On Stephen Covey and Self-help Books

Cover of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effectiv...


As most readers here no doubt know, Mormon academic and author Stephen R. Covey died earlier this week. Covey was best known for his highly popular self-help book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which earned him fame and fortune, as well as some detractors. His death, together with the fact that my bookclub is currently reading Viktor Frankl’s influential book Man’s Search for Meaning and that I came across an old conference talk drawn from a self-help book, led me to ponder a bit about Covey’s influence and self-help books in general and the influence that these books have had on me.

[You might also call some of these books pop-psychology books or pop-philosophy books or what have you — I realize there are some distinctions among them, but I’m grouping these all together for the purpose of this post. BUT, I’m excluding all the get rich books from this post — from Think and Grow Rich to Nothing Down (by Mormon author Robert G. Allen) to Rich Dad, Poor Dad.]

My first exposure to what could be called a self-help book came when I was in my early teens. Browsing through my father’s library I came across a book by Maxwell Maltz called Psycho-cybernetics, which had a significant effect on my thinking. For better or for worse, I realized from that book what a profound effect self-image can have.

There have been other self-help books with similar effects. I was later impressed by Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and later by James Allen’s classic book As a Man Thinketh. Each of these has had its impact.

Perhaps not surprisingly, some of these books have appeared in General Conference in one form or another. As I mentioned above, I was surprised to find that then-Apostle Heber J. Grant quoted about half his April 1914 conference talk from a self-help book by the President of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, entitled The Strength of Being Clean, which sought to demonstrate the power of moral cleanliness (in the classic sense, not just the sexual sense). Other conference speakers also quoted Jordan, and James Allen has also frequently found his way into conference talks. I’m sure other self-help books have also.

Even in college I was introduced to similar books. There I read Man’s Search for Meaning, which had as strong an impact as any of the others, if not more. Likewise, Mary Catherine Bateson’s book Composing a Life had a huge impact, as I realized the value of flexibility and adapting life to circumstances that are almost always beyond our control. Later I was assigned to read much of M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled—which I probably wouldn’t have read without the assignment because I had become much more cynical about self-help books by this time.

I don’t know if I’m still cynical about self-help books. Given my own experience, I do think that they have their value, a value that can be very formative and very helpful in figuring out how to look at life. But I also think that caution is often worthwhile. I’m not convinced that everything these books say is correct, and I often have the feeling that their answers are a little too pat. Today there are so many self-help books that I feel like Joseph Smith felt about the multitude of religions around him: “What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” (Joseph Smith—History, v10) Perhaps citing that story gives an answer as to how to resolve the question.

Still, the similarity to Joseph Smith’s situation is another reason for my skepticism — they tread in an area that borders on religion, and seems to regularly cross over into religion, which may be part of the reason that some self-help books can have such power. Because of that power, I think that I need to study each of these books carefully to see if they are really compatible with my religious beliefs before I accept what they say, at least in those areas where they come close to religion. As a result, I remain somewhat of a skeptic, yet glad for much of the influence I’ve received from some of these books.

I present all this as kind of a tribute to Bro. Covey. He didn’t write scripture, but (with the possible exception that some of what he wrote might be perverted as seeking after mammon), I do think that his writings by and large were helpful and led many to live more righteous lives.

In response, and perhaps also in tribute, I’d love to hear what books in this genre have influenced you for the better (no financial books, please) or what value or  lack of value you see in self-help books. Please be specific and rational — I’ll delete diatribes against self-help books that don’t contain reasoned arguments against them. Even if you dislike Bro. Covey, that kind of disrespect isn’t necessary and won’t be tolerated. Instead, make a reasoned case for or against these books or tell us what books have influenced you.

I think the best tribute is something that leads to improving the lives of others. Let’s do that.


41 comments for “On Stephen Covey and Self-help Books

  1. I’d like to say that I’m not a huge fan of self-help books in general. A lot of them are awfully silly.

    That said, I read Seven Habits once several years ago, and my husband and I still quote it to each other at least weekly. So maybe there is something to it . . .

    When we were in college and starting our first business, I did a lot of reading on the business end of the self-help genre (stuff like The E-Myth, The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs, and even The Mormon Way of Doing Business). In fact, after reading Tribal Leadership, I wrote my own little mini-self-help-book (i.e. blog post) about our company’s core values: From Zappos to XUBI.

    The business eventually failed, but we still have the core values up on our wall at home. Writing core values was a corny, self-helpish thing to do, but it was something I did at a very formative time in my life, and it helped me to really clarify my beliefs. So I guess maybe I’m a self-help books snob, but ultimately sometimes do find them to be, well, helpful.

  2. I’m temperamentally opposed to the genre. But a good friend with no spiritual leanings had the first spiritual experience of his life after picking up 7 Habits. He stopped drinking, got married, etc. So I have to think there’s something to them.

  3. My friend joined the Church and then read Covey’s book 7 habits and promptly quit the Church as result. He later rejoined and is now a Bishop

  4. As I said in the op, I’m also skeptical of self-help books. But I suspect that its kind of like the market for Mormon fiction — so much isn’t very good that the few good books are lost.

    Even more reason why indicating the good books is worthwhile.

  5. whizzband (3) that practically begs for an explanation. Was it Covey’s book that made him leave? Or was that a coincidence?

    I can see how 7 Habits might come across as not very appealing for many people — it makes it seem like the only good life is one that is very goal-focused and type-A personality.

    But leaving the Church over 7 Habits is a little like leaving the U.S. over country music — they’re related, but one doesn’t require the other.

  6. I have always turned my nose up at self-help books. But one day I was at a friend’s house and perused her copy of a Dave Ramsey book. (I hope I am not violating your rule on financial books–I think this is different because it is ‘get out of debt’ not ‘get rich,’ but you can delete my comment if you want.)

    Me: “This is all so . . . obvious. Who doesn’t know this stuff?
    Her: “You’d be surprised.”

    And it occurred to me that maybe people who have gaps in their training to be a functional middle-class American do find new info in these books. And so I’ve tried not to be so critical since then.

  7. @7-All I know is getting a call from him saying he read it and that he was leaving the Church and what do you say in those situations? It was my surprise sometime later that he came back to Church and rejoined and I haven’t ever talked to him about it since

  8. “And it occurred to me that maybe people who have gaps in their training to be a functional middle-class American do find new info in these books.”

    I enjoy Dave Ramsey, and I don’t consider myself to be one of those benighted “people who have gaps in their training to be a functional middle-class American.” Even if you are fortunate enough to be “functional”, most of these books have some way of looking at things that will be new to you (even Dave Ramsey: I bet he knows more about investing than you do). Covey’s “First seek to understand, then to be understood” may be elementary, but I wasn’t doing it before I read his book, and I found it very helpful. In another venue, “Lengthen your stride” is hardly revolutionary, but many people find it a useful and inspired proverb. Same with President Hinckley’s Six Be’s.

  9. MC, I think you point out a snobby edge to my comment that I hadn’t intended. We all have gaps of various sorts and books that I have read about foster parenting or grieving or parenting difficult children could be considered self-help.

    You raise another interesting issue: Is the “Six Be’s” or other works by a prophet self-help? Or is there a different genre there?

    Other issues I have with self-help: the guru thing and the marketing thing. I think too often the personality of the author becomes the focus and not the ideas. And sometimes the marketing dept. makes comically ridiculous claims and then sells a 2K package of books, DVDs, etc.

  10. “You raise another interesting issue: Is the ‘Six Be’s’ or other works by a prophet self-help? Or is there a different genre there?”

    I would say it’s different enough to be another genre, but the line between “gospel” truths and just plain truth is always blurry. See Proverbs, Book of. Not sure if you’ve ever read any Covey, but non-Mormons who follow it will be following far more of Mormonism than they know. And if you read Dave Ramsey, he often interjects some explicitly Christian principles, appropriately in my opinion.

  11. I spent thousands of dollars on self help books. They made me feel good, but I did not get any real help from them. One night my family talked late into the night about self help books and came to the conclusion that all we really need is to pray and have the Spirit of the Holy Ghost with us and we would receive all the help we need to reach our full potential. I still firmly believe that.

  12. The very existence of self-help books is an argument against the genre. I would place Frankl and Allen in a different category, but I would argue that the founders of modern psychology, as well as the self-help gurus that followed, actually did much to create the problems they purport to solve, because they invented a need where there wasn’t one before, kind of like the Bloggernacle. That’s good marketing, and I like the Love Languages books as much as the next person, but in my opinion, the self-help genre simply fills the void that is left behind when the word of God and the best books are extracted. By that same reasoning, I would include The Hunger Games and Harry Potter in the category of self-help. My favorite self-help book to date though has been Nibley’s Approaching Zion.

  13. amazing. Ziggy Switkowski the CEO of Telstra Australia, when I worked there (until 2001) made everyone who worked there read The 7 Habits. ( I did not but I am counter Intuitive,,,Now I wonder whether he is Mormon, how would I find out ?) I am easily bored and so self help books are not for me alas but all things considered i would need all the help I could ever get …so ..I am truly missing out…while I get by with a little help from my friends…I would LOVE to believe there is such a thing as a functioning middle american. remember only 1% of Americans really function they are not MIDDLE they are the rich and Romney is one of them.
    Whizz we ALL want to know what happened with the non active/active reader of 7 habits so please talk to him. is it a taboo subject ?

  14. @13-I don’t see him regularly but I will see what info I can get from him when I see him!

  15. I’ve never been able to get past halfway through 7 Habits. On the other hand, one if the books I took with me on my missiin was Covey’s Spiritual Roots if Human Relations. It is aimed at Latter-day Saints, and contains a more unified worldview than 7 Habits, tying behavior to our theology. It offered models for behavior that were identified as being consistent with following Christ. I prefer a unifying picture that then derives behavioral advice.

  16. I would not really classify “Seven Habits” a self-help book. It has been a long time since I read it, so I have forgotten much of what was in it but some things have stuck.

    Covey built an empire on business consultation. The book was the foundation of that empire. It was intended to teach people how to run a business. It was only coincidentally used as self help. The book was organized into two parts, the first part dealt with the things which the individual should fix before trying to run an organization, the second part was about the things external to the individual necessary to run the organization.

    What particularly impressed me was the idea that you had to have achieved personal success before one could really manage a group of high achievers. The implication was that the individual should not be in competition with his/her employees and would be able to give credit where it was due.

    His book was about the celestial business model. I saw a case study film where his seven habits met reality. With real people there is too much jealousy and envy and competition to allow this business model to work well. I learned just enough to wish, in every company I ever worked at, that the management were even worthy of the terrestrial kingdom.

  17. Why not the Seven Steps to Salvation, or the Thirteen Steps to the Celestial Kingdom? Instead of lessons in church we could have Power Point presentations… Sorry, sometimes the whole self-help idea makes me nauseous.

  18. I really think some of you are reacting to the worst of this kind of book. Try Allen’s “As a Man Thinketh” — you can read it for free, since its in the public domain (Here’s a link to the Project Gutenberg version — http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/4507 there are others).

    The problem with so many of current self help books and their presentation is that they are oriented to the very materialistic views of the world today. Not every book in this category is meant that way or can be taken that way.

  19. I think the problem with self help books is that people start reading them when they are already almost beyond help. its like with Noah, you build the arc BEFORE it rains.

  20. When I read of his death, I felt guilty. Because in the last twenty years (or so), I’ve thought he’d gone a little crazy with the goal setting. My copy of his book is heavily underlined and I can still recall certain words of wisdom. I think it was a good and wise book. But I also think the heavy focus on perfection probably did more harm than good for a lot of people. I picked it up and tried to re-read it a couple months ago and just couldn’t. I think he was a good man who did a lot of good, and based on the obituary in our local paper, will be terribly missed by his family and friends. But I don’t embrace his ideas wholeheartedly or raise him to the level of deity. I heard a joke in AA once that you could tell the addicts in the bookstore because they’d be at the self-help aisle.

  21. “you could tell the addicts in the bookstore because they’d be at the self-help aisle.”

    Is that because they are looking for help for their addiction? Or because self-help IS their addiction? [GRIN – please don’t take offense anyone!!]

  22. I devoured self-help books when I was young. But then I got frustrated with them.

    They present their case studies in total isolation, which is far from how I encounter my problems in real life. Then, when they offer their wise solutions, they make it sound as if their case study people never had any problems at all after that.

    Also, after you’ve read a few, how do you blend one book’s 7 Habits with another’s 5 Things to Remember with yet another’s 8 Commandments of . . .?

    Having said all that, I will add that my husband, who’s pretty much a scriptures-are-everything kind of guy, finally studied Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends . . .” He concluded that “the scriptures don’t have everything we need. Sometimes we just need things spelled out a little more, or demonstrated in practical situations.”

  23. Well said, greedy reader. There is value in self-help books, but their value is constrained by the limitations of the genre. I once had to read “Think and Grow Rich,” which I assumed would be a paean to greed. I was surprised to learn that it’s more complicated than that. “Think and Grow Rich” is cluttered with a fixation on money and various kinds of pop psychology mumbo-jumbo, but at its core is the message that you accomplish things through honesty, effort, and other ancient virtues associated with good character. That’s not a bad message.

    But all self-help books, including Covey’s and Allen’s and Carnegie’s, are far too simple, so they don’t really satisfy a reader. There’s much more to life (and more to being “highly effective”) than seven habits or any of the other neatly-wrapped nuggets of wisdom that these books present. I don’t think Covey would disagree with that. The problem is that the genre has no space to deal with the complications of real life. The point of self-help books is to get people to do something, not to get people to think about the difficulties of doing something.

    It’s good to find the value in Covey’s books. Then you ought to spend a lot more time with the writers who grapple with life’s rich complexities. That’s what makes great literature deeply satisfying.

  24. Here are my two or three cents’ worth:

    1. I roll my eyes whenever the name “Covey” is invoked in Sacrament Meeting. Not that I don’t like his stuff (I love his Six Events book, the last he wrote for an LDS audience), but I don’t care for the way some people in our ward treat him like a guru or a prophet. He was a teacher and a businessman with some very good ideas. His Seven Habits book has been called the “Fifth Beatle of the Standard Works”, and I have seen it treated that way in the Church.

    2. I find it interesting that 7 Habits was (coincidentally) published about the same time as Approaching Zion, thus setting up what could be seen as a rivalry of sorts. Can anyone imagine two people more opposite in personality and philosophy than Covey and Nibley? (For what it’s worth, I’m more in the “Nibley Camp”.)

    3. I think some of the self-help literature has its place, as long as it is evaluated in the light of what scripture says. If something helps us to use our agency appropriately (as much of the Positive Psychology-based literature does), then I believe it is worthwhile. (I also put Psycho-Cybernetics in that category.) However, if it espouses materialistic goals, an “anything goes” philosophy , or delves into Law of Attraction nonsense (beware the Hicks and “Abraham”), then I avoid it. (And as an aside, am I the only one who is finding that the books in both the Religion and Business sections of the bookstore are resembling those in the Self-Help section more and more?)

    I treat self-help literature like the Apocrypha: containing much truth and wisdom, but also containing enough error to warrant discernment, and certainly no substitute for the Scriptures.

  25. Yes, TLP. When you said “limitations of genre,” it made me think of moving on to literature. After all, many beloved quotes are pulled straight out of the great books and speeches of our cultural canon.

  26. Greedy reader (25), I’m afraid even in our cultural cannon we will get those who object. If the work is not written by Mormons you will have some Mormons suspicious of the work — and they don’t always jive with our values or ways of looking at the world.

    But, if the work is fiction by a Mormon, you get a whole other string of objections — because no work of Mormon literature can possibly be any good. [commenters here on T&S have said as much.]

    I don’t think that going outside of self-help books will solve much, other than get a little more consensus while often increasing the amount of controversy.

    What can you do?

  27. Allright! I emailed my friend about why he left the church and Covey’s book. We have a mutual friend named Ben and he introduced my friend to the gospel and within a month of meeting with the elders he was baptized. Turns out he really didn’t know what he was agreeing to and felt rushed through the process of joining the Church. So after his baptism he read Covey’s book and the seek first to understand and then be understood struck a chord with him as he felt he was steamrolled and wanted to gain his composure. To do that he quit the Church. He didn’t say if he resigned or not but he just felt used and walked all over and this book helped him to get back on his feet and gain some sense of control back in his life. Sometime later he read in the NT about giving your life to Christ and you’ll find it and he rejoined or re-signed (he just said he came back) and later served a mission and is now a Bishop. Great guy

  28. “Other issues I have with self-help: the guru thing and the marketing thing. I think too often the personality of the author becomes the focus and not the ideas. And sometimes the marketing dept. makes comically ridiculous claims and then sells a 2K package of books, DVDs, etc.”

    True dat.

    Still, I like self-help books because I feel like there is a benefit of seeing good and true principles put in different language and different contexts. As someone with a background in psychology and organizational behavior, I find it fascinating to see how truth resonates with people and how they choose to explain it. And sometimes how truth is explained by someone else invites me to engage gospel truth with a lens that is both more broadened and more focused. I’d disagree a bit that the scriptures don’t have everything — I think it’s just that we don’t yet see everything that is there, and “Sometimes we just need things spelled out a little more, or demonstrated in practical situations.” Truth is truth, no matter where it’s found. For me, when I see patterns of truth in non-religious content, it only reinforces the power of truth and of the reality of the Light of Christ at work. God loves all His children and I feel He’s at work giving light to those who seek it.

    The challenge, of course, is being able to skip over stuff that is more personal opinion or marketing schtuff or whatever…to not end up replacing His light with some other mixture of light and fluff.

    A few books I have liked:
    Anatomy of Peace
    Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
    Seven Habits had a real impact on me in my earlier young adult years(and Seven Habits for Families later on — that one was amazing, at least for me at the time I read it; it’s been a few years)

    I also like non-fiction books like The Hiding Place that to me are a sort of self-help genre all their own. That book was amazing.

  29. Kent 21 i LIKE it. Whizz 27. that is very interesting, i wonder why missionaries do that. I told them from the start I will wait AT THE VERY LEAST 6 months until I make a final decision and now I am happy with being baptized but all along they tried to make me get baptized earlier…thankfully I do not listen usually to other people…plus I wanted to be baptized outdoors in the ocean so June was still rather cold out here in the pacific northwest.

  30. I don’t care what anyone says, “7 Habits ” changes my life. Covey was valid then and now. He chained the way we look at communication both personally and professionally.

    If you wanna see outdated, watch Wayne Dyer’s current stuff on PBS. Cheezy, morally relative drivel.

    Covey is still valid, whether anyone appreciates him or not.

  31. glass ceiling saying that 7 habits is a tool to improve the quality of interpersonal communication in my view is spot on. much more so that it could ever have been a self help book a la Robbins the Walking on Hot Coals man

  32. Christine,

    Thanks. And the Tony Robbins comment is appropoe, appropreaux, appro… (I just can’t spell that word.) And they are still calling Mormons weird.

    Back to Wayne Dyer … I saw him on PBS tell a crowd recently, “You are God.” Not “You are Gods,” but “God.” Big difference. And then he backed it up with his magnanimously deep, paternal voice, lots of long pauses and contemplative looks…and precious little else. His irrelevance was…profound. I was moved by it. :)

  33. a propos. its kind of a french import hence the weird spelling. i do think there are weird mormons. they are the WM tribe. countless examples are usually given at relief society socials where people tell us from wards far away which they have been exposed to. haha Wayne the Deep Doctrine guy !

  34. Aah-ProPoe. By Kennel-Ration*.

    Mormons ARE weird. That’s why I like them. Some of them. Ok, 7 of them.

  35. A pro po : a person skilled at poverty.

    (I know this was one too many. But it couldn’t be stopped. )

  36. Funny you should ask. A couple of years ago I made a list of books that I’d read over the past 30 years that had taught me something about living life and that I was grateful to have stumbled across and read.
    They are not all excellent tomes nor classics. But each one had something that I was better for having read.

    Here’s the list,if you are interested, in the general order in which I recall having read them. Per your request I’ve edited out the two financial titles, one of which was a Dave Ramsey.

    The Great Divorce–C.S. Lewis
    Man’s Search for Meaning–Victor Frankl
    Couples–Carlfred Broderick
    One Flesh, One Heart–Carlfred Broderick
    Believing Christ–Stephen Robinson
    For the Love of Children–Edward E. Ford and Steven Englund
    How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk–Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
    Siblings Without Rivalry: how to help your children live together so you can live too–Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
    My Parents Married on a Dare–Carlfred Broderick
    Plain and Simple: a journey to the Amish–Sue Bender
    Feeling Good: the new mood therapy–David Burns
    Christlike Parenting–Glenn Latham
    Celebration of Discipline: the path to spiritual growth–Richard J. Foster
    Counseling With Our Counsels–M. Russell Ballard
    What Paul Really Said About Women–John Temple Bristow
    Real Love in Marriage–Greg Baer

  37. Great list, MB. A lot of Broderick. I think he is one of those influential Mormons that is often neglected or forgotten because he wasn’t a GA.

  38. I recall Pres. Kimball’s talk in 1976 titled “The False gods we Worship.” I think of that talk often when I think about those LDS who spend so much time with self-help books that the scriptures and words of living prophets are thrust to the back of the bus.

    While helpful, it is very easy for these self-help materials to supersede or replace Gospel teachings. The term “philosophies of men mingled with scripture” comes to mind as I reflect on how seriously one should take self-help books.

    These materials are written by fallible, error-prone human beings. “Sophistry” is material which appears to be true and solid but is not when compared against the framework of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    That said, there’s excellent, practical advise in Covey’s “7 Habits” which I find very useful like “be proactive,” “begin with the end in mind” and “sharpen the saw.”

    I suppose my recommendation and conclusion would be to weigh what one reads against the principles of the Gospel.

    I have held in high esteem Nibley’s “Approaching Zion” — not as a self-help book but as a mind/soul-stretching work.

  39. you talked me into it Lyle, i just used all my points (3000) on amazon to purchase “Approaching Zion”. i have been wanting to order anything by Nibley. “Approaching Zion” has awesome reviews …

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