Attitude Adjustment

Work harder! Earn less! Learn to love it!

THE SUBVERSIVE

Stephen Covey is striding purposefully across the stage at the Minneapolis Convention Center, preparing to unveil his Eighth Habit. The crowd is absolutely still, as transfixed as if Covey were about to demonstrate transmogrification.

The habit, like the seven that preceded it and made Covey a rich, rich man and a household name, is simple and irrefutable: find your voice and inspire others to find theirs.

It's as if waves of confidence are emanating from Covey's broad, straight shoulders and washing out into the audience. There is nothing in his demeanor that says snake oil. He really looks like a guy who has it all figured out.

There's a profound sense of alienation in the American workplace, he tells us. Most people believe their co-workers are more talented and more creative than their jobs require. And most people also say they are under increasing pressure to produce more for less. "There's all this talent," he thunders, sweeping an arm toward the crowd, "and we can't even use it."

A murmur of agreement ripples through the auditorium. Out in the seats I imagine we're all feeling the same fear--that our jobs are drying up, that they can be done for a fraction of our wages by someone more desperate somewhere else, that our hard-won skills are passé. And it's not our fault.

"Whole people," he explains, need "whole jobs" to stimulate our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits. To this end, we should ask four things of our employers: use us creatively, treat us kindly, let us serve human needs in principled ways, and pay us fairly.

We're nodding out in the audience. This is us. We want these things. If we had them, we could take over the world.

"Voice is when your talent and your passion overlaps what the world needs," Covey confides. And voice is inhibited by "five metastasizing emotional cancers: criticism, comparing, complaining, competing for a sense of your own worth, and contending."

People all around me are nodding. This is the feeling we're supposed to be getting, a kind of buoyant, hopeful conviction that we can be as successful as Covey--or at least the guy in the next cube. I don't know how much Covey is being paid for today's appearance, but corporations reportedly pay him upward of $40,000 to motivate their workforces. It's obvious why.

Thirteen million copies of Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People have been sold, as well as countless other books, workbooks, videos, and the like. And I'm betting that half of my seatmates own a Franklin Planner, the marvelously complicated date book that's helped make FranklinCovey, which he co-owns, a $350 million a year company. Clearly, Covey has found his voice.

Onstage, he's using PowerPoint slides to conduct a quick history lesson. When the agrarian age gave way to the industrial revolution, lots and lots of workers permanently lost their jobs. "A massive social dislocation," he acknowledges. "And yet most of the progress of that age comes from that."

He's right about the first part, anyhow. Legions of craftspeople were indeed put out of work by the industrial revolution, which took place in England in the late 1800s. They were replaced by mechanized production systems, which is how we as a society amassed enough time and cash to fixate on things like Franklin Planners, instead of where we might get enough bread and milk to keep all of the kids alive.

As I'm pondering this, something snaps in my mind. Has this guru of American capitalism been reading Karl Marx? In formulating his soon-to-be-best-selling Eighth Habit, did he borrow from Marx's theory on the alienation of labor?

It was bad enough, Marx held, that the industrial revolution replaced, say, skilled furniture makers with unskilled laborers who would only ever know how to turn a chair leg, wiping out countless jobs. This sea change destroyed any hope most folks had of reaping the full value of their own labor and put them at the mercy of a boss who literally owned the means of production.

But mechanization did more than put artisans out of work. It also robbed entire classes of people of the psychic rewards of work. Compared to the feeling of competence that comes with mastering a craft, how satisfying can it be to make the same cog over and over again? The craftsman has a sense of control over his destiny. The laborer doesn't.

Maybe what Covey is suggesting is that those of us who can get back to being artisans the fastest will be the winners in the changing economy. If so, he's conveniently skipping over the part where we learn how to wrest back control over the means of production.

Incredibly enough, back onstage, he is literally exhorting the bosses in the crowd to "let workers out of their chains, to allow them to use their minds." But he's lecturing the proletariat, too: "Get your head out of other people's weaknesses. Stop saying, 'Yeah, this is all great stuff but the person who really needs it isn't here.'" Instead, Covey orders, focus on learning the Eighth Habit.

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