that our attitudes, beliefs, personality, and disposition are a reflection of how we choose to respond to various challenges.

When you carry your weather with you, you can choose to be consistent regardless of how people treat you. That’s what it means to be proactive. The opposite of proactive is reactive – not taking responsibility for our own life. You always see yourself as a victim of the weather. Habit 1 is based on the principle that your life is the result of your own decisions. That’s why Habit 1 is so foundational.

Deep Space

Unless you practice Habit 1, you can never master the other habits of highly effective people. Years ago, the author said something like this. “Between what happens to us (the stimulus) and our response… is a space. In that space lies our power and our freedom to choose our response. We have this exhilarating power to choose how we will respond.”

For instance, the great Viktor Frankl, the Jewish-Austrian psychiatrist imprisoned in the death camps of Nazi Germany during World War II, experienced unbelievable indignities and tortures. He was raised to believe that you are basically a product of your childhood. But while he was in the death camp, he began to observe some very interesting things. Different people reacted differently to the same circumstances. He himself experienced terrible things. At that lowest possible point, he discovered what he called the last human freedom, the power to choose your own response to any condition, to anything that happens to you. He came to believe that the most basic human capability of all is that between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.

Frankl later determined the thing that enabled survival in the death camps was not necessarily intelligence or survival skills but a sense of purpose, a contribution yet to be made. This became the basis for his brilliant autobiography, Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s not what people do to us that hurts us; it’s our chosen response to it that hurts us. We must simply never build our emotional life around the weaknesses of other people.

Keep in mind that I’m not saying that aren’t exceptions. When someone suffers abuse or is living in a wartorn country, they have little to no control over most daily decisions. I’m not talking about those kinds of dynamics. I’m talking about the typical business realm of the life that we lead, that we’re in there making choices, and those choices have consequences. All I’m saying is that if we have a bad consequence, we can’t just look at the last thing that happened. Because when something bad happens, there’s usually a series of things that lead up to it.

The Last Place I Looked

The tendency for humans is when a bad thing happens, we look at the last event that happened and blame that. But we have to look at the eight things that happened before that. What were the decisions and circumstances that led up to that last thing? A wife didn’t leave her husband because he watched football all day one Sunday. It just happened to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. She likely left because he didn’t spend quality time with her, help with chores, or get a job. Football isn’t the actual problem, it’s just the last thing she complained about before slamming the door for the last time.

Our decisions, our strategies, our leadership, all these things begin to cascade into results, both positive and negative. So we have to look at a situation in its totality. That’s what Dr. Covey is talking about, being proactive. Habit 1 is the first of the private victories. And there are basically four characteristics of a proactive person, which we’ll cover next time we connect.