College is a transitional time for almost everyone. It’s a place where you are supposed to find yourself, decide on a future, and figure out who you are as independent adult. You as a student know that and your parents, bosses, and professors are also well aware. In an effort to push you in the right direction, you should expect to receive a self-help book from some other adult present in your life sometime (beginning, middle, or end) during your higher education experience to provide the “answer” to being the most successful you you can possibly be. The book (or books depending on how much help people think you need) gives you a set of rules and/or a path to follow for you to reach your highest potential. Rather than teaching you how to define your own rules, the message is “You should be doing x,y, and z or you’re not going anywhere.”
Well, in my last semester of college, I had a professor require three of these self help books for class as a lesson that personal management is a metaphor for organizational management in business. I had to read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, and The 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management by Hyrum W. Smith. Not to offend any ardent and loyal supporters of these books and books like these (including friends, family, future co-workers, and/or professors), but these have to be the most discouraging, uninspiring books I have ever read about living up to my ultimate potential for success. Breaking it down by each book let me explain to you why:
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Let me just start off by saying, that if you think this is a book to teach you how to manipulate others, like I did, then you will be very disappointed when you read it. In fact, I strongly believe Carnegie made the title of the book purposefully misleading so that people might actually buy it. In reality, Carnegie believes that avoiding conflict by any means necessary is the key to getting people to like you. In each principle, he steers you away from confronting a problem by encouraging you to focus only on the positives. He says things like the only way to win an argument is to avoid it and save face with the people around you, and the best way to motivate people to do better is to avoid highlighting any negative aspects. Now I’m not saying that there isn’t a time and place to do all of those things, but Carnegie insists that these principles are absolute and should be followed at all costs, which couldn’t be more wrong. Avoiding conflict does not resolve it. Choosing to focus on other things besides the root of the problem only delays a resolution. His expectation that you should just train yourself to genuinely like everyone with whom you interact and by doing so, you will never have to deal with conflict. Well in a perfect world, yes, that would be an excellent suggestion. And you should absolutely strive to see the good in everyone and be sure to highlight positive things over the negative. However, it’s unrealistic to set that as your only method of interacting with people. There is nothing wrong with confrontation of ideas and public discourse. Ancient greek rhetoricians and philospohers were going on about it centuries ago. Carnegie is asking people to defy a basic instinct to voice an opinion or acknowledge anything negative, and to do so genuinely (otherwise then it would be manipulation), as the best way to win friends and influence people. If you could genuinely agree with every person you meet, you would no doubt be able to win friends and influence people, but the fact is, you can’t. His ideas are for a theoretical world, and his advice and opinions should be considered as such.
This one was probably my least favorite by far, and I could go on about all the other aspects of the book that I hated, like how it was incredibly sexist and geared towards white american salesmen, but I’ll stick with aspects of the message itself and not flaws in Carnegie’s writing style fitting to the intended audience.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
This book and the rest of his 7 Habits franchise are incredibly popular, so I realize my opinion may not be a popular one, so sorry in advance for any feathers I may ruffle. This is the book that made me feel the most discouraged while reading it, which is probably why I hated it so much, so I’m acknowledging the opinion definitely has some emotional bias. During the introducition, Covey makes it clear that these habits are sequential and you have to master the first before moving on to the second; and only after you master the first three habits, achieving a victory within yourself, can you have the ability to conquer the last habits. So taking that in mind, before actually knowing what those were, I was hoping I would have the first three habits down. Well the first three habits are: be proactive, begin with the end in mind, and put first things first. I can say after reading it, I don’t even think I have the first one down. Being proactive is not just having foresight to make decisions for your future (which is what I thought it would mean), but actually being able to believe in the power to choose your emotions. I’m not saying anyone has the right to blame others for any situational discomfort he or she might be in, but I do think being happy takes a little more work than just saying “I want to be happy”, which was the message I was getting from the first habit. Already feeling a little disappointed, the second habit is really where I lost all hope. Covey emphasized that you should know what you want out of life before you really get started working towards a goal. Well as a 20 year old college senior, I have no idea what I ultimately want out of life, and this made me question and doubt the value of everything I have worked for. It really only got worse as I seemed to be farther and farther away from each habit as I kept reading, and by the time I had finished, I felt like the least effective person on the planet. Even though I have so much going for me because of the hard work that I’ve put in, I felt inadequate because I didn’t fit Stephen Covey’s cookie cutter mold of what it means to be on the path to success. This is why I don’t like this book. There is an overall tone of authority from Covey throughout the book which says: If you want to be successful, this is how you need to do it. This is what people do, and if you don’t fit this, then you aren’t successful. I don’t think this is true at all. I don’t think you need to have a clear direction and picture of where your life should take you to end up in the best place. To me, that doesn’t sound like success or happiness, that sounds predictable and unrealistic. As much as he preaches having complete control over your life, it’s unrealistic. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to take responsibility and control over what’s happening in your life, but it’s foolish to ignore the certainty that life will throw you curveballs, you couldn’t have possibly planned for.
The 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management by Hyrum W. Smith
This book might as well be called 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Reworded so That I Can Make Money Too. I had the same problems with this book as I did with Stephen Covey’s book about this central idea that you can’t do anything fulfilling unless you know exactly who you are and what your purpose is. But this book in particular also emphasizes my point that these authors think they have come up with the one and only magic formula for reaching your fullest potential and without it, you won’t get there. Hyrum Smith calls his principles (which are actually Covey’s Habits) NATURAL LAWS. He equates the certainty of his ideas to the certainty of the laws of physics. I don’t believe there is anything other than death that is of 100% certainty when it comes to human behavior. While there may be trends or theories among different groups of people, the diversity of the world and the people living in it, tell us that there is no one size fits all way to live your life.
Recommendations When Reading These Books and Others Like It
As much as I’ve bashed on all three of these books, I would still recommend that people read them. Whether I agreed with what they said or not, it forced me to do some serious self-reflection about what I want, where I am in life, and how okay I am with both of those. However, unlike me, I encourage you to spend little to no time upset that you aren’t as effective or successful in personal life management as you thought, using their principles as metrics. You should also be aware that these landmark books on which many other self-help books are based were written by white males. Whether you like it or not, this makes a huge difference even today. The bottom line and my whole point for writing this blog is that the rules of the game we call LIFE are not the same for every one. While Stephen Covey, Hyrum Smith, and Dale Carnegie have had the ability to exert nearly total control over their ability to be successful, that cannot be said for everyone. There are different habits to being effective and different laws of successful time and life management and different ways to influence others unique to you and the role you play in this world. When you read these books, don’t be afraid or discouraged that you are following a different set of rules. It’s what makes things interesting.