Friday, September 07, 2007

The Missional Swan

In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb argues that "success" rarely is the result of strategic forecasts and superior skill. And those who survive often construct a narrative to explain the reason for their success that sounds plausible but that has no real basis in fact.

In a previous post, I explained how some of Taleb's ideas apply to theology. We often think that we know more than we actually know.

I also noticed several similarities between ideas and attitudes in this book and a missional mindset.

This applies to all businesses. Think about the "secret recipe" to making a killing in the restaurant business. If it were known and obvious, then someone next door would have already come up with the idea and it would have become generic. The next killing in the restaurant industry needs to be an idea that is not easily conceived of by the current population of restaurateurs. It has to be at some distance from expectations.

There is no secret formula for planting a church or for turning a small church into a mega-church.

There are so many things we can do if we focus on antiknowledge, or what we do not know. Among many other benefits, you can set yourself up to collect serendipitous Black Swans (of the positive kind) by maximizing your exposure to them.

This is analogous to finding out what God is doing in the world and joining in. God often is using the least-expected people and instruments to accomplish his purpose. The church is all too often off busy doing its own thing and unable to recognize the hand of God at work in surprising ways and places.

History and societies do not crawl. They make jumps. They go from fracture to fracture, with a few vibrations in between. Yet we (and historians) like to believe in the predictable, small incremental progression.

Missional thinkers have been arguing that we live in liminal time, a period of discontinuous change. Taleb would say that all of human existence is so.

Many people labor in life under the impression that they are doing something right, yet they may not show solid results for a long time. They need a capacity for continuously adjourned gratification to survive a steady diet of peer cruelty without being demoralized. They look like idiots to their cousins, they look like idiots to their peers, they need courage to continue. No confirmation comes to them, no validation, no fawning students, no Nobel [prize] . . . . "How was your year?" brings them a small but containable spasm of pain deep inside, since almost all of their years will seem wasted to someone looking at their life from the outside. Then bang, the lumpy event comes that brings the grand vindication. Or it may never come.

This sounds like the life of nearly all missionally-minded leaders. Sure there are the exceptions (Black Swans), but they just make the pain all the more intense for everyone else.

I have taught myself to resist running to keep on schedule. This may seem a very small piece of advice, but it registered. In refusing to run to catch trains, I have felt the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is painful only if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success other expect from you is only painful if that's what you are seeking.

You stand above the rat race and the pecking order, not outside of it, if you do so by choice.

Quitting a high-paying position, if it is your decision, will seem a better payoff than the utility of the money involved (this may seem crazy, but I've tried it and it works).

This sounds very much like putting first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33) and like the self-denial required for discipleship (Luke 9:23).

Buy this book and read it.

You literally cannot afford not to know what it says. You will not look at the world the same ever again.

It has numerous implications for your personal, professional and spiritual life.

Pastor Rod

"Helping You Become the Person God Created You to Be"


Jim said...

yes, yes, yes...I read this book too and was helped so much by what it said. The idea that there is some formula to apply to make "it" happen (whatever "it" happens to be) is ludicrous.

I have long suspected that all of the gurus fumble their ways forward, "succeed" for reasons they do not know but narrate their experience in such a way that it appears to give credence to some recipe.

The "recipe" then becomes the product, the flavor of the week...

thanks for broadening attention to this important work.

Jim Street

Pastor Rod said...


Some of the more savvy have said things like, "This is what worked for us. You need to apply these principles in your own way in your own community."

But this doesn't go far enough. As you mention, they often don't know what "worked" or why it did.

Then everyone starts imitating them. And buying all their books.

Thanks for taking the time to add you voice to the conversation.


Dave said...

"You need to apply these principles in your own life, church, community."

Do this for several hundred years and you get strongholds of thought that are impossible to bring down. And yet, all of us "don't know what we don't know." And because of the strongholds of tradition, doctrine, etc. most of us also "don't know what we know."

I will now have to go read your source. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Pastor Rod said...


Thanks for stopping by. You'll be glad you read this book.