The Brilliance of Unconventional Wisdom

The great ones all seem to forge their own path. From the biblical examples of Abraham, Moses, Esther, Ruth, David, and so many others, to the more modern day tales of Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa, history is littered with great men and women who refused to listen to skeptics. The louder the voices telling them not to do something, the more resolve they had.

Conventional wisdom, they understood, is conventional because it’s what everyone else is thinking, saying, and doing. If you want to affect real change, if you want to do something different, then you can’t afford to be conventional. You must be something else.


As anyone who knows me could tell you, I’m a big fan of TED Talks. TED is a gathering (now many gatherings) of some of the most brilliant minds on the planet, and TED Talks are, as the name implies, talks given by some of these brilliant minds. They’re short, they have one main point per talk, and they are designed, primarily, to make the listener think differently about the chosen topic.

But the thing I love most about TED Talks is that they are given by people who defy convention. Conventionality doesn’t get you on stage at TED. The road to TED starts by taking HUGE risks long before anyone is really paying attention, then cultivating what you find. TED is a convention for the unconventional.

But organizations don’t like the unconventional. Some of the most brilliant business minds have defied convention, and yet the companies they founded refuse to leave convention’s familiar confines. Some of the most influential church leaders have broken the mold of convention, but the movements created in their wake have become regimented and systematized and…well…conventional. (Some of these organizations even have the word “convention” right there in the name.)


And in the life of a business, a church, or a non-profit, there always seems to come a time when some visionary steps up and says, “We have to do things differently! It’s time for change!” Of course, that sounds great, but then what changes?

Those businesses and churches and non-profits go back to their board rooms, they draw up new 12 point plans for identifying new talent, they devise assessment systems, tests, and pathways for development, and they come away with big smiles on their faces. They’ve figured it out. They have a new road map.

Meanwhile, down the street, there’s a kid doing in his garage for free the thing they’re spending millions trying to figure out. Or there’s a woman with no education out being more effective at evangelism than the denomination that has spent countless dollars and hours writing the best curriculum and devotional materials. Or there’s a college student making more of an impact on global poverty than the organization that was founded on the principal of fighting global poverty.

In all of our rebranding, restrategizing and rebuilding, we’ve forgotten something: Most of our heroes never passed an assessment. Many of our greatest innovators didn’t take the steady path to success. Our most brilliant minds were probably called crazy or out of control at least a few times. The qualities that made them great are the ones our systems are designed to weed out.

We want men and women with confidence, but not so much confidence that they defy our logic. We want people with charisma, but not so much that others follow them instead of us. We want people with a thirst for adventure, but not so much that they’re putting our organization at risk (although, if they take a risk and it works out, we’re happy to take credit for their success.)

We’ve lost our nerve. We’ve failed. We’ve sucked the life out of our best and brightest and sent them off to one of two outcomes. Either they will spend the rest of their lives believing that, because they can’t pass an assessment, they are destined for a life of mediocrity, or they’ll spend each and every day trying to prove us wrong. Either way, we’ve lost them. Either way, we’ve lost.


But what if we took a different approach? What if we risked wildly, and instead of worrying so much about our esteemed reputation, we looked at things from a different perspective? What if instead of whittling and narrowing and assessing and testing and interviewing the life out of people before we gave them our stamp of approval, we were willing to send them out with the passions that drive them right now? Oh sure, we would have a lower success rate, but high success rates are only part of the story.

Because I live in the church world now, let’s look at churches as an example. Say you want to start great churches. You could send 200 applicants through your process, whittle down to 125, then have a 70% success rate (wishful thinking) that would net you 88 quality churches. Or, you could collect 1000 people ready to set the world on fire and let them loose. Maybe you only have a 30% success rate, but you’ve unleashed 300 great great churches into the world – over 200 more than your current system would have allowed. That’s a win. (It’s also a great batting average, by the way.)


But at the end of the day, there is something holding us back. Fear of failure? Perhaps. More than that, I think it’s fear of allowing someone to fail. We want to think that we can collect all of our wisdom into a little jar and dish it out to the up-and-comers. “If they’ll just take this wisdom,” we think, “they won’t make the same mistakes I did.”

Maybe you’re right. They also won’t have all the opportunities you had – opportunities to learn and grow and overcome their mistakes, opportunities to press through their problems, opportunities to take defeat and turn it into victory. In our efforts to save “the kids” from themselves, we’ve neutered the thing we’ve given our lives to.


In the book of 1 Samuel, we find a picture of an organization that has lost its nerve. For 40 days, the Israelite army – the chosen people of God – go out to fight the Philistine army. And for 40 days, they get scared of what they’re facing. Now, they had all kinds of valid reasons for retreat. Their enemy was too big and too powerful. Their army was short on weapons and supplies. Conventional wisdom told them to wait it out, hope help arrived, or that some diplomatic solution prevailed. 

But there was a boy who showed up with an unconventional thought. What if the God who had parted the sea and brought the people out of Egypt – the God who had seen the people of Israel through victory after victory – what if that God was actually powerful enough to defeat this one guy, Goliath? Then, this unconventional soldier in unconventional attire with an unconventional weapon did a heroic thing. He toppled the giant and sent the enemy scattering.

Our systems and spreadsheets might do a great job of identifying promising candidates, but in the process, are we weeding out the warrior king, the wide-eyed inventor, the economic genius, the advocate for human rights, or the next great church leader? I think it’s high time we drop the pencils, and then drop to our knees and ask God who he has in mind to take us into the future.