I know many of you will be familiar with the best-selling personal development and business book by Richard Covey, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’.
I have enjoyed reading, studying and acting from this book, even though I haven’t yet fully digested every section. I am also aware that a book like this, culturally very American, is a product of a neoliberal capitalist culture which emphasizes personal agency in making change (change for self and community) at the expense of systemic forces of oppression which work against some individuals, for instance those in marginalised minority groups.
Nevertheless, the genre of self-development literature, often overlapping with entrepreneurial and business literature, can be utilised to serve activism and the overcoming of systemic oppression and injustice in society. At least as a privileged white, middleclass, (sort of) male activist, I can utilise and subvert lessons from self-development literature which afterall, on a personal level (the level of the author) often comes from a very noble and empathic place (we can say this much about Richard Covey). We can still acknowledge that there are unexamined prejudices and privilege dynamics in any author, including myself.
In Covey’s book he argues that we must make traits, attitudes and behaviours of personal excellence habitual, if they are to have any effect. For this post I would just like to concentrate on Covey’s first habit which is deceptively simple: ‘Be proactive’. The most ‘successful’ people (successful personally, in community, in business etc) Covey argues are ‘proactive’.
Covey explains this proactivity in various ways, including the suggestion to ‘always choose a positive response’ to a situation, including stimuli which are part of cycles of addiction. In the context of addiction this amounts to strengthening neural pathways by engaging in creative alternative behaviours in response to stimuli which usually bring about the addiction response. Thus we can see that fundamentally Covey believes in free will -our ability to choose to be better, to choose to grow and change.
The proactive person, Covey argues, has a large circle of influence and a small circle of concern, the latter being the arena of things that we worry about but do nothing to change; whereas the reactive person (that one who is always complaining) has a small circle of influence and a large circle of concern. I have found this model useful but it is simplistic and says nothing of the systematically oppressed person, for instance the drug addict who needs help but is criminalised, who has a small circle of influence, but may also have a small circle of concern, or may have a large circle of concern but because of systematic oppression linked to her gender, colour and background, finds it especially difficult to widen her circle of influence by ‘being more proactive’, as Covey would suggest she do.
Nevertheless, as a privileged activist I can be proactive to raise awareness, campaign and engage in direct actions, in ways which help to reduce the systematic oppression of others, not least by challenging moment by moment the complacent and sometimes addiction-forming responses I exhibit to certain stimuli which may reinforce my own privilege in an unhelpful way.
In a wide sense, we are a culture of addicts. In fact, addiction is at the core of neoliberalist capitalist economics: addiction to greed, addiction to wealth, addiction to status, addiction to beauty, addiction to materialism and addiction to power. Addiction to ‘making a name for onesself’, addiction to ‘being heard’ (by whatever media), addiction to the craving of acceptance by the prevailing society and its norms. Our addictions are fed by the marketing and advertising industries.
‘Proactive people make “love” a verb’ says Covey, whilst ‘reactive people make “love” a feeling’.
As activists, how can we develop the strength and consistency of active love required to raise awareness in ourselves to the height of understanding all our impulses and attitudes, and root out that which distances us from, by culturally raising us above, those that ‘the systems of our types’ (whether white, male, or comparatively wealthy or educated types) routinely oppress, including every non-human species upon this planet?
Breaking chains takes loving awareness, moment by moment.