You reap what you sow: Stephen Covey’s Spiritual Roots of Human Relations

I first heard of “The Spiritual Roots of Human Relations” by Stephen Covey from an Institute teacher at the University of Utah. The lesson itself has faded from my memory, but the title of the book stuck with me. When I later was inspired as a returned missionary after reading “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and “The Divine Center“, someone mentioned to me that Spiritual Roots was the original, the source of everything he had written later. This past year, my brother, my dad, and I, were trying to find a book that we could read together and discuss during our weekly Skype sessions. I suggested this book, because I knew it would be good, and because I thought it could give us some shared spiritual experiences.

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I was correct. Covey’s book is less ordered than say, Seven Habits. It has principles too, but it’s organized more like a series of sermons. 28 in all. I believe a lot of them were probably principles he taught his missionaries as a mission president. Many of the experiences he uses as examples are missionary experiences as a mission president. Something else that dates the book a little bit are all his quotes from David O. McKay. They are powerful, and they hark back to a period that emphasizes “old-fashioned” values like integrity and self-discipline– that I personally believe our world could use a dose of right now. For the sake of our mental and emotional health, or the fact that everybody is different and we can’t impose the same system on everyone, we sacrifice self-discipline. I believe a central tenet to life is paradox, and that we will all need to find a balance between, on one side, self denial and discipline, and on the other, creativity and freedom. The world happens to be emphasizing one side strongly at the moment at the expense of the other.

Covey expects a lot of his audience. He calls it the law of the harvest: you reap what you sow. He doesn’t allow for excuses, or “I will try.” And this is what gives it its power. I tire of object lessons in church that are mostly there to entertain, or stories that seem like more fluff than anything else. I also don’t like talks organized into lists that seem fairly arbitrary, and don’t leave with a sense of cohesiveness and unity. Covey weaves all things into one, helping you realize that the gospel is a unified way of life.

As a system of belief and action, Covey’s words bear witness to the truth of the gospel, and that he has worked to attain that truth for himself. You know that he practices what he preaches. However, I don’t believe that every reader need to take everything he teaches into their own lives. To me, that would be, as Elder Uchtdorf taught, one man’s good ideas and making them into a hedge about the law, a new law of Moses. There are a few things, for instance, that I cringed at doing when I read.

The first is his, I think, over-emphasis and praise of planning:

Planning is thinking. Planning is serving “with your mind.” Half an hour in daily, careful planning will double or triple the effectiveness of your ten hours of work. Planning requires mental discipline, patience, and a lot of practice. Do not become discouraged in your initial struggling effort to develop the planning skill. Stay with it in faith.

He is a full believer in the power of checklists:

Develop your own personal study guide and follow it, using a checklist. Let self-discipline in every phase of your life bring you to Christ-like motives and works of wisdom, humility, love, and service in each of these phases of life.

This reeks to me of business methods applied to life, something I find increasingly abhorrent.

While I believe that systems are important to commit to, they are only useful so long as you are committed to it. If your system is no longer working, you shouldn’t be afraid to modify it or build on it. As a returned missionary, I began trying to add more and more bells and whistles to my personal study that it became a burden rather than a help; I had a list of 25 items that I needed to include in every study session, with specific ways of highlighting scriptures, taking notes, and “being creative.” That didn’t work long-term, but it doesn’t mean I should give up on having meaningful scripture study.

Planning to me needs to be flexible enough for creative action. If I plan every hour of the day, it often becomes an awful burden, because I have subjected myself to the tyrant of myself the night before. I try to always keep my method of planning fresh, so that I never feel like I am in a rut.

The second cringe-worthy factor was his emphasis on effectiveness. I agree with his idea of the law of the harvest, but I feel that it can become self-serving very easily. Just read this quote here:

Effectiveness means convert baptisms. Effectiveness means to teach good discussions to good people. Effective activity brings accomplishments, results. Ineffective activity (busyness without results) brings frustration and can breed discouragement and an unbelieving or defeatist attitude. Effectiveness—accomplishment—success: one and the same thing.

Taken out of context, this can lead to a terrible gospel of success. It no longer focuses on people, but “success.” And it can lead to toxic perfectionism. If you aren’t getting twenty lessons a week as a missionary, it’s because you haven’t put in the necessary work to achieve it yet. Again, Covey balances his discussion with focusing on the individual; it’s there. But when we Mormons sin, it tends to be in the direction of Pharisaism and the letter of the law, not the other direction.

A few chapters I felt particularly relevant dealt with raising children and practices of discipline.  I would like to read over these chapters again with my wife as we start thinking about how we want to raise our children.

I will include a link to my favorite quotes from the book here. An excellent reminder of how the gospel is meant to be lived in practice.

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