Our character, basically, is a composite of our habits. Because they are consistent, often
unconscious patterns, habits constantly express our character and produce our effectiveness –
or our in effectiveness. In the words of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence,
then, is not an act, but a habit.”
I identify here seven habits shared by all truly effective people. Fortunately, for those of us not
born effective (no one is), these habits can be learned. Furthermore, the collective experience
of the ages shows us that acquiring them will give you the character to succeed.
Some years ago, I decided to read all the success literature published in the United States since
its beginning in 1776 – hundreds of books, articles, and essays on self-improvement and
I noticed a startling thing: Almost all the writings that helped build our country in its first 150
years or so identified character as the foundation of success. The literature of what we might
call “The Character Ethic” helped Americans cultivate integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance,
courage, justice, patience, industry, and the Golden Rule. Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is
a prime example.
Compared with the early success literature, the writings of the last 50 years seem superficial to
me – filled with social image consciousness, techniques, and quick fixes. There, the solutions
derive not from the Character Ethic, but the Personality Ethic:
Success is a function of public image, of attitudes and behaviors, of skills that lubricate the process
of human interaction. I don’t say these skills are unimportant. But they are secondary.
If there isn’t deep integrity and fundamental goodness behind what you do, the challenges of
life will cause true motives to surface, and human relationship failure will replace short-term
success. As Emerson once put it, “What you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what
Changing our habits to improve what we are can be a painful process. It must be motivated by
a higher purpose, and by the willingness to subordinate what you think you want now for
what you know you want later.
As you open the gates of change to give yourself new habits, be patient with yourself This is
not a quick fix. But I assure you that you will see immediate benefits. And if you see the whole
picture clearly, you’ll have the perseverance to see the process to its conclusion. Have faith –
it’s worth the effort. Remember what Thomas Paine said: “What we obtain too cheap, we
esteem too lightly; ‘tis dearness only which gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to
put a proper price upon its goods.”
Acquiring the seven habits of effectiveness takes us through the stages of character
development. Habits 1 through 3 make up the “private victory” – where we go from
dependence to independence by taking responsibility for our own lives. Acquiring habits 4
through 6 is our “public victory”: Once independent, we learn to be interdependent, to
succeed with other people. The seventh habit makes all the others possible – periodically
renewing ourselves in mind body, and spirit.