Why “motivation” might not take you to sustainable success | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 02, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 02, 2018

Why “motivation” might not take you to sustainable success

I will make an honest confession right off the bat: this piece is heavily influenced by Stephen Covey's genre-defining book titled “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. However, I have tried to put the learning from this book into the context of our current time and culture. In order to understand the core idea of this article, one needs to get familiarised with two key terms first: character ethic and personality ethic. Character ethic refers to the set of values or principles an individual develops over time and these remain fairly constant over their lifetime.

The secret of building this character ethic, according to Covey, is practicing certain simple yet effective habits in our daily life. Whereas personality ethic refers to the quick-fix solutions and human relations techniques, which have been preached to be the crux of professional success in our current professional and learning culture. The most visible manifestation of this culture is the plethora of “motivational” speeches we see around us now. A number of habits that Covey teaches us go in quite the opposite direction of what most “motivators” preach to us. Covey states that these techniques might work in the short term by altering certain behaviors, but there is no shortcut to character building if one wants to attain sustainable success.

As the title suggests, Covey proposes developing seven habits in order to build a strong character ethic. These are self-evident and timeless concepts impacting the human race for thousands of years. The first three of these habits are about private victory, a term coined by Covey for referring to mastery of self. The first of these three habits is being proactive. This means focusing our efforts on situations that are within our domain of control and not being concerned about the things that we cannot impact. This enables us to take control of our own life and accept responsibility for whatever happens to it. After taking control of one's life by being proactive, the next habit is beginning with the end in mind. This resonates quite well with NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) principles too. Every action we take must have an end objective and we need to envision that objective even before starting the activity. This goes completely against the “ready-fire-aim” corporate mantra and tells us to take some time off to ponder the end objective before jumping into action. This can be taken to a much holistic level by designing our personal mission statement in life. Last habit to achieve private victory is putting first things first. This refers to the idea of prioritisation in life. Prioritising in the right way helps one to work more effectively because it weeds out unnecessary activities, or at least, postpones them until it is absolutely necessary. This allows us to have sufficient time with our friends and family, the people who actually matter in life.

After this, Covey takes the personal habits to a public sphere by introducing three habits of public victory, Covey's euphemism for succeeding in professional world. First of these three is to think win-win while making any decision. Whereas modern corporate culture teaches us to maximise profit at any cost; Covey argues that one party always winning and the other party always losing creates grounds for mistrust, dissatisfaction, and hostility. As a result, the positive outcomes from the decision become unsustainable. Hence, any business decision or negotiation should be made with the aim of achieving gain for all parties involved. Next comes the habit of seeking first to understand, then to be understood. This habit is all about developing the skill of active listening. Covey asks us to listen without any intention of replying, manipulating or convincing the speaker of our point of view. This again goes at odds with the “motivation” or “soft skill” culture of today's world where the sole aim of all conversations is to communicate one's own ideas and convince the other person about own point of view. Final habit in public victory is to synergise. Synergy means bringing all the parts of an activity together to create a greater outcome. A successful leader can utilise the unique abilities of each team member to solve different problems and as a result the group's work becomes more effective than the sum of individual performances.

The final habit, called sharpen the saw, is about encouraging all other habits to grow and nurture. In order to cultivate the six habits mentioned above, we need to take care of our physical self, mental self, social self, and spiritual self. Balancing all four of these is critical to achieve the private and public victories. However, most of the human relations techniques prescribed by “motivational” speeches focus on only one or two of these habits. This is why “motivation”, in the current context it is used, might not be conducive to long-term success in life.


Saajid is  a graduate from IBA and Cranfield University (UK). He is a marketing professional working in the fintech industry. His passion is to help people grow by sharing his knowledge and experience through writing and public speaking. Reach him at saajid90@gmail.com.

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