Those of us who are graduating from college, or who are sidestepping student loans to start grinding on a career, are taking our first steps into the “adult” world. But that terminology is misleading — it’s not like we’ve been locked away in a kid’s room and suddenly a door is opened. We’ve actually been practicing adult skills for a long time. It’s just that the stakes are higher now that we are setting out to find our own path.
After school, there are no programs or structures that rule our lives — and that’s part of what’s exciting about being a grown-ass person. We get to make our lives into what we want them to be.
But even if we want to start crushing it in this new phase of life, it’s not easy to know how to be successful. And what does “successful” even mean, really?
There’s a lot that goes into seeking meaning in life — discernment and listening to God’s voice are fundamental, for example. We also have wisdom gained from a researcher who spent time studying people who were effective, driven, and connected to purpose. Dr. Stephen Covey gathered his observations into seven distinct habits that anyone can start practicing to learn more about themselves and start to lead the teams they are part of.
There are many more virtues to pursue when you set out to become a good person, but these are immediately applicable to improving your professional and personal life.
Habit 1: Be proactive
Being proactive is foundational because it unlocks an approach to life that makes other growth possible. Without intentionality and a desire to mature, we will stagnate. Covey famously said that being proactive means telling yourself, “I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.”
So how can we become more proactive? Proactive people take responsibility for their actions, and instead of letting their emotional state drive their lives, they do these three things:
- Pause to consider their values and goals before they respond to a situation;
- Seek to understand a situation for themselves, rather than waiting for others to explain;
- Refuse to waste time and energy on things they can’t control, and instead focus on what they can.
Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind
Every single one of us will take some wrong turns and side-paths in the course of our lives and careers — that’s unavoidable. And the learning that can come from these detours can form us in important ways.
But it does help to know where we’re going — to take a look ahead to see where we want to end up. There’s nothing that says we can’t change direction in the future, but setting a goal at least gets us moving in a focused direction and prevents wandering.
Before we start chasing whatever goals come to mind, it helps to take some time to first articulate our values — those intangibles that we want to build our lives around. Once we have a sense of who we are and what we stand for, our goals will snap into place much more easily — and we’ll find more resilience.
A good way to encapsulate our values into a workable framework is to create a personal mission statement. Here are four things that can guide your self-reflection:
- Think about when you’ve been at your best, and when you’ve been at your worst. These situations can help you refine a sense of who you want to be.
- Make a short list of people who have deeply influenced you. What were their best qualities? What do you want to emulate about them?
- Set aside time to consider long-term life goals. What do you want your life to look like in 10, 20, or 30 years?
- Don’t forget to take this practice to prayer — including God’s voice in this project will keep you grounded in your deepest identity.
Habit 3: Put first things first
What matters most in your life? What are the things or the people you can’t live without?
If we can be clear about the fundamental building blocks that we need in our lives in order to flourish, then we can shape our lives to include them regularly. That clarity will also give us ground to stand on when we need to draw boundaries — either to avoid things that pull us away from those essentials, or to say “no” when something is interesting but ultimately distracting.
Reflection and prayer and journaling can help identify what’s most important in our lives. The next step is actually building time into our weekly schedule to attend to those things.
Habit 4: Think win/win
Conflict is unavoidable in any important relationship in our lives, so learning how to manage it well is key to sustaining connections to the people who are most important to us. One key to conflict is to head into those situations with a mindset that is searching for a good outcome for both parties. In other words, the only way to “win” in a disagreement is for both people to win.
Approaching a situation with a win/win mentality depends on three traits:
- Integrity, which requires you to know yourself and your values;
- Maturity with which to express yourself respectfully and encounter other points of view;
- A sense of abundance — believing that there are a lot of creative ways to meet everyone’s needs, and that there is no need to fear scarcity.
Habit 5: Seek first to understand
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand,” says Covey. “They listen with the intent to reply.”
Take a few days to attend to your daily conversations and you’ll notice that real, active listening is a rare skill. And it is transformative — the friends who listen well are our best friends because we can tell them anything.
So how can we improve our listening skills? It takes focus and intentionality, and the most fundamental part of this skill is empathy — attending not only to what someone is saying, but how they are saying it, and the feelings they are revealing.
It can also help to identify where we often go wrong when we listen poorly. These are common traps we fall into:
- Evaluating: judging someone, then agreeing or disagreeing based on our own experience.
- Probing: asking questions that we’re interested in, but that are not relevant to the speaker.
- Advising: Offering advice before the speaker asks for solutions.
- Interpreting: Analyzing a situation based on our own limited experience.
Habit 6: Synergize
One aspect of a mature outlook on life is seeing differences as an advantage in a group setting. “Synergy” is a term that describes the magic that happens when a team that functions well produces more than the sum of its parts.
Synergy begins with trust — without that basic element of cooperation and safety, people can’t come together in meaningful ways. The goal for the team needs to be clear as well so that everyone can buy in. With those two elements in place — trust and clear goals — then a team is primed to solve problems and work together in new, creative ways.
Habit 7: ‘Sharpen your saw’
Covey uses that phrase, “sharpen your saw,” to describe the benefits of attending to self-care. If we pursue wellness and restorative activities, we are creating capacity for resilience within us. Without those self-care practices, it can feel like we are trying to cut down a tree with a dull saw — it takes twice as much effort.
There are a lot of practices that can ground our self-care, but three approaches can keep us on track:
- Integration: intentionally attending to our wellness in body, mind, and spirit — and seeing how all of these aspects of our lives are interconnected.
- Invest for the long haul: Wellness is a lifelong journey, so consistent efforts that you can sustain will yield better results than short, intense interventions.
- Seek balance: We’re all busy, so it takes concerted effort to build in activities that balance our lives.
Dr. Covey’s famous 7 Habits of Highly Successful People isn’t the only way to find purpose in life, or get back on track if you’re feeling lost. But it can be a place to start if you’re ready to jump-start your adult life. Read through all of our articles in this series: