Old Habits Die Hard | Sojourners

Old Habits Die Hard

Tailoring workshop. Photo via Shutterstock/Miguel Garcia Saavedra

I got fitted for a custom-tailored suit this week.

Not because I suddenly found a pot of money. I didn’t, and I didn’t need to. The cost for this Hong Kong tailor is comparable to what I have been paying for off-the-rack suits.

My problem is middle age. My shifting body type makes off-the-rack suits too wide in the shoulders and too long. It’s proof that life keeps on changing, and that the way forward must include getting unstuck from old ideas.

Take congressional Republicans. Talk about stuck. They’re still fighting Newt Gingrich’s war against government, John McCain’s losing battle against Barack Obama, failed Tea Party ideas that were never grounded in much beyond anger and fear.

Facts and on-the-ground movements have passed them by. But still they fulminate, as if complaining with solidarity constituted governance.

Look at the bubble surrounding Twitter’s initial public offering. There’s lots of money to be made, if they can just keep the buzz alive for a few more weeks. Never mind the social medium’s small audience in the U.S. market, much of it centered in teenagers who are unlikely candidates for display ads or paid services. It looks like 2000 all over again.

Look at Facebook’s bizarre plan to build a large apartment complex within walking distance of their Silicon Valley headquarters — as if company towns hadn’t been thoroughly discredited a century ago, as if employee loyalty could be purchased by hot tubs or coerced by eviction notices. Talk about old ideas. It’s time for Facebook’s leaders to study American history, starting with the Gilded Age.

To be sure, old ideas are appealing. They are known, and managers were trained in them, like clergy trained to lead Sunday worship. Older constituents still value them. Measuring actual outcomes can seem disloyal, and learning from those outcomes and seeking better ideas can leave a leader isolated.

College presidents, for example, are experts at doing something that might no longer need doing — namely, running bricks-and-mortar campuses with residential student bodies, with tenured faculty and athletic programs to serve them. Meanwhile, online education is exploding and campus life seems beer-soaked and, for many female students, dangerous.

Auto dealers, too, continue to sell cars in a way that fewer and fewer customers find appealing. Yes, they have huge investments in showrooms and arm-twisting salespeople, but that dealer problem won’t change customer behavior.

Usually, an old idea just needs to be abandoned and something fresh and responsive allowed to emerge. Look at online sales and online mentoring and empowering.

It breaks my heart to see mainline Protestant churches stuck in ideas that haven’t worked for the past 50 years. Where are the denominational leaders and young clergy to break free from over-reliance on Sunday worship and on-site meetings?

Old ideas always benefit someone, and those someones tend to push back to protect their benefits. But that self-protective defense of old ways isn’t a viable strategy.

My alma mater, for example, raises money the same way it did 50 years ago. When I suggested other approaches, such as actually connecting with alumni, the longtime fund manager sent me a snippy note defending his right to ask alumni for annual donations.

OK, fine. I can send my charitable donations elsewhere. And that is precisely the point. We have choices. Old ideas don’t take away those choices, and they don’t compete well with new ideas.

Tom Ehrich writes for Religion News Service. Via RNS.

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