Why The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and other books on self-help, positive thinking, and homegrown theories of “excellence” are bad for you.

Required Reading

by Thomas Frank

Harper’s Magazine Easy Chair (June 2011)

Omar Khadr is a prisoner at Guantanamo who pleaded guilty last year to killing an American soldier in Afghanistan in 2002. His case was controversial because he was captured on the battlefield at age fifteen, making him a child soldier and therefore, by the conventional thinking on these matters, not responsible for his actions. His case has also drawn international attention because he is a Canadian citizen, and because allegations of torture have surfaced on several occasions. To make things even more fraught, there is his family background: Omar is the son of Ahmed Khadr, a well-known Al Qaeda fundraiser who was killed in a shootout with Pakistani security forces in 2003.

Thanks to a plea bargain, Omar Khadr will serve only eight more years behind bars, and most of those will probably be in Canada. In preparation for his eventual repatriation and release, his defense attorneys have been providing him with educational materials in order to bring him up to speed with his peer group. The texts deemed necessary for his reentry into Canadian society include Romeo and Juliet and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006).

Meanwhile, according to people familiar with Khadr’s case, American law-enforcement personnel have recommended a very different curriculum to ease his return to civil society. His required reading: Stephen R Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989).

I was unable to get those law-enforcement people to confirm or deny assigning Khadr the book. It is, we know, a popular item in the Guantanamo prison library, along with the Harry Potter series and various other titles chosen for their lack of graphic violence, sexual content, or descriptions of potential terrorist targets. Indeed, according to a Defense Department spokesperson, “approximately half of the [prison] population” has read Covey’s book.

Khadr is definitely among them. And regardless of whether it was assigned to him or not, I was struck by the idea of a Guantanamo prisoner reading one of the best-known titles in American management literature. In the genre of prison favorites, one thinks of Soul on Ice (1968) or In the Belly of the Beast (1981). But here we have a prisoner in one of the nation’s harshest lockups teaching himself to set goals, be proactive, and care about others. What use would a man living in such a place have for “win/win solutions” or “empathic listening”? And why, I wondered, would our government encourage a man many believe to be a terrorist to read a book that promises to make him more “effective”?

One obvious answer suggests itself: the process of “deradicalization”, which has so often been discussed in connection with Guantanamo detainees. In most cases, deradicalization is supposed to involve religious instruction emphasizing peacefulness, often administered by an Islamic cleric. But perhaps our counterterrorism strategists have discovered a secular counterpart for this exercise.

Just last year, in fact, Stephen Covey’s company, FranklinCovey, issued a monograph describing the book’s potential role in reforming incarcerated criminals. Once upon a time, it tells us, most prison reform programs were “faith-based”. Now the idea is to build them upon the rock of managerial science: prisoners will thereby learn valuable techniques for relating nonviolently to others, and after their release, they can discuss their “acquisition of a new mindset” with “a prospective employer”, presumably one familiar with Covey’s self-ameliorating gospel.

Should you peruse federal contracting databases, you will also find that FranklinCovey does a brisk business with the departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to wonder whether a DOD bureaucrat, at some FranklinCovey seminar over the past few years, decided that The Seven Habits would make an ideal twelve-step program to a jihad-free life.

Just for fun, let’s take as our hypothesis that The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is being used as a device for deradicalization – that it is seen, in some quarters, as a means to neutralize the nation’s enemies, to teach them the folly of their ways. It would not be the first time the United States used books for such purposes. During the Cold War, literature was constantly deployed to show the world that we were a people of taste and freedom and vanguardish ebullience, not the greedy philistines some imagined. The CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom operated in thirty-five countries, and underwrote intellectual journals in Britain, Australia, France, Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines. What’s more, the literary weapons of those days often bore the patina of genius. Say what you like about such deradicalizing artifacts as the 1950 anticommunist anthology The God That Failed, which was distributed far and wide courtesy of the CCF. At least it featured writing by people like Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright, Stephen Spender, and Andre Gide.

Today the Congress for Cultural Freedom is long gone. The public diplomacy that has taken its place is not a subtle thing. It is a matter of branding and spin and one blunder after another. In the years after the 9/11 attacks, when we launched various initiatives to counter the anti-American sentiment that was reported to be ubiquitous in the Muslim world, the top job went to a series of PR people and veterans of Madison Avenue – most infamously Karen Hughes, a woman who spoke no Arabic and who committed a memorable series of gaffes overseas. She was followed in the post by James K Glassman, the coauthor of Dow 36,000 (1999).

But if The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to be our generation’s God That Failed – the stealth device that’s supposed to defuse the hate and suspicion of the world, one reader at a time – I fear that things may be even worse than this sorry record of public diplomacy suggests. Consider, for starters, exactly who is reading Covey’s text at Guantanamo. Omar Khadr is twenty-four years old. Were he to draft his resume, it would reveal that he spent the last nine of those years in prison cells of varying degrees of wretchedness. Before that, he absorbed a course of intensive instruction in a fundamentalist movement that is deeply unpopular in the US, and then picked a fight with the strongest military in the world in some awful corner of a desolate and impoverished land.

The Seven Habits, meanwhile, is a book written for Americans who feel that their present contribution to the planet’s richest economy is not quite fulfilling enough. It is a handbook for senior executives suffering anomie as they cruise gated communities in their purring BMWs – and for junior executives who don’t yet have that BMW, but want to work their way up from the Camry they currently drive.

To dampen the ardor of the most alienated people on earth, then, we have chosen an unusual tactic: management theory. It would be hard to imagine a less suitable offering for the target audience. Maybe if they required Guantanamo inmates to read Wuthering Heights (1846)? A biography of William Randolph Hearst? Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967)?

Think about it this way and the episode begins to seem like another depressing benchmark in the triumph of the banal. The part of American life that The Seven Habits represents – the culture of self-help, positive thinking, and homegrown theories of “excellence” – is precisely the face we tried to conceal during the Cold War.

Then again, I could be wrong. Perhaps the officials who are reportedly walking Khadr through Covey’s book know precisely what they’re doing. Perhaps there’s a method to their motivating. To figure it out, I sat down and read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, looking for clues to its usefulness in fighting the Global War on Terror, or at least in helping to deradicalize suspected terrorists.

Covey announces early on that his work is the culmination of his study of American “success literature”. But his method is really to formalize, with an amazing fastidiousness, traditional bits of business folklore, organizing them with numbers, charts, and important-sounding category titles. He tells us about the “four life-support factors”, the four “quadrants” of the “time management matrix”, the five “ingredients” of a “good affirmation”, and the various “generations” of time management (and of these, please note that “the fourth generation of self-management is more advanced than the third in five important ways”).

You or I might laugh at such hokey pseudoscience. To prisoners who know little about the Western world, however, a book that identifies the “six paradigms of human interaction” might sound downright authoritative. Maybe, they will think, this book really is a philosophical treatise in the grandest sense: a handbook for human existence, not merely a self-improvement guide for troubled bosses.

That’s certainly what it claims to be. In a 2004 foreword, Covey asserts that the “solutions” he proposes are “based upon universal, timeless, self-evident principles common to every enduring, prospering society throughout history”. They are applicable everywhere and in every historical epoch. Much is made of “natural law” and the attunement of the title’s “seven habits” to said law. Then there are the “personal mission statements” the book encourages us to write, which are small-scale versions of the US Constitution. After all, notes Covey, that document also lacks any sort of expiration date:

The Constitution has endured and serves its vital function today because it is based on correct principles, on the self-evident truths contained in the Declaration of Independence. These principles empower the Constitution with a timeless strength, even in the midst of social ambiguity and change.

Now, wiseacres like you and I might think that such universal claims would limit the value of The Seven Habits in any sort of propaganda campaign. Surely they would ring false to readers not already convinced of the overwhelming superiority of the US Constitution. And what would such readers think of the suggestion that the answers to the great problems of mankind are to be found through a study of the triumphs and travails of American businesspeople?

But, again, that would be missing the point. The Seven Habits is a book with a worldwide presence; the FranklinCovey website lists offices in every region of the globe, from which its hordes of consultants fan out and “enable greatness” among the local business class. The book has been translated into thirty-eight languages and hit the bestseller list in South Korea, Japan, and (predominantly Muslim) Malaysia. On YouTube, Indonesian schoolchildren can be seen singing a simplified version of its precepts. Apparently the text’s thorough Americanness is no handicap at all. On the contrary: it is the deradicalizing payload smuggled in under the sweet fog of self-help.

Come to think of it, maybe The Seven Habits would make a good propaganda vehicle after all. It promises to help you “change”, to make you successful, but the changes it suggests largely aim to bring you into conformity with American business practice. You are what needs to change, not the world.

This is not a premise unique to The Seven Habits, of course. Inducing acquiescence is the object of nearly all modern management literature. The genre exists to persuade the world that the market is a benevolent deity, that the corporation is its worthy representative here on earth, and that the sooner you understand that, the better.

Let’s recall, in this connection, that management favorite of the 1990s, Who Moved My Cheese? (1998). It was, I thought, a parable of worker powerlessness before the market deity, that invisible cheese-moving hand. The course of wisdom, the book taught, was for us to submit to the ineffable makers of “change”, even though they “moved” our “cheese” hither and yon. To question those powers, as in the book’s title, was to brand yourself a recalcitrant good-for-nothing. Managers everywhere bought the thing in bulk and required their workers to read it, and for good reason: it was a weapon of class war.

And so is The Seven Habits, albeit in a friendlier and far more palatable form. It, too, is a book about “change” – but again, the change is all on you. The ways of the economy, remember, are fixed, natural, and eternal; it is up to us to bring ourselves into “harmony” with them, to “rescript” ourselves. “Anytime we think the problem is ‘out there‘”, Covey writes, “that thought is the problem“. Don’t concern yourself with external conditions – like, say, your indefinite detention on a tropical island not of your choosing. {*} Concern yourself with how you think about external conditions.
{*} Imprisonment is a recurring theme in The Seven Habits. Two of the book’s most memorable stories come from prison memoirs, in which convicts learn important lessons about themselves while incarcerated. Then there is the woman in the audience at a Covey lecture who tells him that his wisdom made her feel “as though I was being let out of San Quentin”.
It is a technique for autohypnosis, a guidebook for remaking ourselves in a manner more analogous to the universal “human consciousness” that Covey has somehow divined. And so from our desire for self-improvement comes a form of meekness, comes submersion in the team.

But suppose the Guantanamo detainees don’t buy it. Suppose they’re precisely the canny Al Qaeda operatives many pundits believe them to be, and that they’re wise to our government and its literary ploys. Suppose the book’s powers of deradicalization aren’t as great as they seem. Suppose the prisoners are pretending to internalize the book’s hyper-Americanness and its message of “change”, but are in fact paying attention only to the parts about managing your time better and “sharpening the saw”.

Then we would have achieved the exact opposite of deradicalization. We would have filled dangerous people with all sorts of useful tips for making even more mischief than before. We would have created a bunch of highly effective jihadis.

It’s happened before. One self-described fan of The Seven Habits was the deceased Saudi businessman Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, a brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden who was suspected of having established the Al Qaeda beachhead in the Philippines. Here was a man who seems to have been highly effective indeed, but who clearly cared little for the universal principles of the US Constitution and the US business class.

I started this essay bemoaning the decline of American propaganda from highbrow to middlebrow, but maybe the best solution is to sink all the way to the bottom of the taste hierarchy. Maybe we haven’t gotten banal enough. Maybe, to win this war, the ugly American needs to do his stuff.

What the Guantanamo inmates need to learn, then, is the opposite of effectiveness. They need to become lazy and self-indulgent. They need to grasp the pointlessness of getting things done. They need to become American-style consumers, not American-style executives – and least of all American-style aesthetes.

Let us outfit every cell at Guantanamo with a recliner and the full universe of cable TV, including Spice Platinum. Set each prisoner up with a Snuggie, a crate of Hot Pockets, and Grand Theft Auto. Their curriculum will be limited to a single habit, one that comes naturally in our culture: take it easy, do what feels good, and remember, it’s always someone else’s problem.