As the buyer for the self development etc titles (something bad I did in a past life has led to this), I was alerted to the fact that we needed to buy more of that old chestnut The seven habits of highly effective people by Stephen Covey, a gentleman who has not so much laughed all the way to the bank but shrieked uncontrollably.
Coincidentally I had been reading a column in that excellent weekly, The Economist, which adopted a less than reverent attitude to the granddaddy of the business meets self development book industry (irrelevant I know but Covey is actually a grandfather – of 51 grandchildren. Talk about self development!) According to The Economist, he was shrewd enough to mix the language of management science with the sort of moral messages that have been around from the days of Norman Vincent Peale and the 12 Steps programme of AA. He’s made the sort of money that might have made even Bernie Madoff salivate but how good is he at and is he just one more in that group of knowalls who divide everything into easily memorable lists, preferably numeric.
The Economist said Covey has three habits worth noting: presenting stale ideas as breathtaking breakthroughs (as The secret did), naming model firms (rather unfortunately some of them fell over and someone from the University of Texas found that luck had as much to do with success as anything else) and making numbered lists or “facile principles”. Following the lists or principles may help you and your business but it ain’t necessarily so: we hear so much that firms should learn from their customers but Henry Ford once pointed out that if he’d listened to his customers he’d have built a better horse and buggy!
So why do people follow them so religiously? It may be that success in business or in life itself comes from a whole lot of factors but there is still an almost primal need for a one stop shop to learn about it and that is where Mr Covey and all his imitators count in. Perhaps it’s also an addiction as those who lap up self development books rarely seem to develop out of needing them and the people who succeed most from them are the people who write them. I really wouldn’t know but I’m just a librarian and we can only watch as it all sweeps past us and seems so familiar.