“Even when the world is difficult, even when things seem really crazy, we can still find personal meaning and deep happiness — and we do that by facing the worst in the world with the best in ourselves. That’s the idea.”
Today, Kent Keith talks about his “Paradoxical Commandments” with the ease of a Michelin chef whipping up some eggs Benedict, but when he wrote them down in 1968, he wasn’t sure if the words would form the right message.
The world was different back then, but neither less crazy nor less difficult. “It was the 60s. That was a provocative time. A lot of conflict and confrontation but also idealism and hope.” Keith was only 19, a sophomore at Harvard, but he had already witnessed his fair share of said provocative time.
He’d seen Kennedy get elected, celebrated for the moon program, and then shot. He’d observed the Civil Rights Act, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, and the bloody protests at Columbia. In essence, he saw a young generation unable to cause change without violence, unable to find meaning in anything that wasn’t a big symbolic act, “like seizing a building or something,” and it troubled him.
Keith decided to write something that would address these issues and, in the process, he discovered that the answer to better leadership was also the answer to lasting, personal happiness. “If you go out and do what you think is right and good and true, then you’re going to get a lot of meaning and satisfaction. You’ve got that no matter what.”
Today, more than 50 years after Keith published his little set of rules as part of a book on student leadership, he calls them “guidelines for finding personal meaning in the face of adversity.” Millions around the world have read, shared, and put Keith’s commandments on their refrigerator doors. Some say they’re a “no excuses policy.” Others, “a personal declaration of independence from all that stuff we can’t control.” Keith explains:
As individuals, we can’t control the world economy, world population growth, natural disasters, fires and floods, when a terrorist might attack, when a war might break out, which companies are going to succeed, which jobs will be created, which jobs will be eliminated.
What we can control is our inner lives, our spiritual lives. You and I get to decide who we’re gonna be and how we’re gonna live. The good news is that’s where people have been finding a lot of meaning for thousands of years. Even better news: Finding personal meaning is actually a key to being deeply happy.
Here are Dr. Kent Keith’s Paradoxical Commandments.
1. Love people anyway
Keith started working in student government when he was just 10 years old. By the time he was in college, he was involved in it on a national level. He saw other young leaders giving up, facing bitterness and discouragement. He said:
“I saw them go out into the world to make a difference, and then they came back — but they came back much too soon. I [told] them, ‘Well, first of all, you’ve got to love people.’ Love is one of the only motivations that’s strong enough to keep you with the people and with the process until the change occurs — because change usually takes time.”
Keith thinks love isn’t just important in leadership, it’s necessary: “If you don’t love people, and you’re in a leadership position, you should resign. ’Cause you’re gonna do more harm than good.”
Humans are fallible. No one is perfect. But we should still do our best to love everyone we meet.
“People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.”
2. Do what’s right anyway
When he was 15, the senior student officers at Keith’s high school tried to abolish a representative student assembly. It would have meant 65 students less get to participate in school politics — not a good way to teach young people about democracy.
Out of 2,400 students, for about six weeks, Keith was the only one speaking up about the problem. At some point, other kids made placards and picketed against him, even attacking him personally, but Keith persisted and, eventually, the group he rallied around the cause won the issue.
Sometimes, even when you know you’re right, you might still be alone. Don’t let it deter you. When you’re sure they’re the right ones, stick to your guns.
“If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.”
3. Succeed anyway
In September 1997, Keith went to his Rotary Club meeting. A fellow member read a poem by Mother Teresa. It turned out to be Keith’s Paradoxical Commandments. Eventually, he found out they had hung on the wall of her children’s home in Calcutta for a long time.
Keith could have been angry or jealous or try to ensure he would receive more of the credit. Instead, he chose to be grateful. “Whatever the reason, it had a huge impact on me. That was when I decided to speak and write about the Paradoxical Commandments again, thirty years after I first wrote them.”
Success comes with a lot of things, not all of which we have asked for. Do not let it stop you. Cross the finish line anyway.
“If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
4. Do good anyway
Before publishing his commandments, Keith spent a lot of time staring at his typewriter in his little Harvard dorm room. “Do I really have something to say that would be helpful?” Looking back, he says:
That’s the kind of struggle a lot of us have in deciding whether or not to do something: We want to have an impact — actually, we want to have a big impact — and if we aren’t sure we’re gonna have an impact, maybe we just won’t do it.
Even when you’re trying hard to do good, you can never be certain about how much good you’ll ultimately do. Your efforts might be quickly forgotten, not appreciated in the moment, or recognized way too late. Make them anyway.
“The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.”
5. Be honest anyway
Keith didn’t spend all his spare time writing and thinking because he was such a goody two shoes. “I couldn’t get a date,” he admits.
“That’s not exactly true. When I was a freshman, I actually did get some dates — but then I spent the evening talking about the meaning of life, and then I couldn’t get the next date. So there I was in my room on Friday and Saturday night. I had a lot of time, just sitting there in my room with my typewriter.”
Ultimately, Keith used his involuntary spare time well. Life won’t always give you what you want. When it doesn’t, be honest with yourself about where you are. It might not be where you hoped to be by now, but good things will come from acknowledging you’re still on the way.
“Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.”
6. Think big anyway
When he was 18, Keith was invited to give a talk at a student council workshop in front of several hundred future student leaders. Disliking the self-congratulatory nature of these events, Keith decided to set them straight:
I looked at them and said: ‘You know, you’re really a hoax. You’re really a fraud. You’re pretending to care about the other students. You don’t care. You’re not doing anything that really helps them, but you could. What if you went back and really listened and really did things that they cared about? You could really change their lives for the better.
The students were excited. They rallied. They lifted him on their shoulders, and they had a great conversation. The adults, however, didn’t appreciate Keith causing such a ruckus — so they forced him to pack, marched him to a car, and dropped him at a bus stop near a cornfield in the middle of the night.
Most people won’t understand your ideas, and many of those who do won’t appreciate them — especially if you’re ahead of the curve. Keep sharing your ideas anyway.
“The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.”
7. Fight anyway
What finally got Keith to start typing and share his commandments was the realization that he’d been fighting with himself when he should’ve been fighting for others.
I actually spent more time deciding whether or not to write than I spent doing the writing. I finally decided, well, if it helps a few people, only a few people would be enough.
When you stop making things about yourself, it becomes easier to see who you’re affecting and what is worth doing — not because there’s something in it for you, but because you have a true chance to help. And even if “someone” really is only one, that won’t take anything away from the helping.
“People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.”
8. Build anyway
One year, going to the annual awards assembly at Roosevelt High School, Keith wasn’t wondering whether he’d get an award — he was only wondering how many he’d collect. Amidst the cockiness, he had a deep realization:
As I walked into the stadium, it suddenly occurred to me that I felt so good about what I’d done, about what I’d learned, about the things we’d accomplished together, that I didn’t need any awards.
I had already been rewarded with the meaning and satisfaction that came from doing all those things. That was a moment of tremendous liberation for me. That was a moment of immense peace. That was like lifting this huge weight off of my shoulders. I came to the understanding that if I had the meaning, I didn’t have to have the glory.
“If you have the meaning, you don’t have to have the glory.” There is nothing I could possibly add to that.
“What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
9. Help people anyway
Growing up, Keith used to hate Good Friday. He felt sad and angry about the injustice done to Jesus, and he wished he could just wake up on Easter Sunday and move on. But eventually, he understood there was more to the story:
It finally occurred to me that the story wasn’t just about what the world did to Jesus, the story was also about how he responded. In the face of all that pain and cruelty and hate, he loved people anyway. He forgave people anyway. The world could not change who he was. He did what he came to do anyway.
No matter how you practice spirituality, Keith’s example gets to the heart of what it’s about: “Our spiritual life is not so much about what the world does to us. It’s about how we respond to what the world does to us.” Helping others isn’t always easy, but most of the time, it’s the right thing to do.
“People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.”
10. Give your best anyway
On his commandments being a “no excuses policy,” Keith says:
Okay, some people are illogical, unreasonable, self-centered — so what? That’s no excuse. You’ve got to love them anyway. You don’t want to limit your life by limiting your love. Maybe the good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow — so what? It’s no excuse. You don’t run out and do bad, that’s not who you are. That’s not your character. You’ve got to do good anyway.
Don’t limit your life by limiting your love. Whatever you do, do your best.
“Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.”
All You Need to Know
Keith was lucky. When he showed his commandments to his father, he just said, “Yup. We know this. It’s nice of you to write it down.” Keith didn’t feel like he was inventing, he was reporting — reporting “an attitude of life that was all around me.” In a nutshell, this is the attitude he refers to:
- People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
- If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.
- If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
- The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
- Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.
- The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.
- People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
- What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
- People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.
- Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.
Maybe you didn’t grow up in an environment where resilience, hope, and optimism were as natural as breathing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build them in your life today, no matter how crazy the world might feel right now.
Love people, do good, stay honest. Think big, give your best, and when the world meets you with its worst, keep doing it all. Keep doing it anyway.
Previously published on medium
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