Today, self-help books suck up multiple shelves in booksellers but once upon a time they were a rarity – at least outside the United States of America.
One of the books that helped build the market was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a huge seller of 1989 that became the autodidact careerist’s equivalent of Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill, sticking around in bestseller lists for year after year after year.
Why all the fuss? In part because, like many a business smasheroonie, it used a catchy, tabloid format to create a buzz. It also avoided an exclusive focus on business to reach out to a wider audience that sought personal fulfilment as well as worldly success. Finally, it became a stayer by being what was effectively a guide to an education rather than a promise of a quick fix.
The seven habits now seem quite obvious. Author Stephen Covey’s tenets were: be proactive (a very trendy word at the time); head for a ‘true north’ place of mental destination; knock off goals in an orderly procession; create win/win scenarios for self and community; strive to understand others; build teams; and train the brain through non-work opportunities.
It sounds a lot like common sense but then self-help books are often written for those that have lost track of priorities in life due to an overweening desire to succeed. For this category of putative over-achiever, a spoon-feeding of bold-font, numbered reminders can be useful, in the same way that rock music on an iPod motivates the jogger.
The precepts of the book have become something of a habit for Covey, who has produced a stream of similar-sounding follow-ups (including 2004’s The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness), a complementary coaching company and, as of last year, an online community. Even the sons of this 70-something guru have got in on the act, morphing Dad’s original model with their own books, including those aimed at teenagers.
Those who have read the book might hear the riff of a tub-thumping, revivalist religious attitude so it should come as no surprise that Covey is a Utah-born Mormon.
A 1994 article in Fortune suggests that, perhaps like some readers, Covey is the type to cram as much as possible into the smallest possible amount of time: can it really be true that he was once spotted in a gym shower attempting to shave and brush teeth at the same time? Now that’s multitasking…