I’m OK, You’re an Idiot

In 1967, Thomas Harris wrote “I’m OK, You’re OK,” arguably the most famous use of a 2×2 matrix (with cash cows/dogs/stars and question marks a close second).

Today’s Big Western Wisdom is Positive Psychology; see the NYTimes’ Happiness 101.

I think I’m OK, You’re OK is a terrific book; and the wisdom in positive psychology is timeless, universal, and very valuable.

But I also think they both leave something on the table.

Do you, like me, advise or influence others for a living? Then you may suspect that Harris pulled punches. My inner voice says:

“I’m OK, you’re an idiot,”


“You’re OK, I’m an undetected fraud.”

If you’re like me, those two mantras rent space in our heads almost simultaneously. We are (or is it just me?), as Bill Wilson put it, insecure egomaniacs, buffeted by a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.

IOYO and PP suggest we get in the flow, bliss out, focus, be aware, accept, be happy.

Well, yes—and no.

To do great work, being a little nuts sometimes helps. The trick is not to kill the beast within, but to feed it—while keeping it in the cage.

St. Augustine saw value in suffering. Nietzsche wrote of the spiritual bankruptcy of serenity (as did Seinfeld). Carlos Castaneda, in Journey to Ixtlan, portrays alienation as the spawn of wisdom. In William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, the twice-born are way more interesting than the once-born. Artists know what doesn’t kill you makes you—more creative.

An ex-boss, when I told him sadly I was getting divorced, said, “Congratulations! What a wonderful learning opportunity!” Turns out he was right.

I once showed a CEO the results of a psychological survey of his top 20 consultants. “Jim,” I said nervously, “the shrink says these are not the profiles of psychologically balanced, healthy people!”

Jim looked up at me patiently, and said, “Yeah?”

He was right too.

The day my pulse doesn’t jump twenty points in the first client meeting is the day I’ll leave the profession—suffering either from arrogance, indifference, or burnout.

The challenge is to be constructively schizophrenic—to harness the power of the dark side and channel it.

So here’s my reformulation:

“I’m an idiot, you’re an idiot. So let’s get over it, let’s work together and let’s do something great.”

(Credit where due: Anthony de Mello said it first—"I’m an ass, you’re an ass." As he said, it’s about ego deflation.)

David Maister wrote, “the problem is never what the client said it was in the first meeting.” He didn’t exaggerate.

Jeff Thull says the inability of clients to fully understand the solution is the hallmark of complex organizations in today’s world.

So clients suffer from the idiot disease as well—they suspect their ignorance, as we do.

But we’re sicker—painfully aware of what we don’t know, yet also knowing it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Paranoia is rational. And yet—this is great news.

If—a big “if”—we can jointly accomplish the ego deflation inherent in “I’m an idiot, you’re an idiot,” then:

  • we don’t wast time posturing
  • There are no dumb questions
  • We are free to help each other
  • The Not Invented Here syndrom Disappears
  • We can seek each other’s advice – and offer it freely
  • We can produce some really, truly, scary good work.

I like to think we can keep the edge. A Netscape programmer in the heady early days of Web 1.0 wrote, “We come into this world naked, bloody and screaming; but if you play your cards right, it doesn’t have to stop.”

Don’t settle for serenity alone. Be a cynic who trusts. Seek dare-to-be-great humility. Embrace your idiocy and leverage it. Don’t worry—be happy.

As one famous control freak advisor puts it—“It’s a Good Thing.”

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *