A Book Review, Or, What Bothers Me About Self-Help Books

By page 3 of most self-help books, I start hearing a cheery person intoning in the background, I’m good enough, I’m smart enough. By page 10: And, doggone it, people like me! Without denying that I should Win Friends and Influence People, go from Good to Great, and work harder at Getting Things Done—indeed, without denying that there is a lot of practical wisdom in these books that I ought to heed—I get a little frustrated with their vapidity quotient. Could anything be more clichéd than “Synergize” or “Put first things first”? But there’s something deeper that nags at me when I read these mega-bestelling works. In my experience (and I confess I haven’t even read all the ones I’ve just named), they studiously avoid the deeper issues that Drive us: our loves, our beliefs in ultimate realities.

Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was refreshingly, though not entirely, different. It professes religious neutrality, but it also makes explicitly religious claims drawn from the author’s Mormon faith. Where other books might say, as Covey did, “Success in any endeavor is always derived from acting in harmony with the principles to which the success is tied,” Covey takes a further theological step. He posits an ordered cosmos and an Orderer who actively ties successes to principles. He himself says explicitly that the natural laws structuring his book “have their source in God.” He doesn’t dwell much on this theme, but he does repeat it often enough that I felt he really believed it. (I came away liking the guy, frankly.) Covey even urges readers to make all their decisions in light of the end of life, not something I’ve read in other self-help and productivity books.

But his overall religious neutrality gets Covey in a little trouble here, because I want to ask: what about making decisions in light of what will happen a millisecond after the end of life? I’m not asking this book to be a theology book; I’m suggesting that staying neutral about ultimate realities means you have to leave out key ingredients of a successful life—including the very definition of ultimate success. Maintaining neutrality among competing “visions of the good” means refusing to give real meaning to this life Covey is trying to help me structure according to natural law. Do I get to live in the light of the Lamb on a restored earth for all eternity, do I enjoy the ministrations of 72 virgins, do I reincarnate as a wealthy man, do I achieve nirvana, do I win if I get the most toys, do I get to go populate a planet? And what if I believe there is no God, no lawgiver to give us any natural laws? Each worldview rather colors my view of a life well lived on this earth, and how I achieve it, I’d say. Covey thinks you can map his principles onto any religion and have the same success, but if fearing God and keeping his commandments are the whole duty of man, if loving God and loving neighbor are the whole law, then Covey just can’t be right.

Similarly, though Covey’s stories about working lovingly through conflict with his wife and children were really touching and exemplary, there didn’t seem to me to be a category in his thinking for “sin.” Surely a book about success can’t truly work if it doesn’t tell us how to deal with that ultimate but daily failure we all experience (whether we know it or suppress it). Perhaps many people in modern Western societies don’t experience guilt, but some are crushed by it. What do they do? Also, I think the Bible’s themes are a good bit more nuanced than “observe these principles and you’ll have a good life.” That’s part of the truth—it’s the part Proverbs hits, I’d say. But right after Proverbs in God’s wisdom come the exceptions of Ecclesiastes: sometimes you follow the principles in this fallen world and, in the good providence of God under the sun, bad stuff still happens.

Covey’s title promises to make you an “effective” person, but the book mostly maintains the strategy of secularism to avoid conflict by focusing on utilitarian means without deciding among metaphysical/theological/religious ends. Wikipedia quotes someone who says that The Seven Habits is a “secular distillation of Mormon values.” But given some people’s value systems, I don’t want them to be effective. (Godwin’s law alert.) My father wrote his dissertation at Clemson on the “technical communication” used by the Nazis to make the Holocaust more “effective” and efficient, thereby to distance themselves from the ends they were actually pursuing. One must align his ends to natural law, not just his means, if he wishes truly to succeed.

I’ll happily plunder this very wise Egyptian for his well-honed observations of natural law in the workaday world, but I’ll keep my explicitly Christian teloi, and I’ll let my religion remap my understanding of the appropriate means to reach them. I won’t expect to be truly effective in doing anything ultimately worthwhile—on the only scale of worth that (ultimately) counts—unless love for God and neighbor is driving me (Rom 8:8).

I do, however, have sincere praise for this book and the natural law wisdom it contains. Covey has, no doubt, discovered truths in God’s ordered world that I needed.

  1. Covey made me want to think more carefully and explicitly about my gifts and goals, to the point of aligning my commitments to those gifts and goals. This advice came at the right time for me, as opportunities have recently begun to exceed capacities in a new way. I do have end goals: the glory of God, the growth of Christ’s church in the light of the Bible (as it happens). His prudent advice will help me reach those goals.
  2. Covey encouraged me to encourage others to acknowledge their agency, something I can readily align with my biblical faith.
  3. Covey’s parenting stories made me want to be a more loving and understanding father, one who focuses on fixing my own attitude before fixing those of my children. I was surprised at this regular emphasis in a “business” book, and I thought it was very healthy. It acknowledged implicitly that business and personal success are tied together in the cosmos we were given.
  4. Covey blew a little dust off my pluck. I am an American, and our optimistic, can-do spirit is a cultural legacy I don’t want to squander, a common grace God has given to my nation. I don’t want my Gen-X/Millennial sardonic eye to undermine my capacity to do something good in this world, for the glory of God and the good of my neighbor.
  5. Covey handed me a really wonderful Cecil B. DeMille quote about the law: “We cannot break the law; we can only break ourselves against the law.”
  6. I think I could “think win/win” more often than I do; I could be more optimistic about the possibility that, within a given conflict, everybody can come out ahead—precisely because of that natural law, and of God’s grace.

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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