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Deeper meaning of Proactivity

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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Stephen Covey
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Being proactive is commonly understood to mean acting with foresight and anticipation for future problems, changes, or needs. It’s the opposite of being reactive, when one acts/ reacts only when a situation is already pressing.

Stephen R. Covey places “Be proactive” as the first of seven habits of highly effective people. He argues that it is the foundation of success in all aspects of live. But when he says “Be proactive” it means much more than having foresight and acting upon it.

Between Stimulus and response:

There are several schools of thought to describe the nature of humans. In the following three of them are described in simple terms. Genetic determinism is the idea that we are who we are because of the DNA we inherited.  “I am like I am because I’m born this way.”

Psychic determinism is the idea that mainly our childhood and upbringing determine who we are and will be. “I am like I am because I was raised this way, or because my dad had an anger problem.”

Environmental determinism says that something in your environment is responsible for your situation and behaviour. “I am angry and insulting because my teammates are lazy.”

Each of those ideas finds its origin from Pavlov’s conditioning theory and experiment with dogs, saying that a certain stimulus will result in a certain response. While some aspects of it describe human action it also defines and limits humans to be reactive.

Viktor Frankel, a psychiatrist and survivor of a concentration camp found another, more accurate way to describe the nature of humans. Even though he was taught in the determinist school of thought, he realized that “between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose” (Covey 2013a, 77)

 In the midst of his terrible experience and torture in the concertation camp he realized, even though he was in an environment where he is totally out of control of the circumstances, he can control and choose how it will affect him. He called it “the last of human freedoms”.

Seeing that between stimulus and response, there is the freedom to choose, is the basis of proactivity. “It means that as huma being, we are responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate feelings to values. We have initiative and the responsibility to make things happen. Look at the word responsibility – “response – ability” the ability to choose our response. Highly proactive people recognize that responsibility. They do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behaviors. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feelings.” (Covey 2013b, 78)

Instead of saying “I’m angry and insulting because my teammates are lazy” proactive people recognize that the teammates might have given an impulse but oneself has the ability to choose a response for how to act.  If the response is insulting behavior, it is one’s own choice or the lack thereof. “Reactive people build their emotional lives around the behavior of others, empowering the weaknesses of other people to control them” (Covey 2013c, 79)

This is a beautiful but simultaneously hard reality to accept. Especially if one is in a difficult life situation or has the habit of blaming circumstance, the past or others. Depending on our situation and previous experiences it might be hard to start the habit of proactivity. To be response-able takes courage, but every human has the ability to start small and grow from there.

Act or be acted upon

The starting point for being proactive is to recognise that one is able to act, decide and choose and then take initiative to do it.  This can start in one area of live where one wants to make progress or feels at a disadvantage.

As an international team we are at a disadvantage when it comes to language skills. Generally speaking, it is harder for us to make sales, we need to depend on Finns to file official documents or do certain calls and make connections with outside businesses. I have seen and experienced myself two ways to go about this disadvantage. One is feeling a little hopeless, useless, and unable to contribute fully because the circumstances seem to make it  difficult. The other one is taking full charge of the situation and finding creative solutions for the circumstance. Of course, a long-term solution is improving language skills but even before that there it is a night and day difference between people who are convinced that it is their response- ability to still make something happened and people who feel that the circumstances rule them. The more people see that it is their responsibility to act, the more effective they will be.

Circle of concern and circle of influence.

Covey presents a handy tool to become self-aware how effective one spends one’s time and energy.


Everybody has things in live one cares about and is concerned about. All those things are within the outer circle of concern. This can be for example family, health, performance at work, a global energy crisis, what to eat for supper, a career goal, global peace. While being concerned about many things, over plenty of them one has no direct control over. But there are things in the circle of concern one does have control over. Those things fall into the smaller circle of influence. Proactive people focus their energy, thought and time on the circle of influence, the place where they can make a difference. The proactive focus, which employs positive energy towards things one can influence, enlarges one’s influence. While the reactive focus makes the circle of influence smaller since energy, time and thought are spent on things one cannot do anything about.



Direct, indirect and No control.

How we speak also indicates how proactive we see ourselves. Reactive people use language that puts their responsibility on circumstances or others. “I’m so angry because my teammate does not come prepared” It basically says that I’m not responsible for my anger and shows that my emotions, and I as a result, are ruled by something outside of my control. This is not about ignoring feelings but the question whether one is ruled by the outside impulses or has responsibility over them.

“The problems we face fall in one of three areas: direct control (problems involving our own behavior); indirect control (problems involving other people’s behavior); or no control (problems we can do nothing about such as our past or situational reality).” (Covey 2013d, 93

In the case of anger because a teammate does not prepare. The anger falls into the first category, it is own behavior and own responsibility. It’s a habit one can change. The unprepared team member falls into the second category, those problems can be changed by changing our methods of influence. Habits 4,5 and 6 are about how to influence others in a better way. If something is in the category of no control, one cannot change the problem but one’s attitude towards it.


Being Proactive as defined by Stephen R. Covey involves consistent reflection and effort. Since it means taking full responsibility over ones live, including one’s behavior, it is much harder than the common usage of the word which is mainly about taking initiative with a task. Being value driven instead of driven by feelings is challenging in our social environment since a big emphasis is placed on feelings. Recognizing that feelings, circumstances, or conditioning do not control us, but we are responsible for them is something that might be challenging to accept for some and even harder to implement, but by the end of the day it is beautiful and empowering.




Covey, S.R., 2013a.  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Vol. 25th Anyversery Edition. Simon & Schuster. 77.


Covey, S.R., 2013b.  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Vol. 25th Anyversery Edition. Simon & Schuster. 78.


Covey, S.R., 2013c.  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Vol. 25th Anyversery Edition. Simon & Schuster. 79.


Covey, S.R., 2013d.  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Vol. 25th Anyversery Edition. Simon & Schuster. 93.

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