We all have a constant need to renew ourselves physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Ignore this need for “nourishment” and our saw gets dull, our mind becomes flat, and we lose a sense of inspiration and motivation for life. Consistently practicing and applying Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw–and in fact all of the habits–reminds me of how I learned this lesson again, first-hand. Let me explain.
In college, I played quarterback at a Division 1 university. I was pretty good and was on track to play at the professional level. However, during my junior year I injured my knee and underwent reconstructive surgery. The surgery ended my football career and, as you can imagine, I was hurt by this unfulfilled dream.
Fast forward a few years. I’m married and my wife and I are expecting our first child—a boy! We named him Michael Sean (my legal name), and he grew up with a football in his hand. We practiced any chance we had, I coached his team from third to eighth grade, and I taught him all the tricks of being a great quarterback. His skills grew and he began to dominate the game. My unfulfilled dreams would finally be fulfilled through my son. Hurrah!
Then, the summer between eighth and ninth grade, Michael Sean randomly told me one day that he didn’t think he was going to play football next year. I was shocked and the first thing out of my mouth was, “Are you crazy? Do you realize how many years I’ve spent training you?”
“I know, dad. But I just don’t think I wanna play.”
Over the next few days I tried to guilt trip him by saying, “So, you have this amazing gift and you’re just going to throw it all away, are you?” I tried persuasion, guilt, and logic, but nothing seemed to reach him.
Around this time, I was involved in the development of an updated version of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People at work. We were talking about Empathic Listening one day and suddenly it hit me, “What am I doing? I haven’t been listening to Michael Sean at all. I don’t even know why he doesn’t want to play.”
I caught myself and became self-aware (Habit 1) for the first time. I realized that I had my ego tied to him being a successful quarterback and that his playing football was fulfilling my dream, not his. I thought about my end in mind (Habit 2): “Do I want to raise a quarterback or a son?” As I thought deeply, I concluded that sure, it would be nice to have him become a great quarterback, but that down deep I didn’t really care. First and foremost, I wanted to raise a son who I could be close to and who was free to pursue his own dreams instead of mine. In other words, I got straight with myself. I won the Private Victory. Now I was prepared to let him talk while I truly listened and reflected back to ensure that he felt understood. It was only a few days later when I got my chance.
“Michael Sean, tell more about what you said about not playing football next year.”
“Dad, didn’t you notice that I got killed out there last year? I’m not very big.”
“So you kinda got beat up last year?”
“Yes, I got pounded. And everyone seems to have a grown a lot this summer except me. I’m like 40 pounds lighter than everyone. Did you notice how small I am? You wouldn’t understand, you were bigger at my age.”
“So, you feel like you’re too small to play and that I wouldn’t understand because I was big for my grade?”
“You said it. I just feel like there’s a lot of pressure because you were such a great quarterback.”
“So, you got beat up pretty badly last year, you’re stressed because of your size, and you’re feeling a lot of pressure because of being compared to me. Is that it?”
He kept talking and I kept reflecting back what he was saying in my own words. I wasn’t trying to manipulate him. I was just trying to really understand him. After a few more minutes of this, he then said, “Dad, what do you think I should do?”
There it was! For several days I tried persuading him to play football and he didn’t hear a single word I said. And then, suddenly, once he felt fully understood, he was open to my influence for the first time.
“Dad, what do you think I should do?”
“Son, I don’t know what you should do. But please know that if you play, I will support you, and if you don’t, that’s okay too. You’ll find something else to do.”
“Really, dad?” he said excitedly.
“Really,” I replied.
“Ok. Let me think about it,” he said, as he ran off.
A few days later he told me, “Dad. I’ve thought about it some more and I’m going to play football next year.”
“That’s great. But you know that I’m good either way.”
“Yes, I know.”
Well, Michael Sean played football the next year and had a good year. When he got into high school, he had ankle problems and had six surgeries over a couple years which effectively ended his sports career. But do you know what? I didn’t really care about him becoming some great quarterback. What I did care about is that we developed a close, trusting, and loving relationship—which is a tough thing to do with a teenage son—and that this relationship continues to this day.
Sequence matters. I remember when, as Stephen was wrapping up the initial writing of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he told his staff that he needed to rewrite it so he could do a better job of emphasizing the sequence. The sequence matters. It’s an Inside-Out Approach, meaning we have to win the Private Victory (Habits 1–3) before we can win the Public Victory (Habits 4–6). This is the lesson I had to relearn with my son. I was unable to be vulnerable and to truly understand him until I became self-aware, listened to my conscience, and redefined my end in mind.
Most of the public battles we face in life with colleagues, children, spouses, and partners can’t be solved by simply practicing the Public Victory habits. Typically, we must win a Private Victory first. Then we will have the strength to be abundant and vulnerable, to truly listen, to respect the differences of others, and to solve these difficult and complex relationship challenges. Whenever you have a relationship problem, look to fixing yourself first. If you ever think that the problem is out there, that very thought is the problem. It’s inside out. Private Victories always precede Public Victories. I encourage you to give it a try and to solve a complex relationship problem by getting right with yourself first.