May 2002

Kent M. Keith

An enduring code of conduct for a crazy world
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More than 30 years ago, when he was an idealistic young college student, Kent M. Keith wrote a set of guidelines for achieving personal fulfillment. Like a pebble tossed into still water, Keith's Paradoxical Commandments launched a ripple that spread in ever-widening circles until it literally went around the world.

Unbeknownst to Keith, individuals and groups from the Boy Scouts to Mother Teresa began to embrace the commandments and pass them along to others. The arrival of the Internet speeded up the process and brought the commandments to the attention of even more people. His humble list of rules, first published in a Harvard student booklet in 1968, was quoted and praised worldwide, but in an ironic twist of fate, Keith was rarely credited as the author.

That situation is finally being corrected with the publication of Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments, which has already garnered Keith a six-figure advance from Putnam and a front-page article in The New York Times. In his new book, Keith devotes a chapter to each commandment and expounds on his theme of doing good in a crazy world with advice based on his own experiences and other real-life anecdotes. From his home in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he lives with his wife and three children, Keith recently answered questions for BookPage about the story behind his book and the remarkable staying power of his youthful creation.

 In the years after you wrote the commandments, when did you first become aware of their growing popularity?
For nearly 25 years, I wasn't aware that the Paradoxical Commandments were being shared throughout the world. But in the early '90s, news began to trickle in. The former Honolulu police chief heard them at a conference on the Mainland. Then a year later a librarian at my university found them on the Internet. A few months after that, a faculty member in my doctoral program handed them out as part of a packet of inspiring quotes that had meant a lot to her in her life. Then, in September 1997, I learned that the Paradoxical Commandments were on the wall at Mother Teresa's children's home in Calcutta. When I learned that, I decided to write a book about them.

I didn't know how widely the Paradoxical Commandments had spread until the summer of 2000, when I looked for them for the first time on the Internet. In two hours, I found them on 40 Web sites. That was something of a shock! I remember getting up from the computer and going for a walk, to think about what I had just discovered. By now, I have now found them on more than 90 Web sites. I am amazed at how many different organizations are using them Boy Scouts, Rotarians, churches, businesses, a homeless shelter, a welfare agency, Special Olympics, student leadership organizations and so forth.

Did it trouble you to discover that your own personal creation was being credited to others?
At first, it bothered me to find my work attributed to others. But when I learned that my work had been attributed to so many people, I began to realize what had happened. The Paradoxical Commandments were often attributed to people who just loved sharing them. When they shared them in a speech or article, other people attributed the commandments to them.

The fact that people want to share the commandments is, for me, the ultimate compliment.

You were just 19 when you wrote the commandments. How has your own view of the commandments changed since that time?
All 10 of the Paradoxical Command- ments still hold true for me personally. I have tried to live them every day since writing them in 1968. However, over the years my favorite commandments have changed. When I was 19, I especially liked the 6th, 7th and 10th commandments about thinking big, fighting for underdogs, and giving the world your best even if you get kicked in the teeth. Today, the 1st commandment is the most important to me people are illogical, unreasonable and self-centered; love them anyway. I think unconditional love is what holds families and friends and communities together, and we need much more of it in our world.

Since Sept. 11, many people have expressed a desire to find personal meaning in their lives. From your own experience, what's the best advice you can give them?
The best way to find meaning is to live the paradoxical life. The paradoxical life isn't focused on power, fame or wealth. It is focused on the meaning you get when you love others, do good, are honest, think big, fight for underdogs, build, help others and give the world the best you've got.

The first step in living the paradoxical life is to focus on others and become part of something bigger than yourself. I think that in most cultures, countries and centuries, people have discovered that loving and helping others gives them the greatest meaning in life. And joining a cause, becoming part of an organization or movement, or practicing a religion can give you the meaning that comes from working with others to accomplish something bigger than you can accomplish as an individual.

How can we keep from becoming cynical in this crazy world?
Cynics think the worst of people. It often strikes me that cynics are disappointed believers. They want to believe in people, but then become disappointed. Cynicism is the pose they adopt to cover their disappointment. We won't become cynics if we live our most cherished values, stay close to our families and friends and do our personal best. If we live that way, we will begin to notice others who live that way, and our sense of trust in human nature and people's motives our own and others' will grow.


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