To understand why the 7 Habits was such a powerful book, you need some life context. I’ll share some of that in this post.
Side note: Happy to report that I finally finished the book!
I felt like the path ahead was very clear for most of my life, primarily through my early 30s. Maybe you had a similar experience. There’s never any question of what’s next. 1st grade is followed by 2nd grade, which is followed by 3rd grade, and so on. I was surrounded by friends who had the same paths and similar experiences. Once the involuntary and sometimes voluntary academic path was done (for me, after graduate school), things became less clear.
Many of my peers, especially the straight ones, had children and were married. As a not-quite-closeted but not-quite-open gay man struggling with my sexual identity, I didn’t have examples to follow because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to become. Seemed like most gay guys were in and out of relationships, and I was squarely in the pack. After achieving critical personal and professional milestones: getting my graduate degree, moving to DC, finding another job in DC, and starting a relationship, I had a really crushing blow of depression.
Looking back, I believe this was brought on by the realization that I had everything I wanted, but I was still unhappy. This realization hurt my soul. I think it hurt my spirit so much that it hurt my body, as well. I thought something was wrong with me. I thought I was a flawed, ungrateful human. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this was probably the best thing to happen to me in a while – especially if I’d known what to do with it. So instead, I trudged through life on a constant search for happiness through work, travel, friendships, socializing, shopping – but none of it – NONE OF IT – filled the hole I felt inside.
What was I to have done with that feeling? Well, I guess that’s a tricky question to answer because, at the time, I didn’t know. I just have to have grace for the younger version of myself. But, to answer the question, I think I was supposed to turn towards that feeling instead of away from it. Leaning into the feeling (which ultimately meant addressing the meaning and purpose of my life) later was – and still is – incredibly painful at times. But I’ll discuss my version of “leaning in” not to be confused with Sandberg’s “Lean In” in another post, perhaps.
Enter 7 Habits.
I started learning about 7 Habits in the middle of this meltdown. I felt like my life didn’t have direction. It was becoming evident that all of my best and worst decisions led me to exactly where I was at that moment. I looked around and saw that the only problems left were big ones, and I was the common denominator among them. So I figured that at some point, I needed to change before I wasted my life away, floating through life directionless and purposeless. I’d read a lot of self-help over the years, but 7 Habits really penetrated in a way the other books hadn’t. It showed me that I could choose to take responsibility for my life. I could figure out what was important to me, the values I held, and most importantly, the principles I wanted to follow – even if I wasn’t following them.
I started “Habit 1 – Be Proactive,” which basically says to the directionless, “you are the cartographer.” Next, “Habit 2 – Begin with the End in Mind,” says, “draw the map.” “Habit Three – Put First Things First” effectively instructs you to leave the house and start using your map. At the time, these three steps and a handful of other concepts in the book BLEW. MY. MIND. Simple to understand, but boooooooooy are they hard to implement. I started doing the exercises Covey recommended, and I lost interest when it got uncomfortable. Sometimes I lost interest because there was another shiny penny that had my interest. And then I’d be like, “oh yeah, the book said this would happen if I wasn’t principle-centered.” And then I’d pick it up again. And again. And again.
All-in-all, what attracted me the book the most was that the first three habits focus on determining what you want your life to be. It focuses on building a principle-centered life. This is powerful because a principle-centered life is unchanging throughout the almost constant stream of changes we experience in life. I still have a hard time knowing what Bruce wants, what Bruce likes, and what makes Bruce happy.
At different points in my people-pleasing life, I did whatever people wanted me to do, and I never got a confident voice of my own. As a child, mom was always right. In school, teachers were always right. Sometimes my friends were right. Sometimes my boyfriend was right. Sometimes, often, my boss was right. So I was running around looking for strength, validation, acceptance, assurance, and love from the people and things in my life. But they couldn’t provide what I needed because I had to go on my own journey – and I’m definitely more of a destination person. The first third of the book had planted a seed that would sprout whenever it sprouted.
It’s sprouting now.