Lessons from Orphan X and His Ten Commandments

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Orphan X is a entertaining fiction series from author Gregg Hurwitz. The hero, Evan Smoak a.k.a. Orphan X, is a product of a government black ops program that turned wayward children into deadly assassins. Smoak is out of the program and has turned into the “Nowhere Man”, an invisible force who saves the helpless, dishing out punishment to sex traffickers, rapists, domestic abusers, gangs, and other nefarious characters. Think Jason Bourne meets the Equalizer.

I’ve listened to the Orphan X series on Audible and it’s as good as any action movie franchise. I particularly enjoy the detailed references to various technologies and gadgets used by Orphan X throughout his adventures as well as the vivid blow-by-blow fight scenes described in tight, muscular prose.

I also appreciate the repetition and the return to familiar characters, settings, and memories throughout the series. After finishing all the books in the series, I feel the coziness of certain locations and character quirks because of the pure repetition of hearing them again and again. For example, Evan’s 7,000 square foot penthouse apartment in Los Angeles feels very homey after a couple books as does his penchant for various artisanal vodkas, enjoyed ice cold after a long day’s work.

Beyond the material, we’re exposed again and again to the Ten Commandments that were drilled into Evan by his handler, mentor, and father figure Jack Johns. These commandments appear quite regularly as they reinforce certain reflexes during conflict scenes or highlight mistakes when they’re not followed.

Throughout these books, I’ve had a chance to think a bit here and there about the commandments and draw out some lessons that could be applied to a more mundane life.

The First Commandment: Assume Nothing

Whenever Orphan X happens upon new information or tries to piece together clues, he reminds himself of the first commandment: to assume nothing. There are a few instances throughout the series when Evan fails to obey this commandment, and he’s usually tricked or betrayed, landing in a tight spot.

When it comes to business, it’s really easy to fall into pattern-matching mode and make hasty decisions. Whether it’s hiring decisions, strategy discussions with clients, or putting together solutions for a project, I can recall dozens of instances when I made one too many assumptions and found myself in a troublesome situation later on. I attribute this to a combination of laziness and a desire to get things done quickly–surefire ways to make unnecessary mistakes.

The other aspect of this commandment that I appreciate is when it comes to people. I often catch myself making assumptions about them based on a variety of external or readily apparent factors, a habit borne from years of various stereotypes being ingrained from personal experience and media consumption. These biases are absolutely real and the commandment is a good reminder that until you dig a bit deeper, it’s foolish and unfair to make assumptions.

The Second Commandment: How You Do Anything is How You Do Everything

Throughout the series, it’s obvious that Orphan X takes pride in doing the small things correctly and well. Whether it’s keeping his apartment spotlessly clean or taking extra precautions to ensure that none of his transactions or communications are traceable, there is no detail too lowly or unimportant for him. I love the moments when he visits his various safe houses around Los Angeles to water the plants and check the mail in order to avoid suspicion that it’s not a normal residence.

This commandment is probably my favorite because it highlights something I’ve come to appreciate more and more as an adult–so much of behavior is derived from habits and our long track record of having done it over and over again. The idea of coming through in big moments by suddenly rising to the occasion no longer makes sense to me. Rising to the occasion is possible because of the consistent work put into the mundane things day in and day out.

I think about how my approach to business has changed along these lines. In my younger days, I used to cherish the idea of “winging it” and sounding smart on the fly. These days, I value the methodical planning during the quiet hours, the tidiness of our CRM, or the deep dives into various financial metrics. These are not exciting or glamorous activities, but I know that doing these with pride and care will help provide a solid foundation for other activities.

The Third Commandment: Master Your Surroundings

Whenever Orphan X is on a mission, it’s critical for him to know the various details about the location including exit routes, hiding spots, choice spots to mount a sniper gun, and other factors like lighting, wind, and elevation. At home in his penthouse apartment, Orphan X masters his surrounding in a different way, having built a protective fortress with a hidden mission command center, security camera feeds from all over the building, an indoor garden, and spotless counter tops. He’s absolutely the master of his surroundings, having spared no detail.

Having recently moved to a new apartment and neighborhood, I can appreciate the need to master one’s surroundings. For example, taking the time to learn the various ways to get around our apartment building through Stairs A and B as well as the elevator, I’ve been able to save time getting to the bike storage or the trash compactor rooms. I’ve also been scouting out our neighborhood to figure out the optimal places to walk our dog and to dispose of his poop bags. There’s also the reconnaissance on the different bodegas and coffee spots nearby including when they open and what they offer. And of course, there’s finding the optimal route from the apartment to the subway station including which streets to cross at and which streets to climb up on my way back.

I think the idea of paying attention to your surroundings beyond just the surface is a great reminder that we’re oftentimes shaped greatly by our environment. If you can exert control on the environment, it’s an opportunity to optimize, and if not, knowing what’s possible and not possible or what’s nice and what’s not ideal can help, in small and big ways, to modify our behavior so we can feel comfortable and productive.

The Fourth Commandment: Never Make It Personal

For Evan Smoak, it’s not about liking or disliking someone but getting the job done. It means keeping a distance from those he promises to protect and also being ruthless with those he’s committed to eradicating. However, like any good story with twists and turns, Orphan X does not obey this code of absolute professionalism. He gets attached to certain people, develops feelings, and often descends into greater dangers to save them. This, after all, is what makes him human and a separates him from most of the other orphans.

In my line of work, there are many instances where this commandment comes into play. The most common one is when I’m faced with criticism from clients or rejections from prospects. In my younger days, these setbacks would have upset me and occupied my mind for hours if not days. However, with experience and practice, it’s been easier and easier to take things in stride and understand that it’s part of the business. A frustrated client who unleashes unkind words is sending a signal that needs to be interpreted and addressed. There’s no upside to dwelling on whether or not how they said something was nice or not; it’s best to just move on and learn from the experience (although if the client became chronically abusive in language towards our team members, that would be a separate issue). And when it  comes to business rejection, that too is information to be processed and an opportunity to learn.

I’ve also learned that harsh comments left by ex-employees on Glassdoor, while they may hurt to read and internalize, are ultimately also pieces of real feedback that need to be considered and used to draw insights. Never make it personal, don’t dwell on who or why they left the comment, just be grateful they took the time, and move on. Things feel so much lighter this way.

The Fifth Commandment: If You Don’t Know What To Do, Do Nothing

After reading The Fifth Discipline and its concept of systems thinking, I felt a deep appreciation for this commandment. In really tricky situations when Orphan X is in a tight jam and with seemingly zero options for escape or mission success, he invokes this commandment to give himself time to think and for things to play out on their own. Usually, new information or developments emerge, and he is able to act on them later. The lesson is that by being patient when things are uncertain, he’s less likely to make rash decisions or exacerbate the situation by acting on incomplete information.

I find this to be one of the harder commandments to follow in the course of doing business. The natural instinct, especially in crises situations when we know there is a problem but unsure what’s going on, is to be reactive, to move fast, and to figure things out on the go. However, I can recall a few situations when I had the sense to accept that I had no real solution and to let things play out by doing nothing. It’s an uncomfortable feeling and place to be, but it’s something that actually works for the better most of the time.

The Sixth Commandment: Question Orders

This commandment is a bit ironic in that Orphan X starts his career as a trained assassin doing the US government’s bidding in carrying out hits on various political and business actors around the world through covert solo operations. However, as Orphan X becomes disillusioned with his career and wants out, he ultimately questions an assignment that leads to him abandoning the Orphan program and becoming the Nowhere Man. The spirit of this commandment is critical thinking, having a conscience, and being curious about the bigger picture.

When it comes to client work, there are times when a client can get very prescriptive and want things done a very specific way. As an agency that provides a variety of services, we’ve found it beneficial to dig a bit deeper and try to understand where these orders are coming from. Is it a fear that we’ll mess up on something? Is it a direct ask from the client’s CEO that needs to be carried out ASAP? Have we not taken the time to frame the problem in a way that can lead to a more collaborative discussion? By not blindly taking orders and being able to finesse fruitful conversations, we’re able to position ourselves as more “strategic” partners in the relationship, which means our work will be valued more by the client.

The Seventh Commandment: One Mission at a Time

Orphan X is the consummate professional. He gives each mission his undivided attention and lives a relatively distraction-free life. The drama picks up when he finds himself fighting on multiple fronts and isn’t able to focus on a single mission. Whenever this happens, he remarks how uncomfortable he is to be violating this commandment.

This is a battle I fight each day at work. While I may have prioritized my To Do list in the morning, new demands on my attention often distract me from the important work even if they’re not necessarily urgent. I am a frequent violator of the seventh commandment when it comes to the day-to-day tasks.

I’m a bit better at the macro level. Each quarter, my partners and I decide on a handful of “rocks” to  accomplish. These are usually themed in some way–new business, recruiting, performance management, etc. We decide a conservative number of rocks and give ourselves 12 weeks to get them done. I usually take on one rock at a time and have generally been pretty successful in getting these completed, thoroughly and on time.

The Eight Commandment: Never Kill a Kid

No matter how hostile or dangerous a young adversary may be, Orphan X holds firm to this commandment and avoids killing minors, even at great danger to himself. It’s another aspect of what makes him more human versus his enemies, who’re more cold-blooded in their actions.

The one action I can equate to this commandment is refusing to take on clients whose products may pose a danger to minors. As a business, we’ve actively avoided engaging with tobacco or vaping brands especially with the knowledge that such products can kill kids.

The Ninth Commandment: Always Play Offense

Whenever Orphan X invokes this commandment, he usually has his back to the wall and has patiently been waiting to collect more information (see Fifth Commandment: If You Don’t Know What To Do, Do Nothing). Rather than holing up and trying to resist a siege, Orphan X reminds himself to go on the offensive and be aggressive in his approach, using the element of surprise and proactively laying traps for the enemy. This results in setting up attacks from unexpected sources or striking the enemy when they feel like they are in a  more advantageous position.

This is my second favorite commandment after the Second Commandment: How You Do Anything is How You Do Everything. At work, this translates to a couple of behaviors: deliberate planning and proactivity. In client situations, it means being able to suggest ideas and possible solutions before being prompted (or worse, before they assume you’re just there to solely implement). In business operations, it means anticipating potential issues and proactively building systems, processes, and relationships to be in a position to keep moving forward. There’s no shortage of situations where playing offense can provide an advantage. It takes a bit more thinking and upfront work, but it’s my preferred side of the ball to play on.

The Tenth Commandment: Never Let an Innocent Die

Part of what makes Orphan X a respectable hero is his willingness to risk his life without hesitation if it means saving the lives of innocent people. There are situations throughout the series when Orphan X puts his life on the line to protect the innocent, often resulting in serious injuries to himself or near capture. This commandment also keeps Orphan X from acting recklessly in a way that may result in collateral damage. For example, when he comes face-to-face with law enforcement officials who’re doing their jobs (vs. purposely acting maliciously as part of an enemy’s plan), he may physically incapacitate them to avoid capture but he’s careful not to kill them.

I gave this one a thought, but I don’t want to trivialize this commandment by equating it to anything at work. If there is one thing, it’s probably being a good father and doing whatever is required to keep my son safe and healthy.

Check out all the books in the Orphan X series, listed in chronological order. I’ve omitted the mini “in-between” books that are more like standalone bonus episodes for quick consumption. All of these are available in audiobook format on Audible and quite enjoyable.

3 Comments

  1. Great insight. I’ll put this list next to my Ferenghi Rules of Acquisition.

  2. Neil Levin says

    I have read them all and relished each and every one. Waiting for the next one. I am almost 78, so maybe Gregg can start writing at least 2 per year.

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