The Lindy Effect and Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits: Help for Educators to Grow Better Individually and Collaboratively (For the School Year and for the Summer!)

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” — Helen Keller

“None of us is as dumb as all of us.” – 

As a public high school teacher, the COVID-19 stay-at-home and distancing requirements have driven me to think more about the effective individual and collaborative work. Clearly, the stay-at-home situation challenges us to practice new levels of responsible individual work. However, sometimes the bigger challenges involve collaboration, during crisis and non-crisis times. Done well, with a durable knowledge-rich and a knowledge-building focus, collaboration can empower educators. Done poorly, collaboration becomes a purgatorial experience. I believe that the Lindy Effect’s notion of longer-lasting knowledge and Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People can help educators envision much better individual and collaborative approaches to effective education. 

It’s Hard to Beat the 7 Habits

Rightly understood, Stephen Covey’s approach to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People provides the best understanding of how effective individual and collaborative efforts should work individually and together. The first set of three habits relate to being a highly effective individual; the second set of three habits then build those individual habits into better group or team work; and the last habit is about continual growth, balance, and well-being. 

  1. Be Proactive (independent habit) 
  2. Begin with the End in Mind (independent habit) 
  3. First Things First (independent habit) 
  4. Think Win-Win (interdependent habit) 
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood (interdependent habit) 
  6. Synergize (interdependent habit)  
  7. Sharpen the Saw (all-around habit) 

Basically, individual educators can become increasingly effective by practicing the first three habits. Those individual habits need to reach a level of personal proficiency with knowledge and skills so that a person can be more effective when working with a group. 

The group context of habits 4-6 also gives a greater purpose for the individual’s knowledge, skills, and habits beyond mere self-satisfaction. Working with others can challenge one to grow through friendly competition as well and harmonious cooperation with others. When the individual and interdependent habits are working well, they exemplify Covey’s notion of synergy, which also reflects Helen Keller’s assertion that “together we can do so much.” 

The 7th habit, sharpen the saw, basically means renewal. Covey notes that there are four dimensions to renewal: physical, social/emotional, spiritual, and mental. For me in any given year, each of those dimensions suffers from a weary dullness by this point in the semester. Continuing with the metaphor, I need to rest up, refocus, and retrain myself so as to sharpen each dimension and the related habits out of season, which will help me chop my way efficiently and effectively through the school year with more sanity and stability. Such practiced sanity and stability contributes to better work with others.

Overall, Covey’s notion of sharpen the saw captures some urgency for transitioning into the summer and preparing for the return in the fall. On one hand this is a time for rest, recovery, and regeneration. On the other hand, it’s also a time to plan and prepare wisely so that we’re ready to teach students in any of the four anticipated scenarios for learning in a COVID-19 context during the next school year. 

How the Lindy Effect Relates to the Ongoing Value of the 7 Habits

While recently reading Cleverer, David Didau’s provocative book on improving educational practices, I came across his reference to the Lindy Effect. The Lindy Effect is basically the theoretical claim that ideas and knowledge are increasingly likely to have lasting value in the future in relation to how long they have survived in the past. Didau employs this theory as part of his argument that we should focus teaching and learning on knowledge-building and the Lindy Effect helps us discern that many older forms of knowledge are important.

The Lindy Effect fits well with Covey’s own claims that the 7 Habits aren’t really something he made up but something that he discovered from many sources of wisdom throughout the past. A good case can be made that Covey is referring to forms of moral knowledge that have ongoing relevance for long-term flourishing. This is also particularly interesting with Covey’s focus on character rather than personality (a point that Susan Cain has also explored in relation to introversion). It seems like character is something that tends to last in its influence while the appeal of personality tends to fade quickly with time and cultural change. Basically in terms of the Lindy Effect, Covey’s 7 Habits show great potential for long-lasting 21st century habits of excellence and effectiveness for educators, students, citizens, community, workplace, and family members. 

Here are a few short and fascinating online sources that briefly explore how the Lindy Effect can relate to books, culture, ideas, and technology: 

Why We Seem to Lose the Habits

The most common way that the 7 Habits fail educators is that the habits simply get ignored or forgotten. This seems to be most of all due to our ineffective personal and public habits of chronological snobbery (as C.S. Lewis would call the attitude), neomania (as educator Dave Stuart diagnoses the problem), or the tendency toward short-termism (contributing to a fractured society as political theorist Yuval Levin notes in A Time to Build, 190-191). Correspondingly, we seem drawn to novelty, distraction, silver-bullets, and the next big thing instead of lasting knowledge, practices, and wisdom from the past.  

The 7 Habits also escape educators due to misunderstandings or misapplications. To be fair, public schools may have trouble staying focused on the habits because we are stretched thin and drawn in so many directions. In practice, notions such as collaboration, which could fit well as an interdependent habit, can eclipse individual responsibility habits and drift toward mere groupthink and trend-chasing. I sometimes hear leaders at various levels and in different contexts mention starting with the end in mind, but I then don’t see much in the way of proactive and first things first habits that go with such ends. It seems difficult to find a public school commitment to first things in such a way that helps one sift through seemingly unending demands for time and attention in order to be more effective. The resulting energy depletion, time consumption, and confusion tend to detract from growing in understanding, let alone seeking first to understand. The same can be said about attempting to synergize with others. I am sometimes concerned that the end in mind too easily becomes an issue of appearances and public relations rather than doing what we can do best as a knowledge-focused institution. Too often, win-win thinking seems to drift into some version of “don’t make waves” or “don’t be negative.” Basically, the habits become a muddled memory of phrases that merely sound good at times. For all the drawbacks of the emergency distance learning, it has provided time to think more about the dysfunctional habits that public educators get drawn into.

Covey’s notion of sharpen the saw invites more ongoing discussions and reflections about moral knowledge and effective habits in institutions and individuals. I do hope such a theme can become a common focus for upcoming and ongoing discussions about returning to school in the fall and beyond.

Sharpening the Saw This Summer

I’ve had to bring many books home due to the social distancing and due to some construction work taking place at our high school. I’ve been spending some time rearranging books so that I easily find them and get sharpened by some of them this summer. The current offerings of a wide variety of quality courses looks promising. I also am grateful for the abundant collaboration opportunities that I have via Zoom, Google Meet, and other interactive plaforms. In many of those collaborative sessions, I’ve gotten encouraged by working with many educators who are committed to keeping good habits and first things first all year long, even during the summer.

Invitation to Reflect and Consider: 

  1. Which of the 7 Habits is easiest for you to practice? Which is the hardest? 
  2. Without oversimplifying things, which habits are most needed for improving public life in our society? What’s in the way? 
  3. How might the Lindy Effect relate to selecting a really good book for you to read this summer? 
  4. Where might the Lindy Effect help you think through choices about priorities for growth and long-term flourishing? 

For Further Reading and Reflection:

Making Kids Cleverer: A manifesto for closing the advantage gap, by David Didau

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey

First Things First, by Stephen Covey

A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, by Yuval Levin 

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