Shortly after World War I the dominant view of success in the US shifted to what might be called "personality ethic". "Success became more of a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes and behaviours, skills and techniques, that lubricate the processes of human interaction." We recognise this paradigm easily because in the past 100 years this latter view of success and personal growth hasn't changed much. We are still taught "positive mental attitude", "fake it until you make it", "sink or swim", etc. And more specifically, there emerged hundreds of books and "quick fix" courses on how become a "killer salesman" or "get any date you want". These tend to be manipulative, deceptive and devious - quite the opposite of the "character ethic" of the previous era.
It's not that there is something wrong with learning how to speak in public by faking confidence before it becomes natural or how to write good copy by tapping into popular psychology. It's just that taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture shows a bleak worldview of people trying to outrun each other in the short term and ultimately failing to reach deeper, more important values in the long term. Consider this: an ambitious salesman learns a trick or two and enjoys success in the office before his habits of deception and cutting corners seep into other areas of his life. Before he knows is, he becomes a serial cheater and his idea of looking after his health is taking an aspirin the morning after the night before. By 45, he is deeply unhappy and unwell, his sports car and luxury lifestyle notwithstanding.
Covey refers to "personality ethic" self-help literature as a band-aid which works well to fix things temporarily but which cannot solve deeply rooted, chronic problems or bring long-term success. His book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People attempts to draw our attention back to the core principles of integrity, humility and "win-win".
I read his book in January 2017 just as Donald Trump had been inaugurated as the 45th President of the US. It occurred to me that Trump embodied everything that Covey (who had first published his book in 1989) had detested. Trump is the author of The Art of the Deal, How to Get Rich, Think Like a Billionaire, Think Big and Kick Arse, The Way to the Top, to name just a few of his books. These are bestsellers! It's no wonder a ruthless businessman with no morals or personal ethics was elected to lead the US. We should be wondering why so many Americans were surprised about his victory in the first place. Similarly, it's time to realise that populism in other parts of the world (whether it's "right" or "left") is the result of our culture becoming so obsessed with quick fixes and miraculous promises (I leafed through The Times on the tube yesterday and came across an ad which suggested that turmeric cured cancer.) It's our view of success - in its every facet - that desperately needs to be re-examined.
You reap what you sow. It is now time to ask ourselves some difficult questions. When France goes to the polls tomorrow and Britain a month later, let's try to consider the impact of our vote on the lives of our brothers and neighbours. UK's vote to leave the EU was the selfish outcome for other members of the club who had enjoyed peace and economic cooperation for decades since the World War II. I'm not saying that we should not be putting our own agenda first, but I do believe that we ought to be taking a wider view and multiple factors into account when making decisions which impact other people (and our planet as a whole). And when I say "we ought to", I mean we can no longer afford to do otherwise.