Self-betterment has been a goal of humanity since the concept was accessible to our minds. There have almost always been methods of beautification, both internal and external, and various responses to the individual’s natural worries and concerns. However, only in the past few decades have self-help books risen to such a prominence that an author who hits the market at just the right time can make an entire career out of writing down their personal philosophies and applying them to the bigger picture of what other people may be struggling with.

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This is not to say that this practice is a bad thing, however. What one must be able to do as a consumer or such literature is decide for one’s self which advice to take and which advice would be better off being taken by someone else. There are, however, those wonderful finds that seem to apply largely to humanity and whose authors make a pretty penny off of helping people to better themselves. First Things First, by Stephen R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill and Rebecca R. Merrill, is one of those finds.

The book begins by explaining its title. All too often we allow the things in our lives that should be given first priority to be pushed to the back burner of our busy and accelerated schedules. We allow ourselves to prioritize the things we do not really find important, such ads money or power, because we somehow convince ourselves that those things actually are important. Instead of continuing this sad pattern, we need to prioritize what we really do find important. Or, to put it in the book’s terms, we need to put the first things first.

Another way to look at this idea is to think of it as quantity versus quality. We can easily have lots of material goods and big, flashy experiences, but when we focus too much on those things it becomes extremely easy to lose sight of the little things in life that we really care about. Life is fast-paced and becoming even more so with the advent of new technologies that allow it to be so, and it is not going to slow down any time soon. This is why it is important to pay attention to the quality of our lives rather than the quantity, or speed.

Another very good point the book brings up is that other self-help books emphasize control; what it is, how to get it, and how to keep it. However, as First Things First points out, attempting to control everything in our lives is not only futile it is extremely damaging. Even the most powerful person in the world cannot control everything, and for them to attempt to do so only leads to anger, frustration, and disappointment. The authors point out that while we can control our choices, we cannot control the consequences of those choices and so any attempt to do so only leads to a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness.

A very refreshing element to this particular book is that it does not “baby” the reader. By “baby,” what is meant is that many self-help books have an attitude that the reader has picked them up because they feel as if they do not know how to help themselves and so much use a book to guide them. This book, however, has an attitude that seems to say, “Yes, this book can help you, but ultimately the results of your efforts are in your hands. All that we the authors can do is give advice.”

This attitude is preferable to the “positive thinking” sort of vibe that permeates any self help books. Although this particular book was first published in 1994, the positive thinking movement began well before its publication. While there is nothing wrong with making an effort to be more positive in one’s life and therefore making the world a happier place, even by a little bit, it can be dangerous if one constantly insists on thinking positive and allows that type of thought to cloud logic and their better judgment. There are instances where a person may be in danger, such as in a dark alley late at night, and they may misinterpret their natural and logical fear response as being “negativity.”

This book, however, does not encourage the reader to throw aside logic. Rather, it encourages them to utilize logic in their day-to-day lives and to be positive in a rational way. What this means is that it is possible to be a proponent of positive thinking without going overboard. Going overboard would be putting positivity above all else, sometimes to the point of driving others away. Once this happens the positivity has had the opposite effect of what the individual wanted.

First Things First encourages positive thought but on a reasonable spectrum. It does not encourage people to only do what they like to do, as sometimes it is necessary to do things that one may find unpleasant in order to survive. Rather, the book emphasizes the importance of prioritizing, providing a sort of guide for the reader as to how to begin to reorganize their life to better find fulfillment. It does not offer an instant fix; the book acknowledges that hard work and dedication are required to find contentment and even happiness. However, it does acknowledge that these ideals can be achieved through actual effort rather than the “power of positive thinking.”

What is truly wonderful about this book is that it treats the reader as a capable adult, rather than a child in needs of hand-holding guidance. It does offer guidance, but in a way that is actually helpful, rather than condescending. It is easy to follow directions, even when they come from an inanimate object like a book. It is much less simple to use guidelines to make our own directions.

In the introduction, the authors mention that to get the most out of the book the reader has to be prepared to deeply examine their own life, rather than simply nodding along and dog-earing some pages. It is a guide for a deep (and sometimes difficult) journey whose destination makes it all worthwhile.