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The Paradoxical Commandments

by Karen Jackson  | 19 Comments


Yes, this is a business blog. But hang in with me – you’ll see why it’s relevant.

This past weekend, a friend shared a copy of The Paradoxical Commandments, written by Kent Keith in 1968, then a 19 year old Harvard undergrad. They are full of the paradox which Martin Luther King lived so purposefully and seeds for thought on how we mere mortals might fight our fears to make a difference on this earth. They are:

  • People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
  • If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish motives. Do good anyway.
  • If you are successful, you 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 persons with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest persons with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
  • People favor underdogs, but only follow top dogs. Fight for underdogs anyway.
  • What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
  • People truly need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
  • Give the world your best and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give your best anyway.

Because I have this constant need to look at ideas in the context of business (whether that’s a strength or weakness might be subject to debate) my brain quickly went looking for how such inspiration might be applicable to the workplace.

Two thoughts quickly came to mind: the stories we make up about why our businesses can’t grow, and the stories we make up about why our employees aren’t producing. Looking through the same lens as  The Paradoxical Commandments, might there be a new opportunity for growth in our businesses or for creating a different relationship with our employees? Try these commandments on for size.

“The economy is barely growing.” Grow anyway.  In trying economic times, it’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming a stagnant business on external factors. In fact, if one complains about the economic landscape they’ll certainly find plenty of others who will commiserate, wring hands, share their own sad stories.  And those stories might be true. But what could happen in our businesses if we choose to defy conventional wisdom, eschew the media and stop looking for comfort from the cynics? Might throwing out big, overarching excuses force us rather to reinvest our energy in creative, innovative ways to grow? To get more disciplined about planning, about turning ideas into action, about holding ourselves accountable? Might we be willing to get honest about our own weaknesses and call in some cavalry to fill the gaps? Could we decide to grow anyway?

“My employees always let me down.” Expect excellence. Let’s start with the assumption that the first statement might be true. I believe in the adage, “you can only hire the people you deserve.” For me that translates to identifying what is it about me, my company, my processes, my idea, my expectations, my ____ (fill in the blank) that would make that statement true. Try it sometime; that exploration inevitably leads to important insights about hiring practices, leadership and management skills. But, for now, let’s assume your employees do always let you down. Where do we begin to solve that problem?

I think it’s by expecting excellence. We humans have a tendency to decide what the other party is going to say, how they are already thinking and what they believe, before the conversation even begins. We base those conclusions on past experiences and ignore the truth of the present. How often have you thought something like, “he always does it the wrong way” or “she never delivers on time” or “she always wants an argument.” There is big danger in the phrases “she always…”and “he never….”  When we expect to be let down, we are, often because we’ve decided it already to be true.  It’s a condition called “already listening,” as in, “I’m already listening for you to say what I know you’re going to say,” even when that person hasn’t yet uttered a word.  And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, because the other party knows that we’ve already judged the quality of their behavior and their contributions.

What might happen if we replace this already listening with an expectation of excellence? To expect that individual to give it their best, to bring their whole person to the task, to successfully complete what is expected of them? What if we define expectations up front, identify what success looks like, agree on accountability, reward results, and have frank, honest conversations with those who don’t live up to them in reality. What if we expect excellence before the work is done?

Develop a muscle for living up to these commandments. I guarantee growth.

| Categories: Blog, Culture, Growth, Leadership
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19 Comments to The Paradoxical Commandments

  1. Tony Raccio
    January 16, 2012 3:34 pm

    Karen excellent blog! I think this is totally relevant to business and creating a culture of purposefull living!

    • Karen Jackson
      January 16, 2012 6:36 pm

      Thanks, Tony. Glad you liked it. You’ve hit the nail on the head re: “purposeful.” It’s easier to be on auto-pilot, but far more rewarding to be conscious and purposeful.

  2. Seth Godin
    January 18, 2012 4:36 pm

    Oh my.

    A profound message, beautifully delivered.

    We don’t hear this nearly often enough. Thank you Karen, for the brilliant kick in the pants.

    • Karen Jackson
      January 18, 2012 4:44 pm

      Seth, thank you for your kind words and for caring enough to comment. To “do the opposite” truly is an opportunity to create something new, exciting, worthy of our energy. Your writing and teaching is a force to remind us all.

  3. Deborah Elms
    January 18, 2012 9:20 pm

    Karen, great blog post.

    “Following these commandments isn’t easy. Do it anyway!”

    And yes, they apply to business as well as personal life.

    • Karen Jackson
      January 19, 2012 9:56 am

      Thx Deborah. Your note makes me think of the old Nike “Just Do It” commercials! Sometimes it simply takes the discipline to do what isn’t easy, and the consciousness to recognize when we’re in the space of taking the easy way out.

  4. Linda Price
    January 19, 2012 10:48 am


    I couldn’t agree with you more and you presented the concept brilliantly.
    What we think/believe/say gives us our reality. Think about creating outstanding powerful results and you probably will. Think the economy is in a downturn (even if it is) and you will most probably not do well in your business (lots of companies thrive in downturned economies). What we and our teams speak (think) creates reality.

    • Karen Jackson
      January 19, 2012 10:59 am

      Thx Linda for your note. Another place I see this playing out is in the job market for college grads. Over and over I hear, “oh, I feel so sorry for these kids graduating from college; there are just no jobs out there.” The kids who fall for the conventional wisdom don’t have jobs. The ones who decide they’re going to have one, do. Not to say it’s easy – whether building a biz or looking for a job – but it is to say that we all have the capacity to create a different reality.

  5. Mary Rosenbaum
    January 19, 2012 12:37 pm

    A great thought provoking piece Karen. We are in control of our own destinies! But it depends very much on your mindset – being a victim (of the times, of the economy, of the industry) leaves very little room for success, however you define success. Clarity, open and honest communication, and realistic expectations of what success looks like – definitely the right formula for any healthy organization – you summed it up beautifully.

    • Karen Jackson
      January 19, 2012 2:17 pm

      Thx for weighing in Mary; glad you liked the piece. You’re so right; realistic expectations need to be defined by the organization, and then communicated, nurtured, supported, measured. If we can’t achieve the goals, doing the hard work to figure out why is far more honest than throwing up the hands and saying, it’s the economy, etc., etc.

  6. Jack Lyons
    January 19, 2012 5:22 pm

    Hi Karen,
    I read the original of the Paridoxical Commandments many years ago, but I really like what you had to say in your two commandments.

    • Karen Jackson
      January 19, 2012 6:18 pm

      Thanks, Jack. Those were the first 2 that came to mind but I suspect there are plenty of others. Perhaps we need to create a revised version specific to the business world?

  7. Bethany Rice
    January 20, 2012 7:56 am

    Good blog post, nice efforts. It couldn’t appear to have been penned any better. Reading this article piece of writing reminds me about my old boss! He usually kept babbling about this. I will email this post to him. Pretty confident he will probably have a high-quality read. Appreciate your posting!

  8. Mark Aiello
    January 20, 2012 11:04 am

    Grest points Karen. I especially like the section that starts with “My employees always let me down. Expect excellence”. I am running out to buy a huge mirror so I can begin to fix the problem.

  9. Joe DeMarco
    January 23, 2012 9:23 am

    Your right on about external factors. I always laugh (in my mind) when I hear Fortune 1,000 companies blame missing their earnings expectations on poor weather, the weak economy, or other factors that could have never been foreseen (really?). Not saying it’s easy, but we can expect that weather is unpredictable, the economy is unpredictable. As you point out we have to seek excellence and expect the unexpected. Thanks for the reminder of what we need to keep focused on.

  10. Gina Fedeli
    January 30, 2012 2:08 pm


    Thank you for sharing. Following these commandments will bring greatness to those involved. Who isn’t up for greatness?


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