"The Paradoxical Commandments"
An interesting story of coincidence from the SF Chronicle newspaper of March 8, 2002

Decades-old musings traveled around the world and back

Student's thoughts return big reward

David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times
Friday, March 8, 2002
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle.


At a Honolulu Rotary Club meeting four years ago, Kent Keith, a vice president at the local YMCA, heard some words of advice that changed his life.

A fellow Rotarian said he wanted to open the meeting by reading inspirational sayings that came, he said, from Mother Teresa. "If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies," the speaker said. "Succeed anyway. The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway."

It was hardly revolutionary, and some might even call the maxims banal, but Keith found them very affecting for personal reasons. After the meeting, he discreetly buttonholed the speaker.

"I actually wrote that," Keith told him.

"He looked at me like, 'You poor, delusional megalomaniac,' " Keith recalled last week.

But he was not imagining things. This unlikely reunion between a writer and his own words stands to make Keith a rich man as the Rip Van Winkle of inspirational gurus.

Now 53, he had written the aphorisms more than three decades ago, as a 19- year-old student at Harvard University, in a self-published motivational booklet for high school student councils. When he returned to Hawaii and forgot about it, his musings took on a life of their own, without him or his name. His platitudes were passed around the world, attributed to various authors, including Mother Teresa, Bishop Abel Tendekai Muzorewa of Zimbabwe, the psychiatrist Karl Menninger, a Milwaukee clergyman named Guy Gurath and a Cleveland high school wrestling coach, Howard Ferguson.

Almost no one credited the words to their true author.

Keith has finally stepped forward to capitalize on his platitudes' astonishing appeal. In January, Penguin Putnam agreed to pay an advance of about $300,000 for the rights to a 144-page book, "The Paradoxical Commandments," by Keith, explicating his original 10 theses. It will be published in May with a national marketing and publicity campaign designed to turn it into the next "Who Moved My Cheese?"

"I am totally amazed by everything," Keith said in a telephone interview from Honolulu.

Keith said his "paradoxical commandments" grew out of his experience as class president of Roosevelt High School in Honolulu. His reflections on his good fortune still sound like the sunny sentiments of a high school valedictorian. "It has been an unfolding joy," he said. "And I am sure when the book is out in May, I will start hearing from many more kindred spirits."

Keith published his commandments in 1968 as a college student trying to earn extra money. He had parlayed his high school success into a part-time job speaking to student government groups. He put his commandments in booklets sold at the conferences.

"People are illogical, unreasonable and self-centered," he wrote. "Love them anyway. People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway."

In a flourish of collegiate vanity, Keith also registered a copyright for his words, as he did for about 15 to 20 contemporaneous essays and poems that he calls forgettable.

After college, Keith deposited the last few copies in his parents' garage and moved on. "I was unsuspecting," he said. "Just trying to live the paradoxical commandments." After a Rhodes scholarship, he practiced law, worked in Hawaii state government, developed a high-tech office park and became president of a small Honolulu university before taking his current job as director of communications and development for the YMCA.

Meanwhile, the commandments circulated from hand to hand, usually under the title "Anyway." The litany became a favorite of commencement speakers and retiring politicians like the departing mayor of Arlington, Texas, Richard Greene, who credited it to "the prime minister of a Third World country trying to help the people there make their lives better."

But the text's greatest exposure came in 1994, when Canadian author Lucinda Vardey found a version posted on a wall of Mother Teresa's orphanage in Calcutta. The words were written in someone else's hand with spotty English grammar, and they were gone a few days later, Vardey recalled last week. But Mother Teresa was a woman of few words, and Vardey needed all she could find for her book "Mother Teresa: A Simple Path," so she included the corrected text with a note about its origin. Under Mother Teresa's perceived imprimatur, the commandments' popularity soared.

Keith, after his Rotary Club experience four years ago, decided to write a book about his words. And he has formulated a new maxim for aspiring authors: "Whether you get published or not, write anyway."

©2002 San Francisco Chronicle