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Habit 1: Be Proactive (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People)

Habit 1: Be Proactive

I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor. – Henry David Thoreau

Unless we think about how we see ourselves and others, we won’t understand how others see and feel about themselves and the world. The alternative is to project our intentions on their behavior and think we are being objective.

The Social Mirror

If we can only see ourselves through the social mirror, then our view of ourselves is like a “reflection in the crazy mirror room at the carnival.”

“You’re never on time.” “Why can’t you ever keep things in order?” “You must be an artist!” “You eat like a horse!” “I can’t believe you won!” “This is so simple. Why can’t you understand?”

These are projections, not reflections. They are the concerns and weaknesses of others, and not accurate representations of the accused.

There are three ways we think of human nature. Genetic determinism says that your grandparents are the reason you have your temper – that your qualities have been predetermined by your DNA. Psychic determinism says that its your parents who define you. They raised you, and the experienced you had in childhood shaped who you are. They explain your shyness or your guilt. Environmental determinism says that its your spouse, boss, or the economic situation. There is something in your environment, or several things that are responsible for your situation.

These ideas are based on the stimulus/response theory as is Pavlov’s experiments with dogs. The theory is that we behave in a particular way, depending on the particular stimulus. But are these accurate ways of seeing human nature?

Between Stimulus and Response

The story of Viktor Frankl shows us the opposite is true. Frankl, a psychologist raised in the Freudian tradition, believed in the power of determinism. That your childhood experiences shaped your character and personality. And that your potential was set. Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist who was imprisoned in the death camps in Nazi Germany, where he experiences the most atrocious forms of punishment imaginable. His parents, brother, and wife died in the camps. His entire family died, except for his sister.

“One day, naked and alone in a small room, he began to become aware of what he later called “the last of the human freedoms” — the freedom his Nazi captors could not take away. They could control his entire environment, they could do what they wanted to his body, but Viktor Frankl himself was a self-aware being who could look as an observer at his very involvement. His basic identity was intact. He could decide within himself how all of this was going to affect him.”

As he explained to his students after being released from the death camps, he learnt how to cultivate personal freedom from within. While the soldiers who were torturing him could manipulate the external world as they liked, he had the ability to control his thoughts and feelings, the internal world. He was inspiration, not only to his people, but even to some of the guards. He helped others find their own personal meaning, and find dignity the worst circumstances a human being could experience.

“Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.”

Our self-awareness and imagination make us uniquely human. Our conscience, and independent distinguish us from the most intelligent animals, who are programmed by instinct or training, but cannot be endowed with a sense of responsibility – they cannot become aware of their programming, let alone change it.

“Proactivity” Defined

In going beyond the basic definition of proactivity, Covey explains that proactivity is more than merely taking initiative, it implies that we are responsible for our own lives. That our decisions control our outcomes, that our conditions play a limited role. Highly proactive people recognize this fact, and do not blame circumstances for the way things are.

Reactive people are too influenced by their social environment. Their self-worth is based on feedback from others. They are at the mercy of the weaknesses of other people’s whims. If others are nice to them, they feel good. If others are mean to them, they become defensive.

Proactive people can subordinate an impulse to a value, and that is essentially what differentiates them from reactive people.

“Proactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Influence. They work on the things they can do something about. The nature of their energy is positive, enlarging and magnifying, causing their Circle of Influence to increase. Reactive people, on the other hand, focus their efforts in the Circle of Concern. They focus on the weakness of other people, the problems in the environment, and circumstances over which they have no control. Their focus results in blaming and accusing attitudes, reactive language, and increased feelings of victimization.”

Making and Keeping Commitments

It is essential to make and keep commitments that we make to ourselves and to others. They are the clearest manifestation of proactivity and the essence of growth. By using self-awareness and our conscience, we come to know our weaknesses and hidden strengths. As we make goals and reach them, we build the strength of our character.

“By making and keeping promises to ourselves and others, little by little, our honor becomes greater than our moods.”

At the very heart of our Circle of Influence is our ability to make and keep commitments and promises. The commitments we make to ourselves and to others, and our integrity in maintaining those commitments, is the essence and clearest manifestation of our proactivity.

“The fountain of content must spring up in the mind, and he who hath so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition, will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the grief he proposes to remove.” – Samuel Johnson

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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