Perfect vs. Interesting

I enjoyed this post by Seth Godin:

There are two jobs available to most of us:

You can be the person or the organization that’s perfect. The one that always ships on time, without typos, that delivers flawlessly and dots every i. You can be the hosting company or the doctor that might be boring, but is always right.

Or you can be the person or the organization that’s interesting. The thing about being interesting, making a ruckus, creating remarkable products and being magnetic is that you only have to be that way once in a while. No one is expected to be interesting all the time.

Fedex vs. Playwrights Horizons.

When an interesting person is momentarily not-interesting, I wait patiently. When a perfect organization, the boring one that’s constantly using its policies to dumb things down, is imperfect, I get annoyed. Because perfect has to be perfect all the time.

Now, I have a couple of “yes-buts” to this (or if you prefer, “yes-ands”). For one thing, I think people do get impatient with interesting people who’ve gotten not-interesting. People have short attention spans. That doesn’t mean that we should force things, but it is a dynamic to be aware of.

Also, this post gives the impression that any given organization has either route available to them. FedEx needs to be perfect, and in that industry, that’s a noble thing to strive for. Nobody wants a document shipping company that’s known for being quirky and imprecise. (Southwest Airlines seems to straddle the perfect/interesting divide, staying true to its goofy “howdy y’all” Texas roots while maintaining a generally good record—and I say that even after the events of this week.)

All of this said, this gets me thinking in all kinds of directions. I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about the Spider-Man musical. Man, what a fiasco. I mean, what a spectacular fiasco! And the amount of money that’s been sunk into this thing is unbelievable. But isn’t there something really exciting about failure of this magnitude? It just makes me feel kind of fizzy inside. They tried to do something magnificent… and it failed. Really failed. (So far.) But that’s life, isn’t it? That’s energizing. It makes me want to try something really crazy just to see if I can pull it off.

I think this perfect/interesting thing has obvious implications for the church. Interesting is a good goal. Perfection is an impossible one, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. I’ve seen churches go about their worship and ministry in a very pinched, judgy sort of way. Precision becomes the highest value, not warmth or authenticity.

Mind you, I’m not condoning sloppiness. And when it comes to life-or-death stuff, let’s not be cavalier: our actions have consequences, serious ones. Just ask the folks at Vienna Presbyterian Church. We need to strive to be impeccable in some key areas such as safety and victim response (again, see Vienna Pres. article). I’d even argue that hospitality to guests is a place that leaves little margin for error.

But worship? Education? Mission? Let’s embrace the quirkiness. (There’s a reason my favorite metaphor for church is the Island of Misfit Toys. Thank you to my friend JT for that one.)

One of the questions I like to ask people, especially preachers, is courtesy of Bob Shelton, former president of Austin Seminary:

Would you rather be wrong or boring?

Setting aside the wry reply that one can be both, for me there is no contest. I’d rather be wrong. (At the hospital bedside is a little different. Being wrong can do permanent spiritual damage—God must have needed your loved one in heaven… At least now you know you can get pregnant…-–which is why we’re taught in seminary to show up and shut up. But when I’m in that pulpit, no question. Wrong.)

It’s interesting to put the wrong v. boring thing together with the perfect v. interesting thing. If you’re a preacher, or a church, that strives for perfection, you’ve got to lean towards boring because you can’t afford to be wrong. You’ve got to get it right, because perfection requires taking yourself very seriously, which means others will too. Your value on perfection does not create a space for people to evaluate your words for themselves.

But if your goal is to be interesting—to preach and live a gospel that really does turn things upside down, and to occasionally miss the mark in the process—well, that requires humility. And with humility, you give people permission to say, “No, that just doesn’t sound right. But it sure made me think.” So being wrong has less of a dire consequence. By taking yourself less seriously, you allow others to take the process seriously.

The good news about the Good News, I happen to think, is that Right converges with Interesting, so you don’t have to choose. You get a two-for-one deal.

Love wins.
Death is not the end.
The last shall be first.
Lose your life to save it.

Interesting, interesting, interesting, interesting.

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4 thoughts on “Perfect vs. Interesting

  1. NotShyChiRev says:

    Love this!

    I am particularly excited about this new way to lift up humility. I’m starting to think that in the 21st century, humility is no longer seen to be a virtue, but a failure of the strength of one’s convictions or character.

    This MUST change, or we will become not an Island of Misfit Toys, but an Island of Misfit Tyrants.

    Don’t get me wrong, we need to have the courage of our convictions…but also be willing to be wrong and to understand that we don’t have the keys to the mind of God.

  2. Sue says:

    I think it all depends on your definition of perfect. I heard a few weeks ago a reference that the word “perfect” in either Greek or Hebrew (???) can mean “useful”. SO, I’d love to be perfect every day, even if it means I am wrong. And obviously I’m no preacher…or I would have been made to study that Greek/Hebrew and would have known that already, LOL.

  3. Grace says:

    I don’t know about the Greek/Hebrew, but the Latin word from which the English “perfect” derives actually means something like “thoroughly made” (per fectus, fashioned or crafted through and through.) I get a lot of theological mileage out of that – when Jesus says “You must be perfect,” he’s not saying “You must never make a mistake,” he’s saying “You must be completely re-made by God.”

  4. MaryAnn says:

    Usage: “a more perfect union.”

    I really like these comments.

    I was of course thinking about the meaning of the word “perfect” as it’s commonly used—flawless, without defect. But as a recovering perfectionist, I love the thought of reframing that “character flaw” as something deep and positive.

    A related etymological twist I like—we are very careful to say that worship is not a “performance.” And yet to “perform” means to “form fully.” Which we certainly want worship to be and do.

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