A secular critique of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, written by Stephen Covey in 1989, is one of the most successful “self-help” and business books of all time, selling more than 25 million copies in 40 languages worldwide, and in 2011 was listed by Time as one of “The 25 Most Influential Business Management Books” (Wikipedia).

It’s no “small book” in the wider landscape of books. Even now in 2018, almost 30 years after publication, when I went to several local book stores they all had stock of it — still selling just fine, many years later (and that’s outside of the United States!).

I have read this book at least 4-5 times in my lifetime. I’ve really enjoyed it each time I’ve read it. It’s one of those books you can return to later on and glean new insights and ideas from. However, as I reviewed it recently and thought even more deeply about the content of it, certain weaknesses of the book struck me in ways they hadn’t before. So, I thought — why not write a quick review — to make a few suggestions.

Introduction / Background

I think it’s really important to put this book review in perspective. As mentioned above, I think the 7 Habits is a very, very good book. It’s important to acknowledge that upfront. Should you read it? Probably yes, it would be worth your time. Is there something to learn from it? Definitely yes, plenty to learn from and apply. Is it a significant contribution to the “public” awareness of how to lead an effective and meaningful life? Yes, it is a great contribution in this area.

It’s important to not miss the mountain and focus only on the mole-hill in this review.

  • The mountain is: this is a great book, worth your time reading, and there’s much to learn from it.
  • The mole-hill is: this book contains certain philosophical and intellectual weaknesses, which, as I will explain, are traceable to Stephen Covey’s Mormon beliefs.

Take this review as “99% of the book is fantastic, but that 1%? … has some issues”.

That’s the quick preamble. So please don’t take this review as a “ripping apart” of the book. If you are interested in philosophy and secularism in addition to being interested in the 7 Habits, then read on. Otherwise, this review probably won’t resonate with you.

Worldview / position of this review

This review is a criticism of the 7 Habits from a secular perspective. That is, looking at the book without any religious colouring. Or, in other words, identifying and pointing out how, where and when Covey’s religious worldview colours the content of this book.

This would be applicable if you are an atheist / agnostic reading this book, seeing “God” floating around, and wondering, as I have “What is that doing in there??”.

My motivation for writing this review

Why am I writing this review? Because The 7 Habits has religious undertones, and I don’t want those undertones to turn off the more secular audience, who could still benefit from reading the book.

In other words, I want to talk about how the book could be “tweaked” to become more secular, thus smoothing out the applicability of the principles more broadly.

Or in other words, I agree with the 7 Habits, but not with the religious undertones, so I want to “free” it of them. This is my attempt to do so.

Background: Stephen Covey / Mormonism

It’s important to understand that Stephen Covey was a LDS Mormon.

As such, some of the ideas of the Seven Habits are traceable to his religious worldview.

Back in 1989, this was more normal and acceptable. However, in 2018, the world is much more secular than it was back then. Even in the United States, which is particularly religious for a first world country, the fastest growing “religious” group is the “nones”.  So, it logically follows that if the book continues to be popular, an increasing number of secular / non-religious people may read it.

Now, a bit more background. 7 Years before Covey wrote the 7 Habits , he wrote another book entitled The Divine Center (1982) written to a Mormon audience. I haven’t read that book, but with some reading online at least some reviews claim that a few of the anecdotes and principles are the same as the 7 Habits.

Presumably (and I have read this here and there), Covey then went on to write the 7 Habits for a more general audience. In a note about his obituary, Clayton Christensen claimed that “The seven habits are essentially a secular distillation of Mormon teaching”.

Was the 7 Habits completely translated into secular language? No. Sure, it was definitely made more generally applicable than The Divine Center, which is very “Mormon”, but it was not completely “cleaned up” of religious influence. Perhaps by “secular” they meant “could translate to people of other religions” — because it definitely does that better. But it’s still not completely free of religious thought.

In any case, with all of that as preamble, let’s move on to some specific criticisms.

Criticism #1: The Conflation of “Secularism” with “Cynicism”

In the Foreword to the 2004 edition of the 7 Habits, the first sentence that jumped out at me was this one:

Culture: succumb to growing secularism and cynicism
Principle: recognize that the source of our basic need for meaning and of the positive things we seek in life is principles — which natural laws, I personally believe, have their source in God”

(By “culture”, he was essentially pointing out aspects of modern culture that are the “problem”, and by “principle”, he was pointing out which principles are the “solution”)

OK, here we go….

First criticism: conflation of “secularism” with “cynicism”

“Secularism” basically means “non-religion”. This is connected with “cynicism” in the book, which Covey points out is a growing (“negative”) trend in society.

But secularism is not cynicism, and not related to cynicism. I don’t see any valid reason why these two could be used in the same sentence in this way.

Again, this idea is traceable to religious beliefs. Religious people/ideas tend to view secularism as cynicism, due to its critical perspectives towards religion. But secularism is not cynicism, and critical thinking is not automatically cynical.

Let’s use an analogy to explain. For an atheist, it’s about as clear that the Christian God doesn’t exist as it is for a Christian that Thor doesn’t exist. Now, imagine a devout “Thor believer” facing a Christian:

Thor Believer: “You’re so cynical about our beliefs in Thor! Can’t you just accept the reality of the God of Thunder?”

Christian: “But it’s just ridiculous! Everyone knows there’s no Thor! It’s just a story that the Norse used to tell themselves!”

Thor Believer: “I am deeply offended by your insolence and cynicism towards my beliefs.”

This is, essentially, what’s going on here. “Secularism” is conflated with “cynicism”, because secularism unapologetically rejects religious ideas (like the Christian God) that people like Covey take very seriously.

First criticism: how would I have reworded this

If I could re-write the book to fix this problem, I’d write these sentences this way:

Culture: succumb to tendency of cynicism and meaninglessness (or nihilism)
Principle: recognize that the source of our basic need for meaning and of the positive things we seek in life is principles — natural laws, that when understood and applied, bring more meaning to life.”

I think this gets at what Covey was trying to convey — but meaninglessness is not secularism (hence dropping the word “secularism”). That’s a whole other article in itself…

As a secular person myself, I can attest to the fact that secular life can be rich and meaningful without religious ideas running around in my worldview. We have science, we have the vast cosmos to contemplate. We have curiosity. We have art, culture, history, and so many other interesting subjects to study. We have love to give, aid to give, people to understand and assist, suffering to alleviate, this is hardly cynical!

Criticism #2: The claimed “Source” of Principles (“God”)

Returning to the second part of the quote above, Covey states:

Recognize that the source of our basic need for meaning and of the positive things we seek in life is principles — which natural laws, I personally believe, have their source in God

Again at the end of the book he reiterates this idea with a longer statement:

As I conclude this book, I would like to share my own personal conviction concerning what I believe to be the source of correct principles. I believe that correct principles are natural laws, and that God, the Creator and Father of us all, is the source of them, and also the source of our conscience.

Naturally, anyone who’s an atheist would baulk at such a statement. As secularism well knows, “God” is the ultimate thought-stopper. Invoke God to explain something, and you need not think any more about that thing! Why do the planets orbit the sun in the way they do? God did it (until Newton figured it out). Why are tsunamis wiping out a civilisation? God is angry with them (until weather science disabuses us of this notion) etc.

But as Pierre-Simon Laplace once said, when it comes to God, “(we) (have) no need of that hypothesis” — principles can be explained, quite satisfactorily, without invoking a supernatural creator to “pull the strings” to make them so.

So where do “principles” actually come from? 

So if principles don’t come from some almighty creator, then where do they come from? Perhaps even the question itself is wrong (do they have to come “from” somewhere?), but we can still answer it in its current form.

Principles as ideas

Let’s start answering the question by discussing the meaning of ideas.

What is an idea?

— An idea is an attempt at modelling something in reality, a mental map or schema that we use to describe something.

From the birth of our consciousness, we begin interacting with the reality we find ourselves in. Over time, as our mind develops, it begins to spot patterns. When I walk into the wall, it hurts. When I eat food, my feeling of hunger is alleviated, and so on. From a very young age, we are building mental models of the reality we find ourselves in. Or, in other words, we generate “ideas” – mental models  or schemas to describe reality.

Principle (as described in the 7 Habits) is a kind of idea. All principles are ideas, but not all ideas are principles. Principles are mental models to describe generic trends or patterns in reality that apply around the board in many scenarios (E.G the principle of honesty, is the idea that honesty is generally beneficial). In this case, the principles this book describes are attempts at modelling the habits of effective people.

I could argue that “correct principles” (as Covey puts it) are merely correct or accurate descriptions of reality. This broadens the scope of principles significantly, and really means they can be found everywhere. For example, “eating food alleviates hunger, and good nutrition leads to good health” — there – we just articulated a principle that relates to the functionality of the human body. This could even apply in specific domains, for example, the principles of good science involve things such as the value of empiricism, the value of statistics, findings need to be replicable, etc.

So where do principles “come from” (or what is “their source”?) — well, they come from our minds actually, the same place that all ideas and mental schemata come from. It is our minds (or our selves) that are interacting with reality, making observations, extracting and categorising patterns, articulating them, sharing them, and testing them.

Reality is the terrain, principles are the map. You don’t need to invoke a God anywhere in this equation. (If you did invoke God, E.G to say “yeah, but God created / is the source of reality!” – philosophically you’ve merely shifted the weight of the brute fact one level upwards (“If God created reality, then what created God?”). It’s unnecessary, and doesn’t solve anything.

God didn’t create principles, human minds did – when we observed reality and extracted insights from our observations.

Furthermore the effectiveness/usefulness/truthfulness of principles in the 7 Habits can be explained on a philosophical level, one by one in detail, by observing and constructing a superstructure of ideas that outline generic patterns in human behaviour (both individually and collectively).

For example, habit 1 is “be proactive”, the thesis is that people who are “proactive” (take initiative, think ahead, take action before it is required, etc.) as opposed to being reactive are more likely to lead an effective life. Why is this the case? Because being proactive positions you to shape reality ahead of this moment, creating the reality of tomorrow, and when we observe people at large, we find that generally those who are proactive live more effective lives than those who aren’t. Fortune favours the prepared, when proactive people meet good opportunities, the results are more positive than if they had not proactive prepared. (No God required — this is simply how reality conforms to behaviour).

So much for the source of principles critique.

Criticism #3: Claims about Free Will

This is perhaps the most interesting of all of the criticisms of the book; that is how it presents the notion of free will.

That human beings have some absolute sense of free will is a widely accepted claim. But the evidence is not in favour of it.

Going into the details of this evidence, or the ongoing debate/discussion into the notion of Free Will would take too long to do here. Free Will is a massive subject, worthy of your research if you find it interesting (notice how you cannot choose to find it interesting 😛 — it just is or isn’t for you, based entirely on things outside of your control). I have also written an article about some of my views here.

Now this is where things get interesting. Because there’s a fascinating paradox in the notion of free will. It goes like this:

  1. The notion of an absolute free will is not supported by the evidence. AKA, there is no “free will”
  2. BUT, believing in Free Will is very useful. If you believe you have free will, you can push yourself more and take more responsibility for your destiny.

Hence, ironically enough, I’d suggest you believe that you have free will, at least until you can develop a more nuanced viewpoint about it.

Actually, believing you have free will is a two edged sword of itself:

  1. You take more responsibility for your thought and actions than you actually have. E.G you once thought of strangling your cat when it was meowing and waking you up, and now you feel terribly guilty for having that thought. (Negative side).
  2. You take more responsibility for your thought and actions, leading you to proactively build a better life for yourself and those around you. (Positive side).

In any case again, like the God stuff above, Free Will isn’t real in the way that most people think it is, but believing that it is can be useful at times — and again, this philosophical weakness does not harm the message and power of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but it is (in my view) a valid criticism of its foundations.

Criticism #4: Other religious “leftovers”

Aside from the primary two criticisms above, there are small pieces of religious thought riddled throughout the book. Examples include:

  1. The commentary about hypocrisy; going to church on Sunday and being someone different on Monday.
    1. Though naturally, the concept of avoiding hypocrisy is good, but it is given in the context of religious observance.
  2. The hetero-normative, monogamous angle of the book (because in reality some people are not heterosexual, and some people are not monogamous, while still being ethical —  the book contains the “normal” amount of rejection of these lifestyles that comes with religion)
  3. Blatant references to Mormonism/Christianity such as the one in the beginning of “Inside-Out Again”:
    1. “The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ would take the slums out of people, and then they would take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.” Ezra Taft Benson (Ezra Benson was a Mormon “Prophet” from 1985 until his death in 1994.)

There are others. I will not make a full list, only to say that one bumps into them as one goes along.

Summary / Conclusion

Stephen Covey was a brilliant human being who successfully distilled and synthesised some very important ideas – and the world has benefited from his work. I have benefited immensely from the 7 Habits, and read it at least 3 times in my life (and I’m only 30!)

However, he was also a theist, a Christian, and a Mormon. As such, he brought some religious ideas / “baggage” with him into this book. Although the 7 Habits was meant to be a “secular” distillation of his “Mormon” ideas – in reality I think all that was dialled down was Mormonism itself, but Christianity was not dialled down. Hence, “secular” in this context merely means “more broadly palatable to other Christian faiths”, as opposed to purely “secular” (AKA without a trace left of “God”).

No-one can lay claim to or pretend to own principles or ideas. Mormonism doesn’t own the 7 Habits, Christianity doesn’t own the 7 Habits, and Stephen Covey does not own the 7 Habits (referring to the ideas themselves, not the book or the brand). However, ideas do travel in groups (memeplexes) – and some of these ideas have travelled along with Mormonism and Christianity. As life would have it, Stephen Covey distilled these ideas into his book, and deserves lots of positive credit for doing so. He doesn’t own them, but he articulated them, and he did so very well.

If there were sufficient interest in filtering / sanitising the 7 Habits of all of Mormonism, Christianity and Theism, I could do it. It wouldn’t take significant editing, just a few words here and there. Naturally, given that the Covey family are all Mormon, it would seem very unlikely that they’d support such an effort (I assume they own all rights to the book). Nevertheless, these religious ideas will not survive sustained criticism, and the rise of secularism in the world attests to that fact — so I do hope that by referring to these religious concepts, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People does not render itself irrelevant to its future audiences.

Finally — if you’re a fellow atheist — don’t let a few “Gods” sprinkled here and there put you off this book! It’s well worth the read, with the occasional pinch of salt added.


13 Replies to “A secular critique of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”

  1. Thanks for the insight. I have also always thought 7H was LDS principles secularised. I went to a Franklin Covey workshop once and was allowed to take a guest for free. The trainer, who had no idea that Dr Covey was a mormon, was flabbergasted at how much my friend knew. It was fascinating to see someone that had learnt the principles, reacting to someone who instinctively understood the concepts.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this critique, it was exactly what I was looking for. I just picked up 7 Habits today after hearing about its merits my whole life, and I groaned when I hit the first “God”. Your article will make reading 7H all the better for me.

    Also, there’s a small typo at the beginning of this sentence: “{I’d} could argue that “correct principles” (as Covey puts it) are merely correct”

    1. Jonathan, thanks for your visit, reading the article, and your comment (and – typo fixed!) – glad this was helpful for you. Out of interest, how did you find this article online?

  3. Thanks for this critique! Also exactly what I was looking for. After finishing the whole book with Covey’s personal note on what he believes to be the source of correct principles, it was such an eye roll and I couldn’t help being overly skeptical of all the habits.

    The bit where he writes some examples of personal mission statements was also a big turn off, when he wrote “a woman seeking to balance family and work values has expressed her sense of personal mission differently [compared to a man]”. But this critique really confirmed to me that the religious/heteronormative/patriarchal undertones don’t take away from the book being really useful as a whole.

    1. Hi Antonia, thanks for your comments! I enjoyed reading your thoughts. Yes, fully agreed, hence my position that I think this book should be re-written from a truly secular perspective. I believe I could do this but as mentioned I’m fairly certain the Covey family are all Mormon and would not be interested in such an effort.

  4. Well worded and versed review of a highly influential book that clearly has impacted yourself Shawn. Regarding your arguments on free will I would have to say that one most definitely has a freedom of choice and even though they may have certain predispositions, people absolutely have the power to be aware of those predispositions and what choices they can make as a result of that awareness. Like Stephen R. Covey taught one can develop these habits so that the more they apply these habits the greater their circle of influence becomes. Therefore if one applies this principle in the areas of their life that they do control and increase their awareness of the things/areas that they can not control and make choices that are coherent with that awareness then the reality of one having freewill actually becomes all the more prevalent and real. I respect your opinion on the matter moreover the principle of freewill is actually a reality.

    1. Hi Jamie, thanks for coming by and commenting!

      Without writing an essay on free will, I am not disagreeing with your general position that we can make choices that influence our lives and build strong habits, yes. If this is what is meant by “free will” then yes we have it, moreover the belief that we have this kind of freedom is also very useful.

      However, from a physics / cognitive point of view, we do not have the absolute freedom that we think we have.

      For example, you will find my arguments persuasive, or not, but you don’t choose your reaction to them. You simply react in the way that you do, even if that reaction is multi-varied.

      Anyway, here are two resources if you want to keep reading on the subject:

      And Sam Harris’ book Free Will

  5. Hi Shawn,

    I am a trainer from India, and I facilitate learning of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I have delivered over 200 sessions of the workshop, and always make sure that I inform my participants about the religious affiliations of Dr. Covey. This helps ensure that the participants take away only the secular aspects of the workshop and not the religious undertones.

    Your article will help me make it even better!

    Thank you!

    1. Mr Meghdoot, lovely to eMeet you. Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my blog. I love your strategy of being transparent about his religiosity. The 7 Habits is an amazing book I’m sure your training sessions are very useful!

  6. Thanks for the article.
    While I do learn useful things from the book of 7 habits, I felt uncomfortable about the deep religious implications there. I was surprised that some advocates or trainers of the book didn’t notice that.

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