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Stephen Covey and the Buddha in his closet

Published: Friday 03 Sep 2021 | Edited: Tuesday 07 Sep 2021

Listen, I'm not trying to turn this into a book club blog, but the shit I'm reading is driving me crazy.

I've started on some management self-help stuff. I've always rolled my eyes at that whole genre in the past, but I'm about to lead a three year research project at work with a team of five other people, and I have basically no professional management experience. So, best I can do is read for the next couple months.

Being basic af, I just downloaded the first thing that showed up on Google for books on management which is, of course, Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. If you've never read this book, here's a summary:
The book has some genuinely great advice, I assume. I don't have contact with CEOs or Harvard people or anything, but I'd imagine that "effective" people really do have to manage time and priorities well. I doubt that the soft skills and personal life balance are as essential for many kinds of success.

Probably great skills to master. I've got a couple I'm going to try out.

What really struck me about this book was how Covey's personal, internal constructions shine through it.

First off, for every habit and skill, there are business examples, and there are family examples. The family stories range from annoying (I didn't pick up a management book to apply principles to my spouse and kids) to creepy as hell. Covey appears to view all things in his life using the same framework: there are outcomes and goals that he can define, then he systematically pursues them using the same basic principles. This includes the habits, attitudes, and values of his kids and his wife.

At the end of the day, all the personal and family stuff just feels preachy. And I hate that shit. It's a muscle Mormons get exercised on at least a weekly basis: "helping" others by telling them what's best for them in their personal life. For someone like me, Daniel Plainview's reaction seems reasonable, at least emotionally:

On the topic of Covey's faith, I see something at work in the book, that I haven't heard anyone else comment on. There's a battle raging between the expression of two religious ideologies: Mormonism and Buddhism.

Covey's whole framework is based on a certain progression of modes:
  1. Dependence: you begin your life with a complete reliance on others. You lack confidence and the ability to direct yourself and care for yourself. Lowest mode.
  2. Independence: you can take care of yourself and work alone with little direction. A much higher mode of living than the first, some people don't ever really arrive here.
  3. Interdependence: the highest mode of living. You have the skills to be independent, but you also recognize the truth that you are the result of many causes and conditions outside of yourself. Working in this mode aligns you to the essential interdependent nature of the real world and allows for deep connection, collaboration, and — fuck me for saying it — synergy.

Covey gets into interdependence right from the jump. It kinda blew me away, because interdependence is a concept provided by and explored deeply in Buddhism. If you follow the thread on interdependence, you get to emptiness, which is a hell of a concept, that is not compatible at all with Christianity, as far as I understand it. You can listen to Thích Nhất Hạnh describe it, if you want, and you can even skip the dumbass musical intro of the video if you follow the link.

In his only direct reference to Buddhism, Covey calls out "the middle way." He describes it as a synonym of his win-win approach to business; which, I think (1) completely misses the point of that teaching, and (2) is a lazy lift of a deep concept to make a schlocky self-help paragraph sound more interesting than it is.

And, finally, in an initially cryptic, but ultimately obvious reference to the teachings of the Buddha... I'll just quote it:

We lived for a full year in Laie on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii.

Shortly after getting settled, we developed a living and working routine which was not only very productive but extremely pleasant.

After an early morning run on the beach, we would send two of our children, barefoot and in shorts, to school. I went to an isolated building next to the cane fields where I had an office to do my writing. It was very quiet, very beautiful, very serene -- no phone, no meetings, no pressing engagements.

My office was on the outside edge of the college, and one day as I was wandering between stacks of books in the back of the college library, I came across a book that drew my interest. As I opened it, my eyes fell upon a single paragraph that powerfully influenced the rest of my life.

I read the paragraph over and over again. It basically contained the simple idea that there is a gap or a space between stimulus and response, and that the key to both our growth and happiness is how we use that space.

I can hardly describe the effect that idea had on my mind. Though I had been nurtured in the philosophy of self-determinism, the way the idea was phrased -- "a gap between stimulus and response" -- hit me with fresh, almost unbelievable force. It was almost like "knowing it for the first time," like an inward revolution, "an idea whose time had come."

I reflected on it again and again, and it began to have a powerful effect on my paradigm of life. It was as if I had become an observer of my own participation. I began to stand in that gap and to look outside at the stimuli. I reveled in the inward sense of freedom to choose my response -- even to become the stimulus, or at least to influence it -- even to reverse it.

He then launches into a kind of cringe-ass story about how he began to patronize his wife in a new way after that insight. That is all this MF says about the book.

Okay, whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa.


Hold up.

You're telling me, Stephen R. Covey, that you experienced one of the transformative experiences of your life? And it was in a paragraph you read in a book? Like, it was a book in a library, so it wouldn't be some handwritten scroll inaccessible outside of that library. You could tell us the title of the book. Like, couldn't you tell us what the book was about?

Why would you relay a story like that — one that is obviously not just foundational to your life and the point you're trying to make with your story, but also is a major underlying pillar of the paradigm you have condensed into a self-help book that we are now reading — why would you tell that story, and then not even say what the book was about?

I'll tell you what the paragraph was about, even if Covey didn't/wouldn't. It was about mindfulness. It was from Buddhism.

And I've got my thoughts about why he didn't say. More on that.

What Covey does not leave vague is the fact that he is a true-blue, Mormon-Jesus-fearing Mormon. He quotes LDS church leaders like it's goin' outta style. Sometimes he cites them as "religious leaders" and other times he just drops them in. Right before the "book story" he plops down an Ezra Taft Benson beat about Christ taking the slums out of people. He also has a couple references to the importance of keeping covenants and teaching people about Heavenly Father and shit.

I imagine as a normal person, you'd just read that and go,

What is this guy talking about?

Or maybe

Hmm seems like this guy is religious.

But when you read it with a background in Mormonism, you realize this he's packing a self-help book with a lot of Latter-day Saint content.

And God bless him. As an active Mormon, there is no more highly reinforced behavior than using the existing institutions and activities of your life to preach the word. I'm sure, whether he shared these thoughts or not, Covey spent many a Sunday school in church sitting smugly whenever the topic of evangelism came up, knowing he had done his part to plant the seeds of faith in Jesus and the Book of Mormon by sneaking parts of them in to his wildly popular best selling work.

At the same time, I sense conflict.

From my reading, the Mormon material is peppered into 7 Habits in a highly irregular, haphazard way — as frequent as it is. Nothing about Mormonism or Mormon doctrine is deeply integrated to Covey's framework, though. It exists at the level of examples and applications.

Buddhism, on the other hand, is core to the framework. The concept of interdependence precedes the habits. It permeates the work. The listening technique he espouses is deeply dialectical and Buddhist. Remove Mormonism, and you need to update sentences. Remove Buddhism, and you've taken out the basis for half the book.

And I think that's why Covey doesn't say what he read in the library. Because he knew that the great shift he experienced, that led him to the insights that drove the development and publication of this book, did not find itself in his inherited, ingrained faith. He had already used up the direct Buddhist reference with "the middle way" thing. Couldn't have the boys thinking he was getting into that godless Eastern stuff. Better to just share the principle than distract us away from Christ's light by talking more about this Buddha guy.

Tragically, Covey died in 2012 from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident. The Economist eulogized him that year and wrote:

He was ... guided by his Mormon faith. He went to Britain as a missionary when he was 20, and preached on street corners. “It helped me learn how to speak in public and interact with an audience,” he recalled. He drew crowds in their hundreds, a feat Mitt Romney, now the Republican contender for the White House, never equalled as a Mormon missionary in France. The seven habits are essentially a secular distillation of Mormon teaching, says Clayton Christensen, a Harvard management guru and a Mormon, written for anyone regardless of “which sort of God you believe in or whether you even believe in God”. (This has made it an easier sell to corporate buyers than “The Purpose-Driven Life” by Rick Warren, a more explicitly Christian bestseller.) What set Mr Covey apart from other management thinkers, says Mr Christensen, is that “he lived the life he wrote about. He had a conviction that came from experience.”

Well, Clayton, believe what you want. From now on, when I think of Covey, I don't think of him as a Mormon. I see him sitting cross-legged on a beach in Oahu. Empty of self. Full of the universe. Too embarrassed to admit it.