This story started as a takedown. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a cornerstone of the business self-help canon, a genre given to saccharine platitudes and lampoonable poster slogans, neither of which bodes well for cultural relevance. It was published in 1989, a time so different from now that the big-shouldered businessmen who read it first might as well have been wearing powdered wigs and pantaloons.
And yet, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People persists. As I write this, the book is one of the top 15 bestselling books on Amazon. Not in Amazon’s self-improvement category. On Amazon. Over the past 31 years, the book has sold more than 40 million copies. It has spawned a global leadership training company, FranklinCovey, with associates covering 150 countries. In May, Simon & Schuster released an updated 30th anniversary edition. CNET named it one of the best personal finance books for 2020. Business Insider just published an article of reminiscences by the author’s son.
But a self-help book written by a White man in 1989 couldn’t possibly apply to a year like 2020, could it? Surely it is full of outmoded “me first” principles out of step with the needs of the modern reader, right?
My editor thought that might be the case: that The 7 Habits might be a juggernaut incompatible with our times but too big to fail. In this colossal, radical, revolutionary year, many of us see ourselves not only as strivers and achievers, but also as members of a community, a system, a country going through massive change that calls into question the very idea of “individual success.” A book based on such an outdated concept couldn’t help but fail spectacularly.
But what began for me as an investigation into why a 30-year-old self-improvement book was still on bestseller lists turned into a story on how to read any classic piece of self-improvement: as both history book and instruction manual. Because — and you might be surprised to read this — The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is well-suited to addressing the complicated postmodern problems we currently…