Book Review: Tribes by Seth Godin

Iust finished reading Tribes by Seth Godin and thought it was a great read. One of our most powerful survival mechanisms is to be part of a tribe – to contribute to a group of like-minded people. Whether it’s with work, family, friends, interests, etc., we all already associate with different tribes. But nowadays 2 things are certain – it’s easier that ever to resist change/follow the status quo, but it’s also easier than ever to become a leader of a tribe and incite change.

Many of us are “sheepwalking,” meaning we do as we’re told, mindlessly go through routines, embrace the status quo, and don’t think twice about changing the current situation. Most of us react, several of us respond, but very few initiate. But it’s easier than ever with tools like the internet to voice your opinion, build a tribe, and lead change. Whether you’re Steve Jobs who built a tribe around Apple products, or an employee that starts a company newsletter to build a tribe and voice innovative ideas to breath life into the culture again, it’s easier than ever to be a leader.
Leaders challenge the status quo.
Leaders create a culture around their goal and involve others in their culture.
Leaders have an extraordinary amount of curiosity about the world they’re trying to change.
Leaders use charisma (in a variety of forms) to attract and motivate followers.
Leaders communicate their vision of the future.
Leaders commit to a vision and make decisions based on that commitment.
Leaders connect their followers to one another.”

Book Review: Contagious by Jonah Berger

I recently read the book Contagious by Jonah Bergerwhich one of my friends recommended to me. Wow, it was a fantastic read. For anyone that is in the field of business/marketing, I would say this is an essential read. But even for the non-business folk that are curious about how ideas and movements spread, this book provides some fascinating incite into what exactly causes videos to go viral, people to spread secrets & ideas, and how most of what we share is a reflection of how we want to be viewed by others.

I took the below summary of the book from Gavin Adams so I can revisit this content and brush up on it in the future.

Contagious Summary


If something is supposed to be secret, people might well be more likely to talk about it.

People share things that make them look good to others.

More than 40 percent of what people talk about is their personal experiences.

Harvard neuroscientists Jason Mitchell and Diana Tamir found that disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding.

Word of mouth, then, is a prime tool for making a good impression—as potent as that new car or Prada handbag. Think of it as a kind of currency. Social currency. Just as people use money to buy products or services, they use social currency to achieve desired positive impressions among their families, friends, and colleagues.

There are three ways to do that: (1) find inner remarkability; (2) leverage game mechanics; and (3) make people feel like insiders.

Sharing extraordinary, novel, or entertaining stories or ads makes people seem more extraordinary, novel, and entertaining.

Remarkable things get brought up more often.

Our memories aren’t perfect records of what happened. They’re more like dinosaur skeletons patched together by archeologists. We have the main chunks, but some of the pieces are missing, so we fill them in as best we can.

One way to generate surprise is by breaking a pattern people have come to expect.

Remember Blendtec, the blender company we talked about in the Introduction? By finding the product’s inner remarkability, the company was able to get millions of people to talk about a boring old blender. And they were able to do it with no advertising and a fifty-dollar marketing budget.

Game mechanics are the elements of a game, application, or program—including rules and feedback loops—that make them fun and compelling.

They chose the option that was worse in absolute terms but better in relative terms.

People don’t just care about how they are doing, they care about their performance in relation to others.

what good is status if no one else knows you have it?

Leverage scarcity and exclusivity to make customers feel like insiders.

Scarcity and exclusivity help products catch on by making them seem more desirable. If something is difficult to obtain, people assume that it must be worth the effort.

People don’t need to be paid to be motivated. Managers often default to monetary incentives when trying to motivate employees. Some gift or other perk to get people to take action. But that’s the wrong way to think about it.

Social incentives, like social currency, are more effective in the long term.

Marketing is about tapping into their genuine enthusiasm for products and services that they find useful. Or fun. Or beautiful.

Marketing is about spreading the love.

But what most people don’t realize is that they naturally talk about products, brands, and organizations all the time. Every day, the average American engages in more than sixteen word-of-mouth episodes, separate conversations where they say something positive or negative about an organization, brand, product, or service.

The reason people shared Grady’s article was emotion. When we care, we share.

Two reasons people might share things are that they are interesting and that they are useful.

It turns out that science articles frequently chronicle innovations and discoveries that evoke a particular emotion in readers. That emotion? Awe.

According to psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, awe is the sense of wonder and amazement that occurs when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty, sublimity, or might.

It’s the experience of confronting something greater than yourself.

Indeed, as Albert Einstein himself noted, “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious.

More than any other emotion, awe described what many readers felt after looking at science pieces from The New York Times.

Awe boosted sharing. Awe-inspiring articles were 30 percent

Talking to others often makes emotional experiences better.

Emotion sharing is thus a bit like social glue, maintaining and strengthening relationships.

Marketing messages tend to focus on information. Public health officials note how much healthier teens will be if they don’t smoke or if they eat more vegetables. People think that if they just lay out the facts in a clear and concise way, it will tip the scales. Their audience will pay attention, weigh the information, and act accordingly. But many times information is not enough. Most teens don’t smoke because they think it’s good for them. And most people who scarf down a Big Mac and large fries and wash it down with a supersized Coke are not oblivious to the health risks. So additional information probably won’t get them to change their behavior. They need something more.

And that is where emotion comes in. Rather than harping on features or facts, we need to focus on feelings; the underlying emotions that motivate people to action.

The best results don’t show up in a search engine, they show up in people’s lives.

Write down why you think people are doing something.

When trying to use emotions to drive sharing, remember to pick ones that kindle the fire: select high-arousal emotions that drive people to action.

Excite people or inspire them by showing them how they can make a difference.

Work groups may benefit from taking walks together because it will encourage people to share their ideas and opinions.

Emotions drive people to action. They make us laugh, shout, and cry, and they make us talk, share, and buy. So rather than quoting statistics or providing information, we need to focus on feelings.

You should make something that will move people.

People don’t want to be entertained, they want to be moved.

Observability. Jobs realized that seeing others do something makes people more likely to do it themselves.

If something is built to show, it’s built to grow.

People often imitate those around them.

Whether making trivial choices like what brand of coffee to buy or important decisions like paying their taxes, people tend to conform to what others are doing. Television shows use canned laugh tracks for this reason: people are more likely to laugh when they hear others laughing.

So to help resolve our uncertainty, we often look to what other people are doing and follow that. We assume that if other people are doing something, it must be a good idea. They probably know something we don’t.

Simply educating students about the risks of alcohol didn’t seem to be enough.

If most students were uncomfortable with the drinking culture, then why was it happening in the first place? Why were students drinking so much if they don’t actually like it? Because behavior is public and thoughts are private.

Because behavior is public and thoughts are private.

The more public a product or service is, the more it triggers people to take action.

The Movember Foundation succeeded because they figured out how to make the private public.

Shapes, sounds, and a host of other distinctive characteristics can also help products advertise themselves.

Designing products that advertise themselves is a particularly powerful strategy for small companies or organizations that don’t have a lot of resources.

But regardless, one thing is clear: the wristband creates more behavioral residue than the cross-country ride ever could have. As MacEachern keenly noted: The nice thing about a wristband is that it lives on. The bike ride doesn’t. There’ll be pictures of the bike ride and people will talk about the bike ride, but unless it goes on every year—even if it does go on every year, it doesn’t live on as a reminder every day of this sort of stuff. But the wristband does.

Behavioral residue is the physical traces or remnants that most actions or behaviors leave in their wake.

Items like the Livestrong wristband provide insight into who people are and what they like.

But anti-drug ads often say two things simultaneously. They say that drugs are bad, but they also say that other people are doing them.

Our basic hypothesis is that the more kids saw these ads, the more they came to believe that lots of other kids were using marijuana. And the more they came to believe that other kids were using marijuana, the more they became interested in using it themselves.

It’s been said that when people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate one another. We look to others for information about what is right or good to do in a given situation, and this social proof shapes everything from the products we buy to the candidates we vote for.

Create behavioral residue, discernible evidence that sticks around even after people have used our product or engaged with our ideas. We need to make the private public. If something is built to show, it’s built to grow.

Most viral videos are made by adolescents and watched by adolescents. Crazy tricks someone did on his motorcycle or cartoon characters edited to look as if they are dancing to rap songs. Things young people love.

People like to pass along practical, useful information. News others can use.

Offering practical value helps make things contagious.

If Social Currency is about information senders and how sharing makes them look, Practical Value is mostly about the information receiver. It’s about saving people time or money, or helping them have good experiences.

“Prospect theory.” The theory is amazingly rich, but at its core, it’s based on a very basic idea. The way people actually make decisions often violates standard economic assumptions about how they should make decisions. Judgments and decisions are not always rational or optimal. Instead, they are based on psychological principles of how people perceive and process information.

Diminishing sensitivity reflects the idea that the same change has a smaller impact the farther it is from the reference point.

If the product’s price is less than $100, the Rule of 100 says that percentage discounts will seem larger.

Practical advice is shareable advice.

In fact, narrower content may actually be more likely to be shared because it reminds people of a specific friend or family member and makes them feel compelled to pass it along.

Content that is obviously relevant to a narrow audience may actually be more viral.

That’s because people don’t think in terms of information. They think in terms of narratives. But while people focus on the story itself, information comes along for the ride.

Stories, then, can act as vessels, carriers that help transmit information to others.

Stories save time and hassle and give people the information they need in a way that’s easy to remember.

It’s harder to argue with personal stories.

Stories thus give people an easy way to talk about products and ideas.

Marketing experts talk about “the fool in the pool” as one of the worst guerrilla marketing failures of all time.

The key, then, is to not only make something viral, but also make it valuable to the sponsoring company or organization. Not just virality but valuable virality.

Virality is most valuable when the brand or product benefit is integral to the story. When it’s woven so deeply into the narrative that people can’t tell the story without mentioning it.

In trying to craft contagious content, valuable virality is critical. That means making the idea or desired benefit a key part of the narrative. It’s like the plot of a good detective story.

Book Review: The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler

Book Review: The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler

Steven Kotler’s just published book will be of interest to anyone providing or receiving neurofeedback, especially in areas of peak performance. Framed largely through the stories of exceptional athletes’ attainment of world record shattering results, Kotler makes the state of Flow the centerpiece of his explanation for their accomplishments. Flow, from the 1990 book of that title by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (me-high Chick-sent-me-high) is characterized by: extreme focus to the exclusion of anything else, effortless transcendence of already well-learned skills, time distortion, vanishing of “self” into seamless action, high-speed problem-solving, and often a sense of merging with a transpersonal, universal force. These states are accompanied by “transient hypofrontality” (lessening of inputs from the frontal lobes) – the disappearance of cognitive “second-guessing” into boundary melting fluidity of creative, automatic, altered-state awareness of exceptional performances beyond previous limits.

Anyone familiar with neurofeedback will quickly find the descriptions of Flow, and its consequences, to be quite identical to what trainees report over time. That makes the writing an excellent way to language neurofeedback to those arriving for peak performance work. It was striking to me the extraordinary effort athletes need to expend to accomplish Flow and exceptional performance when neurofeedback might provide experiences of Flow as the default state of everyday life, rather than the relatively rare occurrence in the expenditure of superhuman effort. We already see training translate into unordinary and exceptional accomplishments across the entire range of human experience. How such basic training in neurofeedback might translate into more common or more easily obtained personal bests throughout one’s life would make a fascinating study.

Kotler uses many examples of athletes’ trials, successes, and failures to expand the notion of peak performance attainment. Among these is the skill/challenge ratio in which the challenge should be only about 4% beyond the individual’s skill level for incremental progress to occur, accumulations of which set the stage for occasional exceptional leaps in competitive situations. The “born with” vs. grown into talent issue favors the latter, in that even with demonstrable gifts, most high performance winners require training to attain or keep their edge.

Many criteria of addiction are fulfilled in the compulsion in sensation-seeking, impulsive, otherwise poorly regulated individuals to attain the one-pointed consciousness in extreme, often life-threatening trials, bringing mastery, accomplishment, physiologic and psychologic ecstasy – and their sometimes heroic status within their circumscribed worlds. Similar to modern addictionology, these performances provide, in some, the only access to states of ecstasy, release from the ordinary, and momentarily transhuman experience. Csikszentmihalyi favors Flow as an “escape forward” from current reality and sees drugs as an “escape backward.” Audiences of individuals less proficient, yet attuned to the rigors of the particular discipline by their own efforts or interest, participate mirror neuron style and are carried toward their own ecstatic states in the presence of such performances. Crowd effects potentiate the transcendent experience, to which we are all attracted in many ways, seeking union in performances of every kind.

Late in the book he describes the dark side of peak performance in those who die trying for its attainment. The Flow experience that (sometimes) accompanies pushing beyond one’s limits, Kotler notes, can become unnecessarily attached to the activity that seemingly produced the Flow, rather than Flow being actually a much more universally attainable experience. The answer to whether Flow occurs as a natural consequence of popping beyond one’s boundaries, or is sought in itself as a side-effect of only pushing spirals of more, farther, faster, etc., is really a both/and reply. The final chapters deal with attainment of Flow and its benefits in ordinary circumstances and endeavors.

The Rise of Superman is well written, full of modern science, and will bring any neurofeedback adherent farther along in their appreciation of the Flow state which is an inherent aspect of most training. Also, it provides language and context that will enrich any peak performance work for which people arrive.

Book Review: Body Mind Mastery by Dan Millman

Book  Review: Body Mind Mastery by Dan Millman

I was gifted an interesting book called Body Mind Mastery  from one of my good friends from work recently, so I decided to spend a weekend to give it a good read. The author is Dan Millman, who is a former world-champion athlete (gymnastics I believe) and gymnastics coach at Stanford and UC Berkeley. The book was surprisingly very spiritual and tied in a lot of Eastern philosophies into the book which was interesting. Although I already knew many of the concepts within the book, I could see how it could be an extremely valuable resource for anyone looking to start the cultivation of their mental game in conjunction with some kind of physical performance. Here are my takeaways:

Natural Laws

“The essence of talent is not so much a presence of certain qualities but rather an absence  of the mental, physical, and emotional obstructions most adults experience.”

Just as how water cuts through rock over time, we must also adhere to the laws of nature. Millman calls this nonresistance, and explains that stress and tension occur when the mind resists what is. Body mind masters actually use less effort to create greater results, and accept and use the conditions around them to the best of their abilities. Accommodation is another tool I’m sure all of us know in which demand takes the form of progressive overload.  Progress is mechanical – if you practice something overtime, with attention and commitment to improve, you will become better but many people question this process (Instead of saying “Can I?” say “How can I?”)

Awareness and Preparation

Awareness of a problem is the beginning of the solution, and we must always strive to have awareness of the totality of our mind and body. This is a philosophical concept, but it’s a very powerful one. It calls upon you to “notice” things in your life and things about yourself. Don’t just go through motions mindlessly, but be conscious of your movements, actions, and thoughts. Preparation is also extremely underutilized and is the foundation of your future success. Champions form the habit of doing what most people find boring or uncomfortable.

The term “difficulty” has meaning only in relation to preparation.

Talent: Mental, Physical, and Emotional

Mental talent is the skill of being focused completely in the present moment. Many of us become lost in thought and our minds become distracted in performing at our maximum potential. We all began life as “movement masters” – that’s how we learned how to walk. You’ll never see a baby falling while learning to walk and thinking, “I’m such a klutz!” The baby is completely immersed in the present moment in learning how to stand up and keep it’s balance to move forward. Another mental strength is the ability to expand your self-concept and what you believe you can achieve for yourself. Always believe you are capable of great things, envision specific successes, give constructive criticism back to yourself, and never fear failure.

We develop emotional talent not by relying on motivation all the time but by applying our will no matter how we feel. It’s natural for our emotions to take control of us in certain situations, but this is where discipline comes in. You have much more control over your behavior than you do over your thoughts of emotions, so paradoxically the best way to master your emotions is to let them be, stay relaxed, and focus on constructive action.

As for physical talent, this is achieved through a partnership between ambition and hard work. Millman says that “if there is a cosmic instruction manual, the first rule is surely that we each receive a body. Its the only thing we are guaranteed to keep for a lifetime.” No matter what your physical circumstances are, the body is an ideal, highly visible medium for transformation in which we can easily see the results of progress.

Physical talent is composed of four primary qualities, each of which begins with the letter S: strength, suppleness, stamina, and sensitivity. When we call someone talented, we are pointing to these four key elements.

Millman also stated that relaxation was the best single indicator or your well-being. Your degree of relaxation across the three centers – physical, mental, and emotional – precisely reflects your alignment with the natural laws. I thought this concept was interesting. He continued by stating that strength should be measured based on effective strength, where your muscle groups act in complementary tension-relaxation (relaxing the proper muscle groups while consciously tensing others). Having too much tension could actually produce less strength and force, as opposed to relaxing irrelevant muscle groups and purposefully contracting the needed muscle groups.

Tools for Training and Competition

Learning how to learn is more important than simply learning. You could continuously practice a movement incorrectly and get better and better at doing it incorrectly. We have to have the awareness and tools (slow motion training, imitation, mental envisioning) to properly improve our skills over time. Then you need to practice consistently and a lot, but know when to take a break from practicing in a given session (stop when you can’t repeat the correct pattern anymore).

In learning any new skill, remember the formula PSP: First precision, then speed, then power. Each flows from the next their proper order. If you want power and speed, then practice precision in slow motion. Slow done to speed up.

Competition can be an important experience because it can become a form of moving meditation in which all of your attention is focused in the present moment. However, Millman states that it’s more important to gauge yourself on day-to-day improvement rather than a winner-loser mentality. We need to measure ourselves by our own standard of excellence and at the end of the day, find joy in the process of training, learning, and striving toward the heights of our potential. He also encourages us to view physical training/athletics as a long-term game – always question where the activity you are engaging in is contributing beneficially to your physical and psychological well-being and will it develop heightened capacity of your daily life.

Athletes practice athletics; poets practice poetry; musicians practice music. Body mind masters practice everything and create a ceremony out of every moment.


Book Review: Originals by Adam Grant

Book Review: Originals by Adam Grant

11 Inspiring Lessons from Originals by Adam Grant

Originals – How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant is a wonderful inspiring book. Adam Grant has done an excellent job in communicating succinctly that creativity is something which is within the grasp of all of us. Yes there are some deja vu moments (“I’ve seen this before”) but as Adam Grant suggests we should look for vu jade moments (“I’ve never experienced this before”) as well. Originality is an act of creative destruction. Here are the 11 lessons I gleaned from the book. 

Question the default – In an interesting study in a call center they found that people who use Firefox and chrome browsers are more productive at work and are less likely to leave compared to IE and Safari users. This is because they took initiative and chose to change the default which is usually Internet Explorer. Rejecting the default is the starting point of curiosity which is a key to creativity. Vuja de is when we see things in a fresh perspective and only when we do that we can question the default. Another example sighted is Donna Dubinsky who stood up to Steve Jobs many times and still managed to get promoted. The example sighted here was in 1985 when Steve Jobs wanted to eliminate Apple’s warehouses and instead apply the Just in Time philosophy. Donna felt this wouldn’t work and stood up to Steve jobs requesting for 30 days to come up with an alternative plan which she did successfully. The greatest presidents are the ones who challenged the status quo – for example Abraham Lincoln agonized over 6 months whether he should sign the emancipation proclamation before doing it. I like this line which said, “He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.”

Don’t leave your day job – This is an interesting suggestion since most people think they have to leave everything they are doing now to pursue any entrepreneurial options. There are numerous examples sighted actually saying that past masters actually continued in their day jobs before they established themselves in their field. Pierre Omidyar worked in his day job even after founding eBay and only made it full time nine months after the company’s first auction launched. Larry Page tried to sell Google in 1997 and we wouldn’t know what would have happened if that had come through.

T.S. Eliot is an interesting study as he had to overcome some limitations physically which led to his isolation resulting in his deep love of literature. Eliot worked as a school teacher and to earn extra money he wrote book reviews and lectured at evening courses. Despite writing world renowned poems he remained in the publishing firm Faber and Faber till the end of his career. Being in a publishing firm gave him stability. In a study sighted in the book, entrepreneurs who kept their day job actually did better than those who went all in.  The key lesson here is to embrace danger in one domain whiling being careful in the other domain or part of your life. Stability in one area of your life can enable you take risks in another area.

Protect your downside – Again we think of entrepreneurs as being wild risk takers but what the research has found is that all successful entrepreneurs protect their downside. Taking calculated risks is the key which means you have enough oxygen canisters in case you fail. A great example is Bill Gates who took a leave of absence from Harvard to work with Paul Allen and didn’t just quit straight which showcases the protection of the downside. Richard Branson put it nicely when he said “It is only by being bold that you get anywhere. If you are a risk-taker, then the art is to protect the downside.” 

Have some interesting hobbies – A lot of the Noble prize winners were excellent in other domains like painting and they had the wonderful quality of openness which is being able to experience something without any strings attached. Charles Darwin was an active hiker in his youth which ties into his love of nature, Galileo was into inventing things and drawing and Einstein’s hobbies included hiking, sailing, biking and of course playing his violin.

Defensive pessimism – This is an interesting suggestion and the example provided here was Babble founder Rufus Griscom. When he was pitching investors for Babble, he started the presentation with “ the 5 reasons why you shouldn’t invest in this business”. This is totally counter intuitive but this is an excellent form of powerless communication. When others have to think hard to come up with things on why something should not be done it actually makes it positive from their point of view and it obviously worked big time for Rufus.  Leading with weakness disarms the audience.

Keep adding to your body of work – This suggestion is simple but vital. All the greats we know like Shakespeare, Picasso, and Mozart produced a great amount of work and we remember only a few. For example in a span of decades Shakespeare produced so many plays but we only remember a few and Einstein had more than 248 publications but many of them didn’t have impact. The lesson here is to do a large volume of work to have a higher chance of producing original work. I think this again proves the Pareto principle as 80% of your work could be ignored but it is the minority 20% that will get you all the credit. 

Put yourself out of business – “Kill the company” is a term credited to Lisa Bodell. The main aim of this strategy is to discuss how your company can be put of business and make detailed points on how this could happen. Then come up with answers on how that should be prevented. This is an excellent method to ensure you never go out of business.

Parenting Skills – I liked the section on parenting in the book. One of the examples provided is that a majority of the baseball players who stole second base were not first born. They were born later and though their ability was not too different from the first born, their propensity to risk was far higher. Another key for raising great children is to ensure they have positive role models – for example, Gandhi was the role model for Martin Luther King. For Elon Musk, reading the Lord of the Rings shaped his world view. Having kids read about heroes, real or fiction, helps them see great possibilities. One more suggestion I liked was if we see our child doing something wrong, rather than telling them directly to stop doing it we can instead say “By doing this you are going to hurt your sister. You don’t want to hurt her do you?” This generally generates a combination of empathy and guilt which results in reducing the negative action.

Don’t play devil’s advocate – Most of the time a lot of organizations make someone play devil’s advocate but this doesn’t work all the time. The better way is to genuinely find someone who doesn’t agree with what is being done and then have them play devil’s advocate. This actually ensures authenticity and fosters a more open communication. (Instead of pretending to be “for” something, find someone who actually is)

Become a procrastinator – This was interesting as all of us have heard things like procrastination is the thief of time or even as some say procrastination is the thief of life. However Martin Luther King prepared for his famous speech only 4 days before the actual event and he kept his close confidants working on it even the night before the speech. Apparently the original speech didn’t have the line “I have a dream” and he actually improvised on it when his favorite gospel singer Mahalia Jackson yelled “tell them about the dream Martin” and he uttered it only on the 11th minute of his speech. The point is sometimes we work better when we are closer to the deadline than planning it endlessly and we should improvise when needed. Another example is Abraham Lincoln who was preparing his Gettysburg speech even on the day it was going to be delivered.  In this section the Zeigarnik effect is mentioned which was named after the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik and it basically says that we have a better memory of incomplete items than the ones which are completed.

Power without Status – The example of the CIA analyst Carmen Medina is mentioned in this section. Basically she said the way information was being transmitted was not good enough within the organization and there has to be a way to enable information flow through the internet. Her proposal was rejected multiple times and she was constantly receiving opposition to drop her proposal due to her lack of status and power in the organization. The best part is that she never gave up and she spoke up again for an online system after she decided to relocate to the information/security division of the organization and gain status/power/followers that way. Finally, Intellipedia which is an internal Wikipedia within the CIA was formed and this was because she learned how to eventually convey her ideas by gaining status and merit within the organization.  Upon her retirement from CIA she received the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal.

Book Review: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

Book Review: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey


I finally got around to reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, which has been recommended to me by one too many people. It’s also considered a foundational piece of reading material in the world of business, so I decided to give it a read. Overall, I can understand why the lessons in this book have the power to shape a person’s life for the better. Although the lessons aren’t profound pieces of wisdom we already didn’t know, they are principles that if taken into consideration on a personal level daily, can help us become more effective people in every aspect of our lives. I’ve pasted the summary of the book from the Deconstruction Excellence blog for a quick overview of the 7 habits:

The 7 Habits

In the pursuit of personal effectiveness, most people try to change one of two things: their behavior (“I’m going to try really hard at this!”) or their attitude (hence the popularity of self-help books and motivational speakers). If you’ve tried these approaches, you know them to be ineffective. The only solution for real change is the recognition and changing of your personal “paradigm,” or pattern of perception by which you view the world.


To sum up the seven habits at a high level, an effective person has learned to make the paradigm shift from outside-in to inside-out, progressing along the growth continuum from dependence to independence to interdependence. He has found the balance of being able to produce while also increasing his capacity to further produce.


That may sound like a bunch of gobbledygook, but it will become clear as you progress through the habits and make the paradigm shift the author writes about.


The first three habits are habits of self-mastery, or private victories. These habits must come first, after which come the second three habits of public victories. The last habit is one that is key to the proper functioning and renewal of the first six.


Habit 1: Be Proactive

Put aside the dictionary definition of the word “proactive” for a moment, as well as any meaning you’ve learned to attribute to it from your time in the workforce. You’ll have to do this with several of the upcoming habit titles in order to understand what Covey is saying.


The best way to understand what a paradigm is, as well as which paradigm an effective person possesses, is to first understand the three widely accepted paradigms that most people use to explain human behavior:


1) Genetic determinism (you are who you are because of your genes)
2) Psychic determinism (your childhood and upbringing shaped your personality), and
3) Environmental determinism (the things around you make you who you are)


The prevailing viewpoint is that at our core, we are animals, compelled by a given stimulus to give a certain response. While there is certainly some truth to this, Covey quotes psychiatrist and Holocaust victim Victor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.”


The author defines proactivity (and the paradigm shift that comes with it) as exercising your freedom to choose self-awareness, imagination, conscience, or independent will in between stimulus and response. If you’re unhappy, unsuccessful, etc., it’s because you chose to let something make you that way instead of choosing your own response. This is not to minimize the effect that genetics, upbringing, or environment have on who a person is; however, being an effective person requires that you recognize your responsibility to shape your response to those things.


This is not just positive thinking; being proactive means understanding the reality of a situation, but understanding the reality of a situation also means understanding the reality that you can choose your response to your circumstance. We all have a “circle of concern,” representing all the things that we care about. We can only influence a small portion of the things in our circle of concern, and many people spend their time and energy worrying or complaining about the things they can’t control. The more you focus on things outside your control, i.e. outside your “circle of influence,” the fewer things you’ll be able to control. Your circle of influence will shrink. In contrast, by focusing only on those things within your control, you will find that your circle of influence will grow.

7 Habits of Highly Effective People


To shift your focus to your circle of influence, stop saying the “haves” (if I only had a better job) and start saying the “be’s” (I can be more _).


Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

Everything is created twice: first in a mental creation, then as a result becoming a physical creation. If you don’t consciously choose to control the mental creation, the vicissitudes of your life are created by default, shaped by random circumstances and other people’s expectations and agendas. (Refer to the summary of Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill to better understand what this means, and to learn how to shape your actions based on this principle.)


Said another way, Habit 1 is “You are the creator.” Habit 2 is the first creation.


Beginning with the end in mind means approaching any role you have in life with your values and directions clear. Because we are self-aware, we can realize when we are acting in a role that isn’t in harmony with our values or isn’t a result of our own proactive design.


Whatever is at the center of your life will be the source of your security (your sense of worth), guidance (your source of direction in life), wisdom (your perspective on life), and power (your capacity to act and accomplish).


Most people never take the time to align their values with their center. As a result, they have one or more of many possible alternative centers. People can be spouse centered, family centered, money centered, work centered, pleasure centered, friend or enemy centered, church centered, or self centered. You probably know someone who is an example of being centered around each one of these things, and if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize that there are probably times when you become centered around many of these things as well.


Many of these things are perfectly good in and of themselves, but it isn’t healthy for your security, guidance, wisdom, or power to depend on and be determined by any of them. Instead, to be an effective person we need to have a “principle” center – one that is based on timeless, unchanging values. The principle center will put all these other centers in perspective.


Covey puts it this way: “The personal power that comes from principle-centered living is the power of a self-aware, knowledgeable, proactive individual, unrestricted by the attitudes, behaviors, and actions of others or by many of the circumstances and environmental influences that limit other people.”


The best way to make sure your life is aligned with your principles (and the best way to track when you get off center) is to write a personal mission statement. Covey doesn’t present a cookie-cutter formula for doing so, but suggests approaching it from the perspective of roles and goals: who do you want to be, and what do you want to accomplish?


This principle is the same for families or organizations; as hokey as it might sound, an authentic mission statement is the first step in the process of being effective. You need to put in the time, thought, and effort in order to gain the right perspective, and in order to set yourself up for the next habit.


You can click here for some examples of personal mission statements, starting with a few from Ben Franklin.


Habit 3: Put First Things First

Habit 3 is the second creation – the physical realization of Habits 1 and 2. Habits 1 and 2 are best characterized as “leadership,” which must come first, while Habit 3 is where we begin discussing “management.”


Effective management means putting first things first, and doing the things that other people don’t want to do. From Habits 1 and 2, you must have a burning “yes” inside you that allows you to say “no” to other things that don’t align with your principles and goals.


Covey describes four levels of time management:

1) Notes and checklists (reducing your cognitive burden in the present).
2) Calendars and appointment books (looking ahead to better arrange your future time).
3) Daily planning, by means of goal-setting and prioritization. Most people never get beyond this level.
4) Categorization of activities and purposeful focus on and/or exclusion of certain ones.


This fourth level is where the author asks us to operate. He borrows the tool for this categorization from none other than Dwight Eisenhower:



An effective time manager spends as much time as possible in quadrant II, doing things that are important before they become urgent: building relationships, long-term planning, preventative maintenance of all types, etc. The more time you spend in this quadrant, the less time you will have to spend in quadrant I. Delegate or otherwise cut out anything in quadrant III or IV.


In contrast, most people spend the majority of their time in quadrant I and III, doing urgent things that may or may not be important, and rarely allow you to be effective. Most of us try to get out of this vicious cycle by trying to be more disciplined; however, the author contends that your problem is probably not that you lack discipline. More likely, it is simply that your priorities have not been rooted in your values.


In order to become a quadrant II self-manager, Covey suggests a series of four steps:


1) Identifying roles. Write down a list of roles that you wish to devote time and energy to filling. Some examples are your role as an individual (for which you would devote time for self-improvement), your role as a family member (spouse, son, mother, etc.), and your role at work (which may be multiple things, any of which may not correspond to your official title).


2) Selecting goals. Write down one or two goals for each role that you want to accomplish over the next week. Since you’ve already gone through the process of establishing Habits 1 and 2, these goals should be tied into your larger purpose and long-term goals.


3) Scheduling. Take things a step beyond where most people get with their use of scheduling, sit down and plan out your schedule a week at a time. This allows you to match your goals with the best time to accomplish them. For example, peak productivity for most people is between 2 – 5 hours after waking. One use of this principle might be to schedule time 2 – 5 hours after waking on Saturday to do the most important quadrant II activities that your job won’t allow you to do during the week.


4) Daily adapting. Take a few minutes at the beginning of each day to review the schedule you put together and revisit the values that induced you to establish your goals for the day. In real life, things change, so it is important to allow your schedule to be fluid and adaptable while keeping your focus on your values and priorities.


Habit 4: Think Win/Win

This is another buzzword-type title that will require you to put aside your perception of the term in order to grasp Covey’s meaning. As opposed to some kind of unrealistically happy and friendly attitude, the author defines thinking win/win as a mindset that is always looking for a third alternative to the “me or you” decision. Most people live in one of the following four alternative paradigms:


1) Win/lose (authoritarian or egotistical)
2) Lose/win (being a pushover)
3) Lose/lose (when two win/lose people interact)
4) Win (focused solely on the results you get for yourself)


To escape these unproductive mindsets, we must develop the three character traits essential to the win/win paradigm:


1) Integrity (the value we place on ourselves)
2) Maturity (the balance between courage and consideration)
3) Abundance mentality (which comes from a sense of personal worth and security)


Try thinking about your relationships as an emotional bank account. By proactively making deposits, you ensure that the emotional funds will be there when the time comes to make a withdrawal. Win/win is often difficult, but is made much easier by the presence of a hefty emotional bank account.


So we can better understand what a win/win decision is and how it is structured, Covey provides the following characteristics:


1) Clear identification of desired results
2) Specified parameters within which to achieve those results
3) Resources to be used to accomplish the results
4) Accountability by means of specific standards of performance and times for evaluation
5) Consequences of the results of the evaluation


You can find a more thorough presentation of this approach to effective negotiations in Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury. The essence of Getting to Yes is to separate the person from the problem, focus on interests instead of positions, invent options for mutual gain, and insist on objective criteria.


The key to this chapter is that in most difficult situations, the problem is the system, not the people. By approaching those situations with the question of how we can change the system in order to make it work for all involved, many difficult problems can be resolved.


Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

If you want to interact effectively with people and influence them, you must first understand them. It may be common sense, but it stands in direct contrast to most people’s modus operandi, which is to be first concerned with being understood.


Again, Covey breaks things down into a step-by-step framework that makes your own behavior easier to understand. Here are his four levels of listening:


1) Ignoring
2) Pretending to listen
3) Attentive listening
4) Empathic listening


The first three are self-explanatory, but you may not have heard the term “empathic listening” before. Empathic listening means getting inside someone else’s frame of reference by “listening” to their body language, tone, expression, and feelings. It’s a tremendous deposit in the emotional bank account.


In contrast to empathic listening, we tend to listen from our frame of reference (even if we are listening attentively) and have these “autobiographical responses”:


1) Evaluate (agree or disagree)
2) Probe (ask questions from our own frame of reference)
3) Advise (give counsel based on our own experience)
4) Interpret (explain people’s actions based on our own motivations)


By listening empathically instead of forcing our natural autobiographical responses onto each situation, we can get beyond a surface-level, transactional exchange and have a real impact. Needs stop motivating people once those needs are satisfied. Satisfy the need to be understood, and you can move on to being productive.


The other half of this habit, then, is being understood.


Covey refers to the Greek philosophy of ethos, pathos, logos – first character, then relationships, and only afterward the logic of what you’re saying. Most people try to skip straight to logos in every exchange, but it can’t be denied that someone must first trust you and understand where you’re coming from emotionally before they will understand how your logic fits into the overall picture of your perspective. Approach your communication through this framework, and you’ll be surprised at how much more easily you get your point across.


This habit is powerful because it is always in your circle of influence to seek first to understand, then to be understood. When people understand each other, the door is opened for third alternatives – win/win solutions.


Habit 6: Synergize

Despite being entitled with the business world’s most eminently cringeworthy king of buzzwords, this chapter offers enormous value if you can grasp the principle. Covey is not referring here to the type of “synergy” that occurs when two companies merge and become better together by cutting down on administration costs. He’s not even referring only to the simple act of working together to accomplish more than what you could accomplish on your own.


What the author means by synergy is something that may be impossible to understand unless you have experienced it. One way to describe it is when a group of people enter a simultaneous and cooperative state of flow – the “peak experience” of group interaction.


You may have had an experience playing sports where the team just gelled and the plays started clicking like you were moving as one body. Perhaps you’ve played in a musical group and found yourselves in a song where every note was perfect, every hook was tight, and you found yourself improvising riffs you didn’t even know you were capable of playing. You might have been in an emergency situation where a group of strangers came together to act with a degree of cooperation that seemed unprecedented.


Maybe you’ve had one of those conversations with a group of close friends where you were baring your souls about some deep, commonly held belief or commonly faced challenge, and each person’s words created thoughts in your own mind that you then perfectly expressed as insights you didn’t even know you had.


This is what the author means by synergy – a shared peak experience that can be created as the culmination of the first five habits. The key here is that synergy of this type doesn’t have to be a rare experience. We can create it in our everyday lives, beginning to live at a higher level by putting the first five habits into practice and adding a courageous amount of authenticity and openness. To be able to consistently operate at this level is to achieve the ability to be more effective than most people can even dream of being.


Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

Remember, these are all intended to be habits, which means they have to be practiced repeatedly. In order to be able to practice these things, you need to take the time to renew yourself.


Covey recommends you carve out the time to do things to renew what he classifies as the four dimensions of human nature:


1. Mental (reading, visualizing, planning, writing)
2. Physical (exercise, nutrition, stress management)
3. Emotional (service, empathy, synergy, intrinsic security)
4. Spiritual (value clarification & commitment, study & meditation)


When you neglect any one area, you damage the rest – so commit at least one hour of every day to these practices.


Covey doesn’t spend enough time on any of these things to be the best “how-to” source for their implementation, and I don’t think that was his intention. His point is that an overall balance is necessary to support the other six habits. If done correctly, it leads to a virtuous cycle of continual personal growth.


In summary, the 7 Habits are:

1. Be proactive. Adopt a perspective of responsibility for your actions, reactions, and results.

2. Begin with the end in mind. Make sure your efforts start with establishment of your personal principles.

3. Put first things first. Spend your time on things that are important, not on things that are urgent.

4. Think Win/Win. Approach every interaction with the perspective of trying to fix the system, not the person, in order to find the solution that is best for all involved.

5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood. Meet people’s need to be understood, establish trust, and communicate your emotions; communicate your logic last.

6. Synergize. Combine the first five habits for an exponentially higher level of effective and cooperative daily interaction.

7. Sharpen the Saw. Take the time to maintain and renew your mind, body, emotions, and spirit.


Book Review: Good to Great by Jim Collins

Book Review: Good to Great by Jim Collins

I just finished reading the book Good To Great by Jim Collins. It’s been recommended to me so many times that I decided to give it a read finally. So the idea that sparked this book was to answer questions about how good companies might become great companies, and how they went about doing so. The study looks at companies from 1965 to 1995, looking for those that, for 15 years, either tracked or underperformed the stock market, followed by a transition, and subsequently returning at least 3 times the stock market for at least 15 years. The goal was to eliminate “flash in the pan” success from the results. Further filtering was performed in order to ensure that companies also outperformed their industries, so as not to include spurious results showing entire industries that grew by leaps and bounds in a given period. Eleven companies were located that matched these criteria, and were studied in depth, and compared to competitors in their fields:

  • Abbot Laboratories
  • Circuit City
  • Fannie Mae
  • Gillette
  • Kimberly-Clark
  • Kroger
  • Nucor
  • Philip Morris
  • Pitney Bowes
  • Walgreens
  • Wells Fargo

Level 5 Leaders

All the companies studied had what Collins describes as “Level 5 Leaders”. Despite sounding like something from a space-alien worshiping cult, what the term refers to is an individual who is very humble on a personal level, but who possesses a great deal of drive and desire to succeed, where “success” is not personal, but defined by creating something great that will outlast their time at the helm. These are people with an unwavering will and commitment to do what is necessary to drive their organization to the top. Most of the good to great executives discussed luck as an important factor in their success. Level 5 leaders, are, in any case, the kind of people who do not point to themselves as the cause for an organization’s success. The chapter closes with a discussion of whether Level 5 Leaders are born, or made, with the conclusion that many people probably have the kernel of abilities and attitudes necessary to attain that status.

First Who … Then What

During the transformation from good to great, rather than concern themselves first with the “what” – products, direction, strategy – the companies studied ensured they had the right people “on the bus” before anything else. By having a strong team, these companies avoided the pitfall of the “lone genius” CEO. “Great” companies are those that have a very solid foundation, and don’t depend on the brilliance of any one person.

The research indicated that compensation did not correlate at all with the “good to great” process. No particular compensation scheme appeared to be advantageous.

Also important was that, while the companies were “tough” places to work, they were because of the general high quality and hard-working mindset, not because of ruthless management. Some practical tips for how to be rigorous:

  • Don’t hire someone unless you’re %100 sure that they’re the right person. It’s better to wait and get someone that you knowis a good fit.
  • Once you realize you need to fire someone, don’t put it off. Do it quickly and fairly, but do it and be done with it, rather than put it off.
  • Give good people good opportunities, rather than the biggest problems. Fixing problems makes you good, but taking advantage of the right opportunities can make you great.

Good to great teams were mostly composed of people who had a good sense of balance with the rest of their lives – family, church, and so on. Of course, they had a deep commitment to their companies, but not one that blinded them to the other important things in their lives.

Confront the Brutal Facts

One of the key factors in the success of the great companies was a series of good decisions. The good decisions flowed from the fact that they all made a consistent and thorough effort to confront reality, internalizing the facts relevant to their market. Having lofty goals can be good, but you can never lose sight of what the reality is on the ground, no matter how much you will it to be different.

In a large organization, where it’s impossible to personally poke your nose in all corners of the company every day, it is crucial to create a climate where honesty is valued and honored. If people aren’t telling it like it is, those at the top may not realize the truth until too late. Some tips to create this kind of climate:

  • It’s often better to ask questions rather than dispense “answers”.
  • Encourage healthy debate. It has to be real debate, not a show put on to make people feel included. It should also not just be argument for the sake of argument – reach a conclusion and move on.
  • When things go wrong, investigate to avoid repeating the mistake, instead of assigning blame. If people are too worried about protecting themselves, it becomes difficult to honestly analyze and learn from failures.
  • Create mechanisms, “red flags” that allow people to communicate problems instantly and without repercussions, and in a way that cannot be ignored.

Amidst these “brutal facts” that must be faced, you must also have faith in your final goal. By maintaining this vision, and keeping your ear to the ground, it won’t be necessary to motivate people – if you’ve got the right people, they’ll be motivated of their own accord.

The Hedgehog Concept

The “hedgehog concept” refers to a parable of a hedgehog and a fox, where the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. The good to great companies were by and large built by “hedgehogs” – this doesn’t mean stupid – it just means that they were able to focus on one big important thing that made their companies great. Sometimes it takes real genius to see through all the clutter and grab the one, simple, unique thing that gives you the advantage.

The “three circles” is an idea regarding how to find your “hedgehog concept”: think of three interlocking circles, representing 1) what you are passionate about, 2) what you can make money at, and 3) what can you be the best at. At the intersection of these three things lies the winning target. If you can bring all three things to bear, you have found a way to excel. Learn to realize, as well, what you will never be the best at – those are things you must avoid, if possible. The economics of various industries varied widely, but the good great companies were winners, even within industries that weren’t rising stars. One consistent rule of thumb is to identify a ratio, profit per X, (where X could be customer, web site user, per unit sold, per employee etc…) and focus on that. Sometimes it may not be obvious.

Passion, on the other hand, does not come from executive rah-rah sessions with employees, but by doing things that make people passionate on their own. Passion isn’t something that can be forced on people, it has to come from a mission that they truly believe in, that’s more than just a paycheck.

Another practical suggestion is to create a “Council”, of between 5 to 12 people, to discuss and gain insights into the organization. It should meet regularly, not a one-time group. Its members should bring to the table a deep understanding of some portion of the firm. They need the freedom to speak their minds, and always have the respect of the other Council members. The Council exists to help the chief executive, not reach a consensus. It is an informal group, in the sense that it is not spelled out in official documents or org charts.

Culture of Discipline

Great companies have both an entrepreneurial spirit and a sense of discipline. They are both necessary – without the drive to try new things, and some degree of independence, a company becomes a rigid, stifling hierarchy. Without some sense of discipline, things begin to break down as the company grows. The best companies have both latitude for individual action, as well as a culture of disciplined behavior. This begins, once again, with the right people. It’s useless trying to create rules to force the wrong people to behave correctly – it simply won’t work. Instead, you need to find people who have an innate sense of self-discipline that doesn’t come from above. There is a big difference between having a “tyrant” that enforces a culture of discipline by fear, and finding people who naturally adhere to a disciplined approach. The former will disintegrate when the leader moves on, the latter creates a lasting system.

One helpful approach to discipline is to have a “stop doing” list. Stop doing the things that aren’t central to your business. Stop doing the things that are just clutter, but even more importantly, stop doing even things that might be seen as important, if they are not in your “three circles”.


“Great companies adapt and endure” – technology is not a differentiator in and of itself, but rather something that enhances great companies. They use it to further increase their leverage, in a conscious, directed way, rather than rushing to embrace it for the sake of its newness. Technology won’t light a fire where there is none, but where there is already good momentum, judicious use of technology can help accelerate it. Technology is an enabler of change, not the cause of it – but the “people factors” must be in place before application of technology will do any good. Technology as a reaction – to the latest fashion, to the competition – was not what was found in great companies. These companies possess a drive that pushes them to be the best in their chosen field, and picking the right technology is a natural part of that.

The “Flywheel” and “Doom Loop”

These two concepts represent positive and negative momentum. A flywheel is a heavy wheel that takes a lot of energy to set in motion – to do so usually requires constant, steady work, rather than a quick acceleration. Great companies’ transformations were like this as well. There was no magic recipe or no ‘aha’ moment when everything changed. Rather, with everything in place, lots of hard work slowly but steadily got the great companies going faster and faster, with a lot of momentum. Once it’s in motion, all that stored energy tends to keep it moving in the right direction.

Conversely, the “doom loop” is the vicious circle that unsuccessful companies fall into, rushing first in one direction, then another, in the hope of creating a sudden, sharp break with the past that will propel them to success. Some attempt to do this through acquisitions, others through bringing in a new leader who decides to change direction completely, in a direction incompatible with the company. The results are never good. The difference between the two approaches is characterized by the slow, steady, methodical preperation inherent in the flywheel, as compared to the abrupt, radical, and often revolutionary, rather than evolutionary changes within the company.

Built to Last

The results from this book were obtained without regards to Collins’ earlier work, Built to Last, but when all was said and done, Good to Great is what has to happen before a company becomes Built to Last. Much of what is present in Good to Great was present during the creation by their founders of the Built to Last firms. Companies that have endured have a raison d’être beyond simply making money – they have distinguishing and unique characteristics, goals and ways of operating that go beyond a simple desire to make money. These core values are preserved, while tactics change continuously to deal with an restless, tumultuous world that never stops.

The “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG), a concept introduced in Built to Last can be either good (as motivation, something to pursue), or bad (if it’s impossible or a bad fit). Good BHAGs are those formulated from a deep understanding, whereas bad ones come from brash recklessness without regard for the actual values and capabilities of the company. Companies need to exist for a higher purpose than mere profit generation in order to transcend the category of merely good. According to Collins, this purpose does not have to be specific — even if the shared values that compel the company toward success are as open-ended as being the best at what they do and achieving excellence consistently, that may be sufficient as long as the team members are equally dedicated to the same set of values.