Authentic Service and Self-Improvement

I have recently been making my way through the book “Principle-Centered Leadership”, by Stephen Covey, the same man who wrote “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. I am hesitant to say that it’s changed my life, as it’s only been a few weeks, I’m only fifty pages in, and I am generally suspicious of the whole self-help-book phenomenon in the first place. All that being said, if the ideas and habits that it have formed in me end up sticking I will be very impressed. Even if ninety percent of everything is crap, I guess that means there must be the occasional actually-helpful self-help book in existence.

The ideas in PCL are at once fairly straight-forward and fairly complicated. I’ve been reading (and re-reading) it very slowly, engaging each claim and suggestion one at a time and trying to synthesize out of it a model that makes sense for me. Basically, I’ve been doing the whole “put it in your own words” thing that teachers everywhere harp on in order to improve reading comprehension. It has obviously been slow going; this may be the slowest book I’ve ever read since I properly learned to read, as measured in pages per day. Even The Silmarillion didn’t take me this long.

At this point, exactly fifty-seven pages in, I have a model synthesized which is large enough now that I am going to lay it all out in a blog post before I forget. The intent here is absolutely just to organize my own thoughts on the subject and to serve as a reminder for tomorrow when I’ve already forgotten how neat this book seemed at the time. If it helps somebody else, then that’s just an added bonus.

I call my model the BAD SECS model; yes, it’s an acronym, and I will swear up and down that the letters came first. The words they happen to spell out are just humorous, ironic coincidence. The BAD SECS model actually splits into three stages, which should be followed fairly linearly. Master stage one before you even worry about what stage two is, and master stage two before you worry about stage three. The three stages are:

  1. knowing thyself (the “BAD” part of the acronym)
  2. knowing others (the “SEC” part of the acronym)
  3. serving humanity (the final “S”)

NB: The “three-step” approach and the single-blog-post format may lead some people to believe this is a “quick” or “easy” approach to self-improvement. It is not. It is both long and difficult. If you do not spend months of effort and learning on each stage, you are either doing it wrong, or you are Superman.

Stage One: Know Thyself, or The ABDs of Self-Improvement

The title here is not a typo: I do intend the “ABD”s not the “ABC”s. Like BAD SECS, the actual letters here were entirely accidental, but I really like the resulting pattern. It’s obviously memorable (there’s an ABCs of everything, but what else has an ABDs?) and the “negative space” left by the C actually ends up being important as a concept to avoid instead of focus on. As suggested by the title “know thyself”, the first stage focuses entirely on the self, on how we see ourselves, how we understand ourselves, and how we treat ourselves. This must come first, since without a proper grasp on our own beliefs and behaviours it is futile to try and deal with anything beyond ourself. The self is the foundation.

Without further ado, here are the ABDs:

  • Authenticity. Dig deep, and understand who you, as a person, really are. This step on its own can be difficult and scary, and you won’t necessarily like what you find. You don’t have to. The purpose here isn’t to judge or change. Just don’t hide from yourself or pretend to be someone you’re not. Live life as the person you are.
  • Belief. Beyond knowing who you are, it is important that you know what you believe, and accept that you have beliefs. This is by no means necessarily religious (I’m still an atheist). Everyone has beliefs and values, whether they be religious, feminist, rationalist, or something else. Again, the purpose isn’t to judge or change, just to accept. People lie to themselves about what they believe all the time because it would be inconvenient, or they’re afraid. Don’t hide from your beliefs.
  • Discipline. This one is borrowed straight from Covey, so I won’t say too much. I’ll just leave you a quote:

    The key to growth is to learn to make promises and to keep them.

    Before you can make promises to others, you must learn to keep the promises you make to yourself.

Before finishing this section, I would like to say a few words about the missing letter “C”, as I mentioned earlier. The C stands for control, and is not something you should be aiming for in the realm of personal growth. People often mistake discipline for control, and the English language is not particularly helpful in this regard. When faced with temptation, we talk about self-control. We control our temper, our passion, our selves. But control, also known as willpower, is a fleeting thing which may or may not be linked to glucose. Even the verb is telling: control is something we exercise.

Discipline, on the other hand, is a habit. Where normally a person might have to exercise control in order to resist having that second cookie, a disciplined person doesn’t have to. A disciplined person has fully internalized not just the immediate costs of eating the extra cookie, but the long-term risk that an extra cookie could become a habit. A disciplined person values themselves much more highly than a small quantity of sugar, so while their mouth may still salivate, they have no real desire to eat the cookie. This allows a disciplined person to save their willpower, and focus it on things that they believe are truly important.

Before I am accused of being no fun at all, I should also point out that discipline actually allows you to have more fun (and eat more extra cookies) than control. A person relying on control will eat the cookie whenever their control is insufficient; perhaps they are tired, or hungry, or stressed, and so their control slips. Even the best-controlled person has off days, and almost tautologically they can’t control when that happens. This leads to making mistakes when you can least afford it: when your systems are already running at a low point. A disciplined person, though, knows when and what they can handle. They are free to eat the extra cookie when they know that any negative impacts are small or non-existent; they know when the cost of the cookie is small enough to be outweighed by the pleasure it brings.

Stage Two: Know Others, or the Securities and Exchange Commission

I’ll be perfectly honest, the Securities and Exchange Commission has nothing to do with anything here, it’s just what I think of now whenever I see the letters SEC. Yes, I work at a company which recently went public, why do you ask?

Once you’ve mastered yourself, it is time to master how you interact and understand other people. Human beings are social animals, and how we interact with each other is the most important part of how we interact with the world in general. In this context the letters SEC stand for:

  • Security. Before you can interact with others, you must be secure in yourself. This flows directly from Authenticity and Belief in stage one, but is also more. It is not enough just to know yourself, know your beliefs, and live authentically. To be secure in yourself is also to know why, to have trust in yourself. When you understand not just who you are but why, then you can stand firm against the people who will try to change you, and instead change when you think it is right for you.
    The extra layer of difficulty here is that you yourself are the most influential person who will try to change you. Everybody wants to fit in, and we are all under intense self-pressure to conform in one way or another. Even intensely counter-cultural groups have their own culture and standards of conformance. Be secure in who you are, and weigh conformance with all the other things you authentically value.
  • Empathy. This one gets talked about a lot already. It’s the ability to understand and feel how another person is feeling. Everybody can do it already, so it’s not difficult in that sense (unless you’re a literal psychopath), but people often forget. It’s important enough that it belongs in this list just as a reminder.
  • Compassion. This one also gets talked about a lot, often in the same breath as empathy, often mixing or confusing the two. I consider that a criminal waste of good language. Where empathy is the ability to feel another person’s emotions, compassion is a distinct emotion that you yourself feel towards others. Empathy often leads to compassion, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient. Without compassion, empathy is tool for manipulation. Without empathy, compassion flies blind and frequently does more harm than good.

As in stage one, there is a C-word here which comes up a lot but should be avoided. That word is confidence. Self-confidence and social confidence are some the most-talked-about ideas in self-help, and ninety percent of that conversation is about how to split the hair that divides confidence from arrogance. Any definition which needs that large a caveat is not worth using.

When you deal with others, do so with security. This is the smaller, inward-facing kernel of what normally gets mis-inflated into outward-facing confidence. When you deal with others, do so with empathy and compassion. These have nothing to do with confidence at all, but are still critically important. When you act and interact with security, empathy, and compassion, confidence will become irrelevant, and arrogance will seem like a different planet.

If you cannot act in this way reliably, step back. Build the authenticity to know who you are, the belief to know who you want to be, and the discipline to get there. There is no shame in taking this time. Try again.

Stage Three: To Serve Humanity

Again not really a direct relation to the point, but this is a truly excellent little sci-fi story.

Covey talks a great deal about service, and this is one of the things I had the most trouble understanding. He says:

The ethical person looks at every economic transaction as a test of his or her moral stewardship. That’s why humility is the mother of all other virtues – because it promotes stewardship. Then everything else that is good will work through you.


We achieve integrity through the dedication of ourselves to the selfless service of others.

Given that stage one included a focus on understanding oneself, and stage two included a focus on being secure in oneself, a sudden pivot to “selfless service” can be a bit hard to swallow.

I chose to resolve this tension by focusing on “selfless” not as a complete absence of self, or a subsumption to the needs of others, but instead as a balancing and alignment of values. Authenticity comes first, and if you cannot align your personal values with others in order to serve, you should not. However, this problem should be rare in actual practice, as most people in a culture tend to agree on most values, in broad strokes. We wouldn’t be able to live together if we couldn’t.

Instead, we expect to see at least a partial alignment of values. When you are secure in your authentic self, dealing with others with empathy and compassion, it is natural for service of a sort to come of this. People value each other, and when you master the first two stages it suddenly is both easy and desirable to serve. I call this authentic service.

Service that is not authentic in this way is what you get when you skip stages one and two. There are people who serve in order to feel fulfilled, or to lose themselves and give up responsibility for their own decisions. Their service may be valuable, but by sacrificing themselves in this way they are doing themselves a disservice.


It is tempting, after roughly two thousand words, to offer up some sort of witty conclusion like “Go have BAD SECS”! So tempting, in fact, that I snuck it into the previous sentence via a sort of meta-comment. But this topic is not something I feel comfortable actually concluding. This post hangs together as a semi-coherent framework for personal growth, but personal growth is not something that should stop. A framework is just a way of thinking, and as I grow my ways of thinking will change.

Another temptation, such as it is, is to leave a signpost for future me, a marker saying “I am here” so that, looking back from some future date, I will see how far I’ve come. But however linearly I may write out my ideas, the truth is always more complicated than that. BAD SECS is a set of principles by which one might live, not a list of tasks to be completed.

Whatever the end result, I am grateful to Stephen Covey for making me think.

Keep growing.

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