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What Stephen Covey Taught Me About Work and Life

What Stephen Covey Taught Me About Work and Life


    My heart is heavy today. I just learned of the death of one of the most influential individuals in my life, a man who changed the way I think about the world and who guided me toward my current career as a workplace author, speaker, and consultant.

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    That man is Stephen Covey.

    I first came across his most famous work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, when I was researching my first book and was still struggling to succeed as a driven twenty-something in a complex business world.

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    Several years later, I would be thrilled to collaborate with Stephen on an article for the Wall Street Journal and a webinar I produced on career change.  He graciously wrote the forward for my third book, New Job, New You, and we then co-hosted two events to bring Stephen’s most important ideas to a new generation of professionals.  Throughout our relationship, I was in awe of Stephen’s wisdom and very grateful that he was willing to serve as a mentor to me.

    Stephen was turning 80 this year and I hoped he would have many years left to contribute plentifully to the field he pioneered decades ago.  But unfortunately, it was not meant to be.   As I remember him today, I thought I’d call out some of his lifehacks that resonated most with me:

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    Draw your big picture with a personal mission statement

    Too often, we drift through our lives like sailboats – meandering aimlessly from one thing to another. This is how I operated for my first few years out of college – until Stephen came into my life. He taught me to be purposeful about my life and work and to think hard about what I wanted to be (character), what I wanted to do (contributions), and the values I held dear. I have adjusted my personal mission statement over the years, but I’ve never forgotten about it. It’s my compass, and it reminds me where I’m going during bad days and setbacks.

    Act rather than be acted upon

    We are responsible for making things happen in our lives. If you wait around until the economy gets better or your kids are grown up to pursue your dream career, you may never get there. I used to complain that circumstances were preventing me from my goals, until Stephen showed me that I would be more successful if I focused on generating solutions rather than calling out problems.  And to this day, I try never to get stuck in what Dr. Seuss calls “the waiting place.”

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    Get people to cooperate through win/win

    People don’t care what you need to do – they want to know what’s in it for them. When you don’t have direct authority over people, think about what would make them want to do what you’re asking. By devising a win/win proposition, you get what you need and the other person gets what she needs. Everyone benefits and feels good about the interaction.

    Revitalize your life and work by sharpening the saw

    Stephen’s concept of taking time for self-renewal in times of stress and change is of particular importance today when the business world is tougher than ever. When you work so hard that you burn out, you’re not helping anyone. Thanks to Stephen’s influence, I have tried to lead a balanced life, carving out time for my physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual pursuits so that I bring my most authentic and effective self to my work.

    Thank you Stephen Covey for the difference you’ve already made and will continue to make in millions of lives. You will be missed.

    (Photo credit: Thinkers50.com)

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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