Three Envelopes

The newly hired executive arrived at his office a little sooner than expected. The man he replaced had just finished cleaning out his desk and paused on the way out the door. “You won, but you know how it is: you’ll get off to a strong start, but there will be good times and bad times. I left three envelopes for you in the desk if things get too rough.” With that, they shook hands, and the new executive took over.

Photo by Charlotte May on

Things went well for a few months, and the executive almost forgot about the envelopes. As time went on, though, problems started to pile up. He stayed ahead of them at first, but eventually he couldn’t keep up. Running out of ideas, he remembered the envelopes. In the privacy of his office, he opened the envelope marked with a big number one. Inside was a card that said, “Blame your predecessor.” So, he launched a publicity campaign blaming his predecessor for the problems, bought some time, diverted blame, and the crisis passed.

Things went well for a while longer, but life is full of trouble. Problems started to pile up again, and he eventually found himself at his wits end. Opening the second envelope, he found a card that said, “Reorganize.” So, with great fanfare he reorganized every problem area. That bought some time, diverted attention, solved a few of the problems, and kicked the rest of them down the road.

Things went well for a time, but eventually the problems caught up with him and things went south. He did not want to open that third envelope, preferring to keep it as his last resort. But things continued to worsen, and there were rumors about who could replace him. Finally, out of options, he opened the third envelope. Inside was a card that said, “Prepare three envelopes.”

The “three envelopes” joke has been circulating among managers for as long as I can remember. The joke is funny because it is so true. Every time we see one executive replace another, whether in government or in other large management organizations, the incoming boss often gets off to a good start. However, sooner or later he blames his predecessor for problems he inherited as well as those he created. Time goes by, things get rocky, and he reorganizes, which sometimes helps but never really eliminates every difficulty. Finally, the day comes when he must leave, and the cycle begins again. As Ecclesiastes 1:9 says, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Maybe we laugh at management jokes to avoid lapsing into cynicism. And maybe the cynics are right. After all, Psalm 146:3-4 advises, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.” However, we do have an alternative, and that would be to put our trust in God. Psalm 1:1-3 points us in that direction when it says, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.”

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