Kent M. Keith

on Monday, 04 June 2012. Posted in Leadership Interviews

Kent M. Keith

Kent Keith was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Nebraska, California, Virginia, and Rhode Island before arriving in Hawaii in 1962. He graduated as student body president of Roosevelt High School in Honolulu in 1966. He has been an attorney, state government official, high tech park developer, university president, community organizer, and YMCA executive. He earned a B.A. in Government from Harvard University, an M.A. in Philosophy and Politics from Oxford University, a Certificate in Japanese from Waseda University, a J.D. from the University of Hawaii, and an Ed.D. from the University of Southern California. He is a Rhodes Scholar.  

Dr Keith is known nationally and internationally as the author of the Paradoxical Commandments, which he wrote and published in 1968 in a booklet for student leaders. His first book, Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments was published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in April 2002, and has become a bestseller in the United States . His narration of Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments won a national “Audie” award from the Audio Publishers Association as the best audiobook of 2003 in the personal development/motivational category. His second book, Do It Anyway: The Handbook for Finding Personal Meaning and Deep Happiness in a Crazy World, was published by Inner Ocean Publishing in November 2003.  

Dr Keith has been featured on the front page of The New York Times and in People magazine, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Family Circle. He was interviewed by Katie Couric on NBC’s Today Show and by Dr Robert H. Schuller on The Hour of Power. He has appeared on dozens of TV shows and more than 80 radio programs in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia .  

Dr Keith and his wife Elizabeth have three teen-agers. They live in Honolulu.

The 10 Paradoxical Commandments


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.
Succeed anyway.

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.
Build anyway.

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.

© Copyright Kent M. Keith 1968, renewed 2001

CLW's Interview with Dr. Kent M. Keith Interview

What personal life experiences shaped the creation of the 10 Paradoxical Commandments in the sixties?  

The Paradoxical Commandments are based on ideas I learned from my parents, my church, and my own experience. I wanted to create a kind of a “jolt” in the reader by starting with a statement of adversity, and then following it with a positive commandment about loving people, and doing good, and helping people anyway. Some of those statements of adversity were based on specific experiences I had before I wrote the commandments.  

For example, when I was 15 I was accused of selfish ulterior motives when I opposed an issue that was backed by the student leaders at my high school; when I was 18 I was literally run out of town for being honest and frank in a speech to students at a student leadership workshop in the Midwest; and when I was 19 I struggled with the fact that the old man that I was chauffeuring several hours each week was always complaining and verbally attacking me, even though I was helping him. What I learned was that what mattered was not how the world treated me, but how I responded to the way the world treated me. My response could always be a source of meaning to me.    

How do you explain the success of the Paradoxical Commandments-- they appear to have literally rippled around the world? How and when did you become aware of their popularity? How has your writing them changed your life?

The Paradoxical Commandments spread around the world for 30 years before I knew it was happening. I don’t know why they spread, but from asking and listening, I think there may have been four reasons.  

First, the Paradoxical Commandments are a call to meaning, and people are hungry for meaning. The Paradoxical Commandments focus on the things that have given people meaning and a richer spiritual life for centuries—loving people, helping people, doing good. 

Second, I think that the Paradoxical Commandments have spread because they are so fundamental that they cut across different ideologies, philosophies, and theologies. They are about the things that people have in common, not the doctrines that divide us. They have been used by Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, Buddhists, Confucianists, Jains, agnostics, and atheists. They seem to easily cross national boundaries. Each month I get between 4,000 and 5,000 visitors on my website, and they click in from at least 50 different countries. In addition to the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, they click in from Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France, Ghana, Hong Kong, Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Lebanon, Morocco, Nepal, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, Romania, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, and dozens more. There is something about the commandments that interests people regardless of their country or culture.  

Third, I think that the Paradoxical Commandments have spread because they are short, easy to read, easy to put up on a wall or inside a notebook, and easy to send to a friend or post on a website.  

Finally, I think that the Paradoxical Commandments have spread because they aren’t questions or issues—they are commandments, written in the imperative voice. They’re not wishy-washy. They don’t say: Think about the possibility of maybe considering doing something. No—they say “Do it!” And no excuses—“Do it anyway!”   

I wasn’t aware of the way in which the commandments had traveled until 30 years after I published them. I learned in September 1997 that Mother Teresa had put the Paradoxical Commandments up on the wall of her children’s home in Calcutta . That discovery had a huge impact on me. I decided then to start speaking and writing about the Paradoxical Commandments again. Since then I have published two books. The first one, Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments, became a national bestseller in the United States and was translated into 16 languages. Sharing the Paradoxical Commandments and helping people to find personal meaning is now my lay ministry, life mission, and full-time job.    

Are you aware of any examples of how people have practiced any of your Commandments?

My second book, Do It Anyway: The Handbook for Finding Personal Meaning and Deep Happiness in a Crazy World, includes stories from 32 different people who are living the Paradoxical Commandments. These are people that I respect and have known for many years. They are typical of the millions of people that I believe are living the Paradoxical Commandments every day, whether they have heard of the commandments or not.   

The comment I hear most often is that people use the commandments as a kind of checklist, a quick reminder of how they need to live and who they need to be. For example, people have told me that they look at the Paradoxical Commandments every morning before going to work, to get some focus and perspective before starting their day. People tell me that they have used the commandments to raise their children, or get through a difficult time at work, or set their goals. People have told me that at a time in their lives when they were worn down and filled with despair, they came across the commandments, and the commandments inspired them and helped them to get “unstuck” and move forward with their lives.  

In your preface to your book Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments, you have said “It’s best to begin by just admitting that the world is crazy. The world really doesn’t make sense.” Can you explain this view?  

No doubt we would have our own lists of the ways in which the world seems crazy to us. I share my list in my book. My point, however, is that even when the world doesn’t make sense, you can make sense. You can do things that are right and good and true, finding meaning and deep happiness as you do.       

How do your promote your view that the Paradoxical Commandments can still be followed in today’s world which is threatened by terrorism and unprecedented levels of inequity and inhumanity?

First of all, I think it is hard to determine whether terrorism, inequity, and inhumanity are worse today than in the past. Unfortunately, a review of world history gives us plenty of examples of terrorism, inequity, and inhumanity during the past several thousand years in nearly every part of the planet. The Paradoxical Commandments assume that things can be and often are very difficult. Each commandments begins with a statement of adversity. But the point of the Paradoxical Commandments is that, no matter how bad it gets, we should still do the right thing anyway. Doing the right thing gives us a lot of personal meaning, which is a key to being deeply happy. We shouldn’t give up that meaning just because times are tough. That’s when we need the meaning and deep happiness the most! 

What essential findings have you made from your research about what gives people the most meaning in life? What did this research involve?

I have surveyed about 2,500 people ranging in age from 19 to 65, nearly all of them living in Hawaii . I have surveyed university students, community and business leaders, YMCA staff members, and members of my Rotary Club. The survey instrument that I use asks people to rate 27 different potential sources of meaning in their lives. Because my samples are not random samples, I cannot extrapolate to larger populations, but the responses I have gotten have been interesting. Nearly every group has given the highest average rating to “my family.” Other highly rated sources of personal meaning include “giving and receiving love,” “intimate relationships,” “living my values,” “doing my personal best,” and “a sense of accomplishment.” 

How have the findings differed from your research about sources of personal meaning at work for organizational leaders?

The survey instrument that I use in surveying organizational leaders about meaning at work has a different set of potential sources of meaning than the survey I use for the general public regarding meaning in life, so the results are not directly comparable. However, several of the same sources of meaning rise to the top. Organizational leaders give high ratings to such sources of meaning as “always doing my personal best,” “supporting my family,” “living my values,” “a sense of accomplishment,” and “always doing what’s right.” What has been the same for all groups is that they have given low ratings to power, wealth, fame, and winning as sources of meaning, whether it be at work or in life in general.    

What advice do you give to professionals on how to find meaning in their workplace and in their lives outside the workplace?

In my presentations I focus on eight sources of meaning at work: (1) the overall impact of your organization; (2) your role or mission within your organization; (3) focusing on your contribution (making a difference); (4) helping your colleagues; (5) pitching in to get the work done; (6) always doing what’s right; (7) always doing your best; and (8) being ambitious—for your organization. Outside of work, there are many opportunities to find meaning in one’s relationships with family, relatives, friends, neighbors, community organizations, schools, churches and religious associations, service clubs, and hobbies. 

Have you helped individuals who are deeply grief stricken to find meaning? How would one do this?  

The Paradoxical Commandments have helped people break away from a difficult past. However, I am not aware of any cases that are specifically about grief, and I am not currently working in this area.

What advice would you give to educators and caretakers of children based on your beliefs about life?  

The answer to this question is another book—one which I have begun to write! The very short answer is that children and youth need to know that they can find meaning and deep happiness no matter what the world does to them. They can find meaning and deep happiness by facing the worst in the world with the best in themselves. In the end, what is most important is not how the world treats us, but how we respond to the way the world treats us. And that response is up to us. It’s about our inner lives. We get to decide who we are going to be and how we are going to live. We can decide to live our faith, live our values, be close to our family and friends, and do what we know is right and good and true, no matter what. That simple truth should encourage young people—and the rest of us, as well! 

Why do you believe in servant leadership? Do you believe in any aspects of other leadership theories?

I see servant leadership as an attitude or philosophy or model, rather than a theory. Basically, servant leaders love people and want to help them. Loving and helping people gives them a lot of meaning and satisfaction in life. Servant leaders don’t go around asking, “How can I get power? How can I make people do things?” Servant leaders ask, “What do people need? How can I help them to get it?” The mission of a servant leader is to identify and meet the needs of others. That’s why servant leaders are usually facilitators, coordinators, coalition-builders, partners, and healers. They can wield power, but power is only a tool, a means and not an end.  

I believe that this approach to leadership is not only ethically superior but also more effective than the power model of leadership. Servant leaders are more effective because they seek to identify and meet needs. They are more likely to find out what really needs to be done, and they are more likely to really do something about it. Leaders who seek power, by contrast, carry a lot of ego baggage, and are easily corrupted by their desire for power. The ego baggage and corruption make it hard to get the right things done.      

How do you find personal meaning?

I find meaning the way most people do—being with my wife and family, giving and receiving love, doing my best, living my values, living my faith, achieving a sense of accomplishment. As for my work, I find personal meaning by helping others to find personal meaning!

How does one live the paradoxical life?

Most people know where the meaning comes from. The challenge is to live that way—to live closely to our sources of personal meaning. The Paradoxical Commandments are there to remind us to do that. The vagaries of the external world are no excuse. We can do what is meaningful anyway.  

When you focus on doing what is meaningful, you are less concerned about the “symbols of success” that are promoted so heavily by our commercial culture—power, wealth, fame, and winning. You just pitch in to do what needs to be done. That’s where you find the meaning. If you are “successful,” you can use your success as a tool in loving and helping others. If you aren’t “successful,” that’s okay. You still have the meaning.        

My next book is titled Jesus Did It Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments for Christians. At the Last Supper, when Jesus was praying for his disciples, he described them as being in the world but not of the world. That’s a good way to summarize the paradoxical life.  

We need to be in the world, fully engaged in loving and helping people, and doing what we know is right and good and true. But we don’t have to be of the world—we don’t have to get caught up in the rat race, sacrificing what is most meaningful to us in order to achieve the symbols of success.  

According to all the people I have surveyed, the symbols of success provide little personal meaning. They’re not necessarily bad, they just aren’t enough. We need more than that—we need the deep happiness that comes from living closely to our sources of personal meaning. The paradox is that when we choose to do what is meaningful, we may be less “successful” in the eyes of the world, but far happier and a lot more fulfilled as individuals.