5 1/2 Habits of Remarkably Ineffective People

Was Jesus successful? I guess it depends on your definition and criteria.

Bill Borror / 5.10.22

This annotated list appears in the Success & Failure Issue of The Mockingbird magazine, available to pre-order here! Our team will be shipping out magazines at the end of this week.

Was Jesus successful? I guess it depends on your definition and criteria. The gospels themselves swing between accounts of Jesus drawing a crowd then preaching it down to a dozen (e.g. John 6:1-13; John 6:66ff).

Recently I was preparing to preach on the rich and strange story of Jesus’ temptation in Luke 4. Clearly the Devil is offering Jesus a highly effective path to glory — to trade his Passion for praise and recognition. Had Jesus done exactly what the Devil said, there would have been no question among his followers about his messianic destiny. Jesus declined the offer anyway.[1]

Can there be a Christian concept of success that somehow navigates through the Scylla of secular prosperity and the Charybdis of Christian triumphalism? In my own life and ministry, learning to balance a legitimate commitment to excellence over and against a reductionist numbers game (from budgeting to the size of congregation) has not been easy. How can the gospel guide us when we are being judged by quarterly profit margins?

Today, many of the institutions and ideas that have shaped our culture are on life-support. And it has been “successful” people who have led us to this place. This “post-everything” moment offers us an opportunity to question what seems unquestionable, to study our values — and maybe even reconsider Jesus’ upside-down approach.

So in that spirit, with no disrespect to Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (which I was supposed to read but never quite got around to), I would like to offer my own five and a half habits of remarkably ineffective people:

1. Go where you are needed, not wanted.

From an early age, we spend a lot of energy climbing to the tops of temples (cf. Luke 4:9) in order to prove ourselves to others. These may be temples of dance competitions or elite sports teams; college admission or fraternities; job interviews or living in the right zip code. All of these endeavors and a thousand others — both consciously and unconsciously — are based in a desire to feel wanted.

But remarkably ineffective people seek the places they are needed, not wanted. Sometimes that may be as simple as buying from the small local business or choosing to attend the small struggling church; at times it may be attending to seemingly forsaken places and people. The young priest in Georges Bernanos’s Diary of A Country Priest, for example, was ill-fitted for the disinterested parish in which he was placed, but it was precisely through what appears on the surface to be weakness and failure that he discovers “grace is everywhere.” Even if we are not ultimately where we hope to be either professionally or personally, God is there with us.

2. Do not network for success.

The social network has always been a thing. Homo Sapiens are a social species that survived and thrived in large part because of our ability to be interdependent. Both shame and affinity evolved from the need for conformity to tribal norms. The power of persuasion is why the Romans valued rhetoric over logic and why Americans no longer know the difference between the two. But whether you are a social media influencer working the crowd, or deciding who lives in a nuclear war, the presupposition is the same: your fellow humans are primarily means towards an end. This reduces your life and everything else to an exchange of commodities.

I remember being at a staff conference years ago. My regional director and I happened to be standing together watching folks mingle and he asked me what I saw. I said some version of people kissing up to each other. He then pointed to a few folks cleaning up everyone else’s mess. “Those are the people who impress me the most,” he said. They did not seem to be trying to impress anyone; instead, they were simply following the example of Jesus himself, who “came not to be served but to serve.”

3. Avoid positive thinking.

To be clear, I am not saying you should purposely think negatively, and I believe goal-setting is an important component of living well. But positive thinking and “manifesting” have become modern-day versions of alchemy. The truth is that secular optimism makes no sense in the face of inevitable suffering, and often requires that we cover up the harder things about life and pretend they are not happening. Frankly, the Christian varieties of this — “name it and claim it” — are equally obnoxious (and harmful).

But hope is of a starkly different order. Hope looks directly at the painful things in life and says that nothing is impossible with God. In his book Night of the Confessor, the Czech theologian Tomas Halik writes:

I reject secular and “pious” optimism alike, on account of both their naïveté and their superficiality, and because of their unavowed striving to make the future (and possibly God) fit into our limited visions, plans, and perceptions about what is good and right. Whereas Christian hope is openness and a readiness to search for meaning in what is to come, I sense at the back of [optimism] a cockeyed assumption that we always know in advance, after all, what is best for us.

4. Do not “do you.”

The absolutizing of the construct of “self” is a destructive perversion of a Christian idea — the inherent sacred worth of the individual. The tyranny of self-fulfillment is suffocating us. But what is the self? Dr. Tony Campolo once shared how a student came to him and said that he was dropping out of school to find himself. Campolo responded, “What if, after you peel away each of these socially prescribed identities and socially generated selves, you discover you’re an onion?” You keep peeling layers away until there is nothing left.

If you were to “look inward” for “yourself,” I’m not sure what you would find; I do not know what constitutes the core of a human personality. I do know that, oftentimes, “me being me” is not good either for those around me or myself. I know that brain disease and trauma change people’s “selves” and make them unrecognizable. But I believe God loves us, whatever “us” is, and that is amazing and enough. Even if someday I forget who I am, God will remember me. Jesus’s call to find ourselves in losing ourselves makes as much sense to contemporary folks as counting angels on the head of a needle, but its obliqueness does not negate its necessity.

5. Look beyond the cutting edge.

There is an insatiable drive for the “new and improved.” At some point “new” became a synonym for “good” and, for some, even “necessary.”

Our consumer-driven economy even shapes our religious appetites. Frustrated would-be Christian leaders often self-comfort by bantering around the rhetoric of how the church needs to change or die. I am not without some sympathy for their frustration, but I am not sure replacing the sentimental unsingable hymns of the past with equally sentimental unsingable contemporary songs with too many bridges is an improvement. As the late Frank Herbert observed, “Religion often partakes of the myth of progress that shields us from the terrors of an uncertain future.”

Humans, like all living things, need to grow, but growth requires roots. As Simone Weil observed,

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul… Human beings have roots by virtue of their real, active, and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape particular treasures of the past and particular expectations for the future.

We are more than our appetites, though you wouldn’t guess it just looking around. Innovation and consumption have uprooted us into isolation, to the jeopardy not only of our souls and mental health but also the future of the planet. As C. S. Lewis famously said, “When the whole world is running towards a cliff, he who is running in the opposite direction appears to have lost his mind.” Which brings us to…

5 ½. Choose noble lost causes (emphasis on “noble”).

Though nobody plays to lose, or for that matter tie (except in soccer and tee-ball), I think failure is generally much better for the soul than success. As in Narnia, there is a deeper magic at work as we strive and stumble in this life. Bernanos again reminds us that what is really needed for the soul is counterintuitive; his “failed priest” is an agent of grace to both his community and himself. The priest writes in his diary, “How easy it is to hate oneself! True grace is to forget. Yet if pride could die in us, the supreme grace would be to love oneself in all simplicity — as one would love any one of those who themselves have suffered and loved in Christ.”

Not all lost causes should be embraced (i.e. the Southern myth of the “Lost Cause”), but all of us at some point have been the lost coin, the lost sheep, or one of the lost brothers (older, younger, or both). We are surrounded by kids and addicts and refugees and bigots and idiots and losers who no one thinks are worth fighting for — except the God of lost causes, who never gives up. Not even on you.


To find more information about becoming a highly ineffective person, pre-order The Mockingbird’s Success & Failure issue!

Illustrations by Ollie Silvester.

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3 responses to “5 1/2 Habits of Remarkably Ineffective People”

  1. John Hussey says:

    Delighted to enjoy your writings. As a South Carolinian admirer of your bro, we admire what you’re accomplishing.

  2. […] 5 1/2 Habits of Remarkably Ineffective People. “Today, many of the institutions and ideas that have shaped our culture are on life-support. And it has been “successful” people who have led us to this place. This “post-everything” moment offers us an opportunity to question what seems unquestionable, to study our values — and maybe even reconsider Jesus’ upside-down approach.” […]

  3. […] these ideas in the front of my mind for this evening’s conversation. Borror begins his piece, “5 1/2 Habits of Remarkably Ineffective People,” with a provocative […]

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