Is “proactive” even a word?

February 28, 2006    By: Geoff J @ 11:58 pm   Category: 7 Habits

The first of Stephen Covey’s famous 7 Habits is: Be Proactive. Heavily using jargon words like “proactive”, “synergy” and “paradigm” is one of the things that gets Covey snarked for his 7 Habits model. And I suppose he probably deserves to get snarked for pushing such words on us all. It reminds me of a line from the recent movie Kung Pow: Enter the Fist (a movie that is hideously bad but also painfully funny — you just gotta rent it):

Chosen One: Killing is wrong. And bad. There should be a new, stronger word for killing. Like badwrong, or badong. Yes, killing is badong. From this moment, I will stand for the opposite of killing: gnodab.

Apparently this is the kind of logic that brings us the word proactive. The natural opposite of the word react is act but someone (reportedly beginning in the 70s) apparently decided that there “should be a new, stronger word for acting or active” so proactive muscled its way into the lexicon.

Despite the unfortunate jargon Covey uses for his Habit 1, the idea is a good one. Habit 1 is essentially an endorsement of the concept libertarian free will and a denial of determinism. The idea is pretty simple – men are free to choose and nothing, including our genes or upbringing, determine our choices and actions. Covey is fond of describing this concept by insisting that there is always a space (no matter how small) between stimulus and our response. We can always choose what we will think, say, or do in that space no matter how powerful the stimulus is.

Of course libertarian free will is not a habit, it is a philosophical doctrine. But LFW is required for the habit Covey is promoting. The idea is simply to get into the habit of taking responsibility for all of our own thoughts, words, and deeds. If we don’t like our thoughts words and deeds we should choose different ones. The notion is extremely empowering and very Mormon in my opinion (though not exclusively Mormon, of course). So Habit 1 basically teaches that we are in full control of our own choices and accordingly we ought to choose the right.

Lots of people (including some bloggernacle citizens) don’t believe in free will in the libertarian sense. They believe that we solely are the product of genetics and environment and past experiences. I suppose Covey’s 7 Habits must fall apart from the beginning for these determinists. I feel sort of sorry for those poor misguided determinists though since the libertarians have it right… (grin)… The other six habits can be quite useful!


  1. My boss uses the word “proactive” all the time. As in, we should be suggesting improvments that could be made to clients, rather than waiting for them to come to us with issues and simply reacting to their feedback. It’s a good policy.

    Comment by Susan M — March 1, 2006 @ 8:18 am

  2. It’s a good policy.

    Yeah, I agree Susan. The whole Habit 1 thing is a good policy and Covey has boiled it down to the single word “proactive” which includes the free will foundation and focuses on avoiding procrastination and taking initiative. It matches with the “men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause” concept in Mormonism too. I think the value of the concept explains why the word proactive has entered the English lexicon so broadly and quickly.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 1, 2006 @ 8:39 am

  3. I’m not quite sure why LFW is required for this to “work.” In that time between stimulus and response, I see no evidence that pure LFW exists, despite the possible reality of changing ones programing…I also think that the gap in most scenarios is so small to be practically non-existant.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 1, 2006 @ 9:59 am

  4. J: In that time between stimulus and response, I see no evidence that pure LFW exists, despite the possible reality of changing ones programing

    Isn’t this statement contradicting itself? If there is no LFW then what leads to the change in programming? Another external program? Isn’t that part of the programming to begin with? I don’t think you can have it both ways.

    I also think that the gap in most scenarios is so small to be practically non-existant.

    Perhaps taken individually the LFW exerted space between stimulus and response is indiscernible, but taken in aggregate I think it becomes the change in programming you mentioned.

    I’m not quite sure why LFW is required for this to “work.”

    You are probably right about believing in LFW not being required for one to be “proactive”. There have been people in the world who have been convinced they were fated to achieve one thing or another and ended up proactively making it happen because of such a belief in fate. (Napoleon was convinced that he was fated to rule Europe, for instance and pretty much made it happen). But whether one believes in LFW or not, I think it must be a reality for this principle to work. Otherwise, we are all just acting out our pre-determined programs whether we like it or not.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 1, 2006 @ 11:04 am

  5. Geoff, are you saying that there are only two possibilities: LFW and Determinism?

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 1, 2006 @ 11:15 am

  6. J,

    There are obviously nuances that we have not gotten into yet. The debate is generally not over the existence of determinism in the universe (I fully accept the existence of determinism, for instance); rather, it is over the existence of libertarian free will. So yes, the possibilities are binary — either free will (in the full libertarian sense) exists or it doesn’t. (The “hypothetical free will” the compatibilists try to pass off doesn’t cut it.) If LFW doesn’t exist then we all are fated and we are all simply reacting to our programming all of the time (whether we realize it or not). That is at odds with the revelations in my opinion. In his Habit 1 Covey rejects the idea that we are completely determined beings and I wholeheartedly agree with him.

    Do you have a third option in mind?

    Comment by Geoff J — March 1, 2006 @ 11:49 am

  7. One of my favorite quotes from the Simpsons is in the setting of 3 studio execs trying to spruce up Krusty’s show. Both “proactive” and “paradigm” are used try sell Krusty on a new character for his show and exec number 3 says, “Excuse me, but proactive and paradigm aren’t these just words that stupid people invented to sound smart? — I’m fired aren’t I?”

    Anyway, I side with you Geoff on the LFW comment. Either it exists or it doesn’t, I don’t see much room for a concept of pseudo-free will.

    The problem I always have with determinism is with responsibility, like you’ve mentioned in your original post. If what I am and do is merely a product of external programming, how could I ever be justly held accountable for sin? And if I can’t be held accountable for sin, what need is there for an Atonement?

    I come to this question every time I start to think about determinism and I can’t see any sort of legitimate answer for it. Perhaps I’m blinded by my bias toward LFW.

    Comment by chris runoff — March 1, 2006 @ 11:28 pm

  8. Nice Simpsons quote, Chris.

    No, you aren’t necessarily blinded by LFW leanings. Despite all other arguments, the fatal flaw of determinism (especially in Mormonism) is the responsibility and judgment issue. If there is no real free will there is no real responsibility and therefore we end up with predestination in one form or another.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 2, 2006 @ 10:36 am

  9. Did Newton say, “For every (pro)action there is an equal and opposite reaction”? I think not. Sadly one of the disadvantages of English is that words such as this are allowed. We will have to live with it, but I’ll never use it.

    Comment by Steven Bissell — October 17, 2007 @ 12:02 pm

  10. Forest Gump nicely summarizes the free will/deterministic argument.
    “Life is like a box of chocolates…”
    We don’t know the cards we’ll be dealt but we still have to play them as best as we can.
    All this may sound trite but according to occams law the simplest answer is usually the correct.
    Geoff- discrete not binary.
    Proactive, a sort of double positive, is almost as embarrassing to hear as a double negative. I aint no scholar, but I am highly suspect of anyone who often uses it alot, or often, or many times.

    Comment by Forest Gump — August 2, 2009 @ 10:07 am

  11. Geoff- discrete not binary.

    Perhaps that is a better way of putting it. But I think that since it was a true/false dichotomy I was talking about in #6 calling it binary works too.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 2, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

  12. Proactive is not a word. Sorry. It is a vocable — a collection of letters that mean nothing. People who make up “words” such as this do damage to the language, which means they do damage to the human race. Shame on them.

    Comment by Greg Hack — May 26, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

  13. Proactive is no more an adjective than reference is a verb (Ted Robinson, stop using the latter, please!) or than impact means to affect.

    Comment by Santiago — July 14, 2010 @ 9:07 am

  14. Wild animals are deterministic. A stimulus will result in a preprogramed response. The wild animal has never thought of the future stimulus to plan a response.

    Humans have a vestige of this determinism. A proactive person can think ahead to the future stimulus and plan a response. The closer that planning is to the stimulus the less proactive we are and the more reactive we become.

    Comment by Patrick — July 18, 2010 @ 8:34 am

  15. “Proactive” is used as an antonym for “reactive.” Therefore, it should be (if it must be anything and “active” itself is not enough, which it is) “preactive.” “Proactive” is meaningless.

    Comment by Santiago — September 9, 2011 @ 6:51 am

  16. Would we say we need to be, “active-active” regarding any subject? I don’t think so. Other than making oneself think they sound smarter than they really are, using the word “proactive” just makes them sound like a moron. Example: Let’s use a proactive approach with our new sales campaign.” What! Can we not just say an active approach and not move into the active-active approach? When proactive is no longer good enough, what then — active-active-active? Or maybe we will use actively pro-active? Could we say someone reacted proactively? What a nightmare!

    Comment by RGR Champ — July 27, 2012 @ 7:24 am