The Curse of Conformity

Let me tell you how (and why) I landed my first job in the computer industry. I applied for an open position, sent in my resume, endured two or three interviews, and finally attended one last meeting.

Sonny r1

In that meeting, my soon-to-be boss said, “I wanted to tell you personally that I have chosen you for the position, but I also want to tell you why I did.” He explained,

  • I didn’t choose you because of your education” (I had studied 17th Century European Intellectual History, not exactly Computer Science);
  • And I didn’t choose you because your grades were better” (when I say I “studied history” I don’t mean to imply I studied real hard);
  • And I didn’t choose you because of your great business experience” (three years of overseas mission work didn’t qualify as a practical MBA).

(His care for my self-esteem was underwhelming; I began to wonder if the job was really mine.)

He continued, “I chose you because you answered my questions differently than I would have. I didn’t agree with your every answer, but your answers gave me an outlook I hadn’t considered. I don’t need more people who think like me—I already think like me—I need people who offer different perspectives.” He concluded,

“The curse of the computer industry is conformity; never lose your non-conformity.”

Iron sharpens iron

We all need different perspectives. We may not like them, but we need them.

Before I post a blog, I ask a few people for their input. My mom often responds, “Sam this is the most brilliant article you’ve ever written.” I like that. It makes me feel good. (And my self-esteem is still recovering from the job interview thirty-five years ago.)

And my son Jonathan often responds, “Dad, this might be the worst article you’ve ever written. It’s preachy; you used the word ‘grace’ twenty-seven times; you forgot to use any humor; and it isn’t your voice.” I feel bad, a bit sad, and perhaps a little mad.”

And I love it. Because his viewpoint dramatically improves my writing.

He’s giving me eyes to see myself from the outside. His perceptions balance my perspective. He’s not conforming to me, he’s non-conforming to me; and so he’s transforming me.

Iron sharpens iron; marshmallows ooze goo (and make you fat). We need more iron in our diet.

But it goes against the grain

The world trains us to conform, imitate, replicate, duplicate, and fit in. From eye-glass fashions to Applebees in every mall, the compelling pressure is to copy.  And like lemmings we follow.

But success is born out of distinction. It’s the differences that make the difference. Hugely popular Apple Corporation flourished because they offered something new; they weren’t your daddy’s IBM. Transformation arises out of departure from the everyday norm.

That boss of mine was unusual … and unusually wise (except, perhaps, in hiring me). He reveled in the challenge of a different viewpoint. Most bosses fear disagreement. They are so insecure that our slightest question sends them howling. But in uniformity we lose our soul.

God made unique hands, feet, and eyes. He doesn’t need fifty-seven thousand more big toes.

Where it’s needed most

Nowhere is this curse of conformity more obvious than in modern, western Christianity.

The world around us is in trouble: it is the uncommon marriage that lasts thirty years, political correctness campaigns against original thought, and people are escaping their lives through media, Facebook, alcohol, pornography, and isolation.

People need different answers than the world offers—different answers. C. S. Lewis said,

Our business is to present that which is timeless (the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow) in the unique language of our own age. Bad preachers do the opposite: they take the ideas of our own age and dress them in the traditional language of Christianity.

Iron sharpens iron; marshmallows ooze goo (and make you fat). We need more iron in our diet.

Me too-ism

I don’t understand us Christians. We believe—or think we believe—that Christianity offers something completely unique: adoption into the heavenly family. But then we run after popular trends and say to the world, “Me too. Please like me. I can be cool too.”

It’s everywhere in modern Christianity. We embrace the world’s answers to psychological healing, divorce, emotions, shame, sexuality, money, music, media, isolation, and group-think.

We adopt the world’s answer, dress them in clerical robes, and say, “Me too.” But the world looks at us and responds, “Who cares! We thought this way without your help. We don’t need Christianity’s approval; of what help are you?” We’ve conformed and not contributed.

Mark Twain said, “It is our nature to conform; it is a force which only few can successfully resist. Why do we conform? The inborn requirement of approval.” We want too much to be liked. So we fail.

What can we do?

Michael Crichton wrote, “In the information society, nobody thinks. We expected to banish paper, but we actually banished thought.” Believers and non-believers listen to the same music, watch the same TV shows, read the same Facebook stories. And accept the same answers.

I’m sick of dumbing down Christianity. It’s time to offer again Christianity’s unique answers.

Let’s never lose our holy non-conformity.


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What do YOU think?

25 thoughts on “The Curse of Conformity

  1. Sam,

    This post (and the photo you chose to use) remind me of Apple’s classic “1984” commercial they ran to introduce the Mac. If you haven’t seen it in a while, it’s on YouTube. Great picture of conformity in the computer industry. Some people never think differently. I just saw this week that Windows XP still commands ~25% market share today.

    • Hey Phil,

      I was thinking of the exact same ad. It was great.

      It’s funny, a couple years ago, I saw an Android ad (for some phone or other) mocking the conformity of Apple iPhone conformists. It had thousands of people walking lock step with white ear-buds hanging around their necks.

      What goes around comes around. We love innovation when it first comes, and then we cling to it.

      The only truth that lasts–yesterday, today, and tomorrow–tends to be the thing we forget to cling to.


  2. Sam as always great thoughts and great post. Cept I’m hurt you never ask my feelings before you post something and then I’m forced to read something that slaps me upside the head and makes me go “Now why did I not write that.” So Sam that felt good, do it again! –

    Like this thought particularly. “Iron sharpens iron; marshmallows ooze goo (and make you fat). We need more iron in our diet.” Problem is it requires great risk to be more than a marshmallow. When one is working so hard to be somebody it really is hard to get the right kind of iron in your diet. Keep that thought “Working Hard to be Somebody” in your mind coming up next week.

    Thanks Buddy!

  3. Great post Sam. I think you are right about Christians feeling the pressure to conform to the secular ways of doing things. I also think that this is a big problem WITHIN Christianity. In fact, depending on your church community involvement I think the pressure is even more intense. To go against the churches beliefs or even bring up a different perspective within the church often leads to “howling” I wonder if we sharpen ourselves enough? do we consider or listen to other perspectives? Are we willing to be sharpened? As a general statement, I’m inclined to think the answer would be no.

    • Hey Marius,

      Great point! We humans are so prone to conformity that we do it in the church as well.

      For me, I find some level of outer-pressure helpful; it helps me avoid mistakes in times of weakness. But my main source of strength has to be from a heart changed by the gospel, from meeting God and — yes — conforming to his image.

      After all, he conformed to us (becoming human) so he could transform us.

      Great thought. Thanks.

  4. That boss was indeed very wise . . . very rare in a business leader! What a great start to your professional career. Whether or not that job was the greatest, or answered your calling, the idea your supervisor put in your head has probably borne fruit.

    • Hi Neha,

      Sorry for my delay in responding to a very good question. Here are maybe a few thoughts:

      – The world around us equates success with big numbers, and I think this has influenced Christian leaders to look for large numbers of followers. Jesus worked with just a few people. Maybe as Christians we simply look to care mostly for the few around us rather than looking for prestige in large followers.

      – The world around us has come up with all kinds of counseling techniques that reject basic Christian teaching. Instead of teaching remorse and repentance for things we’ve done (and continue to do), it teaches us, “You are okay, you’re a good person.” The Biblical answer is simple repentance which means we admit our problem and get forgiven rather than ignoring the problem.

      – The world around us looks to external “blessings” as a sign of God’s love and presence; scripture talks about a changed heart and a simple relationship with God.

      – The world around us teaches us “better safe than sorry;” but scripture says Jesus sends us out as sheep among wolves. That is, there is danger out there, but we can enter into danger with confidence. We don’t ignore danger but neither are we ruled by fear.

      I bet there are a hundred more examples.

      What are some that you think of?


  5. Sam – great insight! I have been one of those “voices crying in the wilderness” and not a “yes” man. For that I have been pretty much pushed to the sideline. While that has not been pleasant, I would not change. The church needs to awaken from it’s slumber and embrace the fact that by bringing differing thoughts and opinions to the table that the meal is so much more tasty! To paraphrase Emerson – conformity (consistency) is the hobgoblin of little minds.

    P.S. I love your statement, “Iron sharpens iron; marshmallows ooze goo (and make you fat). We need more iron in our diet.” Now there is a golden nugget of wisdom!

  6. Sam,

    Conformity. Your thoughts make me question if perhaps we are challenged by too many petty desires that dam up the one great desire which is to know Christ’s death and resurrection power. Where is my unique spiritual spillway in the face of this dam?

    I am continually challenged to put aside the things in my life that don’t move me closer to God’s unique calling to live wholly devoted to Him and His desire to hone and sharpen myself and others.

    I think my favorite quote of late is from St. Augustine.

    He said “The soul lives by avoiding what it dies to by desiring”.

    There is a non-conformist!

  7. Great blog Sam. What does separate us? What immediately came to mind is the Holy Spirit, often ignored in churches everywhere.
    David Morse

  8. Funny about the last comment. I was reading your article and find myself thinking about the same company. I worked for Apple Inc. for 6 years. While it was a great company when I was originally hired and stayed that way for a few years, the moment that Apple felt the surge of becoming one of the computer industry powerhouses (after the iPhone) it became less “Think Different” and more “Conform Or Die”. I was one of Applecare’s best technicians. (I am not saying that out of ego, just the numbers) I was fired because I refused to browbeat customers into buying things. Its not that I didn’t sell products (which was never in the job description), its just that I didn’t sell people things that they could not afford or didn’t want. It took exactly 4 months for them to decide that 7 months of 100% customer satisfaction was not enough for me to retain my job. Hell 2 years of 95% or above CSat was not enough. I had to do everything like some sort of machine. At the end they were even pitting people against each other to satisfy the quarterly reports. One way or another I am never going back into the industry. Ever. There are just too many companies headed toward monopoly status and I really cannot deal with that. I figure I will go into something for myself. We will see. Great article.

    • Hi Neil,

      Great comment. Thanks.

      It’s funny. (No, it’s not, it’s sad.) I was on a plane a couple years ago and the man next to me (with a Mac laptop) complained about Apple’s growing stodginess. He said, “I’ve heard they have more lawyers now than they do developers.”

      Now, that couldn’t possible be true. But even the hint of it shows a sense of protecting turf over growing turf.

      Honestly, I don’t know how to keep a company (organization, church, non-profit) fresh. We begin in the spirit and end in the flesh (metaphorically speaking). We begin being non-conformists and end up making everyone else conform to us.

      At least, just between you and me, let’s try to keep the fires of innovation burning.