A few years back, Stephen Covey wrote a book called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It was one of those success-oriented, motivational works that was supposed to help the ordinary Joes of the business world to become more “effective” so that they could advance up the career ladder. It encouraged forethought, attention to “sharpening the knife” with continuing education in one’s field, and win-win thinking, as a means of becoming an “effective person.”
“Effective people,” by the standards of the commercial world, are pretty easy to identify. They are those who are in high demand because they provide important services (be they professional, spiritual, managerial, or otherwise) or goods.
I doubt that my life fits the mold of a “business success” by some standards. I’m not particularly well-known in my field. I don’t work at a prestigious firm. And I won’t be retiring anytime soon on the income that I am generating (although I am grateful that God has blessed me with the ability provide enough support for myself and my family that we can live comfortably). But if an “effective person” is someone whose professional services are in demand, I probably do fit that mold.
Over the last decade, I’ve also gotten to know a few others who meet that description even better than I do, some of whom are disciples of Jesus that I very much admire. And during that time, I have gradually concluded that – while it is probably helpful to be mindful of the Seven Habits, it is even more critical to be mindful of the Seven Deadly Sins, because every last one – pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, and sloth – are snapping at our heels.
I want to speak here in a very frank way. It involves some things that I’ve often hesitated to say here because – as we will see below – there is great risk of being misunderstood and misinterpreted, both too favorably and too unfavorably. I’m not saying these things because I think I’m a big shot, nor am I saying them – as I hope you will see – out of self-pity. I’m saying them because they reflect my own experiences (and those of a few people I’ve known), and I think it might be helpful to others like me to give a voice to these thoughts and feelings.
So here we go.
When you are “highly effective,” according to the standards of the commercial world, people are saying and doing a lot of things that can make you feel really good about yourself. Folks are lined up waiting for you to take care of their needs. You’re making choices about which questions, phone calls, and appointments you will take and which ones you won’t. And more than likely, people’s jobs and careers depend, to a great extent, on what you think of them. The authority that you are given and the salary that you command is envied and admired by those who have not reached your own level of “effectiveness.”
And therein lies a veritable snakebed of temptation.
We’ll start with the obvious. Pride and arrogance are never more than a self-indulgent thought or two away, and they are easily justified because of what others are telling you about yourself. After all, if your salary, office space, and corporate position demonstrates that you have achieved some level of superiority over others insofar as the commercial powers-that-be are concerned, its not difficult to infer that – in other ways – you must also be superior.
But, in the Kingdom, achievement in the commercial world carries no real meaning. I often wonder about church leadership models that are built around that idea that – if someone is a commercially successful leader who regularly attends church – that person must also necessarily be a good spiritual leader. Could it be that the exact opposite is true? That the “get tough and be practical” techniques that drive the commercial world are incompatible with the examples of shepherd/servant leadership that we find in scripture?
There is an ugly, ugly truth behind the perks of “high effectiveness.” People do not seek out effective people because they love them or want what is best for them. They seek them out because they are useful. Effective people are just that, people who have greater capacity than others to resolve legal or medical issues, to educate, to minister, to counsel, to influence, or to provide a needed good or experience. So, naturally, they are sought out by people because of those things.
Here is where it gets a little personal. There are many people in my life whom I believe care about my well being, and genuinely so. But I can count on one hand the number of people who regularly enter my life solely to do something for my benefit. My amazing wife and two or three select friends/mentors do this. But that’s about it. While some of those who enter my life do offer to do things for me, and while many of them do genuinely care about me, they are usually also asking me (or at least hinting at me) to do something for them or for someone they care about.
And don’t make the mistake of assuming that being sought out for one’s usefulness is applicable only in the context of commercial endeavors. Personal relationships are also sought out with effective people in an effort to gain or broker personal influence. In fact, in the case of some individuals, such as my wife, one’s capacity to take care of others in personal relationships is the reason why they are so effective.
Again, there is something that you need to understand here. I’m okay with the fact that I am sought out because I can be useful to people. I am deeply gratified when I can do things, both professionally and personally, that improve the quality of someone else’s life (or at least make a bad situation a little better). I like to be helpful and useful to others. Indeed, as a disciple of Jesus, such usefulness should be ingrained on my very identity (more about that late). I’m glad that people ask me to be useful to them.
But there is a certain frustration that is inherent in the multiplicity of choices that the “highly effective” person must face. Choices are made. Both at work and at home. This relationship will be pursued. This one won’t. This activity is important. This one isn’t. This phone call I will take. This one I won’t. This time I’m going to try to take care of an issue. This time I’m going to rest. Hundreds of choices, literally, every day, from daybreak to bedtime.
And then there’s the guilt. Should I have made a different choice? Was there time to pursue that relationship? Was it right to ignore that call? Would it be selfish to use two or three free hours this way instead of the way this person is asking me to?
To make matters worse, I’ve known more than one person – caught in the midst of a difficult struggle to balance work, family, and rest – that has been the target of subtle (and not so subtle) efforts to manipulate that sense of guilt. Advice, mostly in the form of second guessing about the difficult process of managing time and relationships, is a constant. As Jesus himself learned, such advice can come from both the most obvious and unexpected places. (Consider the “help” that came from his family members in Mark 3).
And here’s the next land mine. Sometimes,when effective people realize that they are primarily sought out because they are useful, this new perspective doesn’t necessarily equate to a more healthy situation. A sense of loneliness and depression often follows. It becomes easy to question whether colleagues, friends, even family, are interested in you because of who you are or solely because of what you can do for them. And it isn’t soon before it becomes apparent that “success” does not bring meaningful life. On the tails of this perspective often comes the temptation to engage in addictive behavior: food, sex, alcohol, and lavish lifestyles – which are more readily accessible to effective people – become cheap substitutes for the more meaningful things that suddenly seem out of their grasp. And at the very least, self-pity becomes the order of the day.
Funny, its actually possible to play both sides of this equation. On numerous occasions, I’ve heard people that fit the “highly effective” description complain about how overwhelmed they are with responsiblities. Yet – all throughout the complaining – I wonder if there is also a desire to make sure I know just how impressed I should be that they have so much to do.
Holding on to pride and self pity all at once (“Be impressed with how sought-out I am, but feel sorry for me, too!”) is a little trickly, but it can be done.
So there you have it. Forget the Seven Habits. “Effective” people should be on the lookout for the Seven Sins. Pride, gluttony, lust, vanity, anger, the whole lot, are strewn along the path of the “effective” person, waiting like a snare when self-importance, despair or guilt become the order of the day.
So, for my friends and readers who are (or who want to be) “highly effective” people, here is a bit of advice from the perspective of someone who has fit that description for a few years, now:
First , if you want to become an effective person, by the commercial world’s standards, because you want an “easy” path through life, and if your desire is to simultaneously walk as a disciple of Jesus, you may as well turn back right now. “To him who is given much, much is expected.” You can try to limp through life, obsessed with career and money, while paying lip service to your faith, if you like. But some day, it will find you out. Like the paths of martyrs, hospice patients, and the homeless, the path of the “effective” person is one on which a cross must be borne. And it is a path that must be walked with the utmost wariness.
Second. Spend time – lots of time – every day, listening to the voice of God. Pray. Read. Meditate. Reflect. Sing. Worship. If you don’t do this, the other voices – ones which seek to manipulate your time and attention and affection – will be the only things that you follow.
Third. Follow God’s voice. You can’t make everyone happy with the choices you make, nor can you make them understand why you make them, so don’t try. You can’t make God love you more because he already loves you as much as he possibly can. So just trust in him. Follow in the direction that he leads you, and don’t worry if someone else doesn’t approve or understand. This is a very hard thing to do, but there is incredible peace and freedom to be found here.
Fourth. Avoid obsession with others’ success. To the career-oriented, its easy to become enamored with others because they have built a successful career or business. A relationship that is built on this sort-of admiration isn’t good for you or the person with whom you are enamored. Relationships that are built on one-way or mutual admiration of commercial success, feeding off of one another’s envy and pride, are doomed to failure.
Fifth. And this is so important. Don’t define yourself by what you do to make money. And don’t let anyone else do it either. Think of yourself as a follower of Jesus, who also happens to be a lawyer/doctor/accountant/manager/small businesswoman.
And finally, to be a disciple of Jesus means to live as he lived. Feed the hungry. Clothe the poor. Heal the sick. And I don’t just mean give money to those causes. Do it. Hands on. And regularly. As I’ve already said, self-pity, often borne of our own narcissism, is one of many paths to the Dark Side, and there is nothing like spending time with the poor and homeless to pull you out of a “poor, busy me” stupor.