Tolerating Mediocrity

Below is a brief excerpt from a story by actor Charlton Heston about the making of Ben Hur (for those who don’t know, Ben Hur was one of the biggest movie epics of all time). One evening, after a particularly difficult day of filming, Heston and the director, William Wyler, found themselves alone in the hotel’s bar, and they discussed the day…

Willy drew circles on the bar with his beer glass. “You know,” he said, “I really like to be a nice guy. It is easier to be nice, actually.”

“Yeah, I know that, Willy.”

“The problem is, you can’t make good pictures that way.”


Truthfulness vs. Kindness?

A couple months ago my brother and I had our pastor over for dinner (a delightful event that included grilled pork chops, green beans, and chocolate chip cookies; but I digress). In the course of our conversation we talked about innovative leaders—we mentioned Steve Jobs, and great movie directors—the William Wyler mentioned above, for one, and we discussed how these men produced great “products” (Jobs his iDevices and Wyler his movies) yet were by all accounts hard to get along with—they insulted and criticized and deceived to achieve their goals.

William Wyler
William Wyler

Well, since this conversation, I’ve been wondering: why were these leaders like this? Previously, I would have assumed they were just mean. However, the story about Wyler above gave me a clue that there might be more to these men than that.

Now, clearly deceiving people is wrong, and insults are also out. However, many great leaders, despite their flaws, tend to have one thing in common: intolerance for mediocrity. Put another way, they will not praise what isn’t praiseworthy. They won’t politely ignore a weakness—they point it out and demand it be fixed.

Many people today (and Christians especially) are far too tolerant of mediocrity. Even of myself this is true. When I see a short film that an aspiring filmmaker makes, or listen to a piece of music by a budding musician, or read a short piece by a young writer, I’d far rather focus on the positive—encourage the person and point out what they’re doing right than what they need to work on. For one, encouragement can provide motivation for that person to continue what they’re doing. But secondly, this approach is easier. I don’t have to worry about hurting this person’s feelings. And compliments always sound more polite than frank criticism.

But deep down, doesn’t pure encouragement only show that I don’t care enough about a person to inform them what they’re doing wrong so that they can fix it?

This is why those who do recognize problems need to be bolder about “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4.15). There are two sides to this, two wings to this process (these wing analogies are great, aren’t they?), and both are necessary for flight. First is truth—all the love and all the peace in the world won’t help if a person is about to drive their car off a cliff, or if a person believes that they’re going to heaven when they have never received Jesus. In both situations, something needs to be done or said.

Second of all is love, and this part is equally important. There is a wrong way to speak the truth, the confrontational “I’m right and you’re wrong” approach to speaking the truth that disregards the fact that every human being is created in God’s image. Because of this, everyone, no matter how wrong their beliefs or ideas may be, is worthy of at least modicum of courtesy (that’s understatement, by the way!).

My guess is that most people tend towards one of these extremes—either speaking the truth devoid of love or simply being kind and offering content-less encouragement. It is this second extreme that breeds our culture’s toleration of mediocrity. Counteracting this tendency will require a greater faithfulness to what Scripture says: speak truth, and speak it with a caring attitude.

Works Cited:

Heston, Charlton. Charlton Heston’s Hollywood: 50 Years in American Film. New York: GT Publishing Corp., 1998. Print.