It is worth doing badly

July 7, 2006 | 36 comments

“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”

–G.K Chesterton

Any one who’s seen my shambling, waterfowl-out-of-water walk knows I’m not a perfectionist. Still, I’ve been thinking lately that I’ve let fear of doing badly keep me from doing things at all, and reading Chesterton’s observation brought these thoughts to a head. I can see that on my mission–where I was a blushing, commitment-shy missionary–; in my hometeaching, especially to inactives; in my work; and in my private attempts at writing, I’ve been holding back. Sometimes I tried to persuade myself that my fears were unrealistic, and this helped for a time, until I found out they weren’t. Now I’m thinking that my fears are misplaced even though they’re accurate.

I’m betting I’m not the only one. I know people who’ve also held back from callings, from church duties, from having children and from marriage, from fear of doing badly. Perhaps to some extent they were right to do so.

But only to some extent. This is a lay church, an amateur church,and always has been, as anyone knows who studies our attempts at banking in Kirtland, at building Zion in Missouri and Nauvoo, at crossing the plains in the handcarts, and so on. It is by grace we are saved after all we can do.

36 Responses to It is worth doing badly

  1. Eric Nielson on July 7, 2006 at 12:31 pm

    I have heard a similar phrase, I think it is attributed to Dr. Gus Hart.

    ‘If it is not worth doing, it is not worth doing well’.

    Quite a twist.

  2. CS Eric on July 7, 2006 at 1:04 pm

    Or the other variation, “If a thing is barely worth doing, it is worth barely doing.” I think this is from the Eyers.

  3. Costanza on July 7, 2006 at 1:08 pm

    “If doing worth is something it, then nothing not well doing is.” James Joyce

  4. Don on July 7, 2006 at 1:17 pm

    My wife complains about this quite often. Usually she doesn’t like the speedy job I did, or the lack of forethought before jumping in and doing something.

    I agree sometimes we get the paralysis of analysis.

    I tend to be the “ready, fire, aim” type of guy. But she does admit I get a hell of a lot more done then she does.

  5. Starfoxy on July 7, 2006 at 1:20 pm

    Eric, Heh, Dr. Hart is just all over these days isn’t he? He never said that one in class though. It probably isn’t exactly a good motivator for undergrads.

  6. Eric Nielson on July 7, 2006 at 2:34 pm

    I think Dr. Hart said this when he was 14. He was no doctor then. I’m not sure it is original.

    Thought that would catch your eye.

  7. Kimball L. Hunt on July 7, 2006 at 3:40 pm

    Wonderful essay.

    Jesus said, JUDGE NOT. SIN NO MORE.

    Indeed, our individual morals and beliefs — which are all things we’ve got to do for ourselves — are worth doing badly. Also such group constructs as laws, religions or social movements all worth doing badly. And demonstrating an understanding of this is the best way to model doing them well.

    Acceptance of a fallen world is the essential means for us to learn towards any utopian ideals worth having — with there being no Utopia possible (within our space and time) other than such a one as this one.

    Virtues are processes not accomplishments. Right is dynamic, having to do with its relative direction from another possibile options as determined by an individual’s intentions; only according to such an understanding has what-is-right any kind of static or is it Absolute.

  8. Jack on July 7, 2006 at 7:53 pm

    Was it worth it to build the Brooklyn Bridge even though it may have been disasterous to build it badly?

  9. Kimball L. Hunt on July 7, 2006 at 8:03 pm


  10. Mark Butler on July 7, 2006 at 8:36 pm

    If the Brooklyn Bridge was truly worth doing, e.g. necessary for life and salvation, then it would have been worth doing badly rather than not at all, no matter what the risk.

  11. manaen on July 7, 2006 at 8:40 pm

    Watch it, Adam — you’re about to cross the line between self-aware reticence to selfless service. It’s remarkably liberating! I’ve supposed that the point of the parables of the talents and of the widow’s mite is that it isn’t what have you given, but do you give what you have. It’s our nature, not the quantity of our giving, that matters.

    Ye endeavored to believe that ye should receive the blessing which was offered unto you; but behold, verily I say unto you there were fears in your hearts, and verily this is the reason that ye did not receive. — D&C 67:3

  12. Jack on July 7, 2006 at 9:39 pm

    Did Chesterton have life and salvation in mind?

    The Brooklyn Bridge was not an absolutle necessity in the day when it was built–nor is it now for that matter. And yet most would probably agree that (if for no other reason) the fact that it is viewed by so many as a monument to nineteenth century engineering and art makes it “worth it.”

  13. annegb on July 7, 2006 at 11:01 pm

    Excellent post, Adam. I agree completely. I’ve done the same thing over and over.

  14. Mark Butler on July 7, 2006 at 11:31 pm

    Jack (#11), I believe he did. He was a very eternally minded sort of fellow.

  15. Adam Greenwood on July 7, 2006 at 11:57 pm

    Jack #11,

    In the post I give three paragraphs of context to the quote.

  16. Adam Greenwood on July 7, 2006 at 11:57 pm

    Jack #11,

    If you follow the link in the quote, it gives Chesterton’s context, which is not quite the same as mine but definitely closer to life and salvation than to bridge-building.

  17. S Taylor on July 8, 2006 at 12:17 am

    Kimball #7: “….with there being no Utopia possible “.

    If you get a chance, read Hugh Nibley’s essay on “Utopia” found in his book “Approaching Zion”. Utopia is not only possible but it’s been done a few times, and quite well, I might add: The City of Enoch and the period of time directly following the Savior’s appearance to the Americas brought a utopian society. It’s foreign to us now, but the celestial world we long for is utopia. Once we wake up and start living the law of consecration, we’ll be there. It is possible.

    BTW: Approaching Zion is an excellent book. I’ve read it many times and plan to read it many more times. What a wonderful man he was……

  18. corbin cox on July 8, 2006 at 1:57 am

    i agree. humility means you are willing to try something.
    How many people are willing to try the book of mormon,listen to missionaries, etc. etc.
    God says \”Just try it!\”

  19. DKL on July 9, 2006 at 5:17 pm

    Adam, I’m not sure that you’re entirely correct here. Take crime, for example. Since the impact of many crimes is reversed once you’re caught (e.g., the profit taken from a bank robbery is confiscated), it would seem that from the mere fact that a bank robbery is worth doing, it does not follow that it’s worth doing badly.

  20. Mark Butler on July 9, 2006 at 7:51 pm

    Chesterton would no doubt say that is precisely his point, if it is not worth doing badly, it is probably not worth doing at all. (modus tollens: A => B, not B, therefore not A)

  21. Seth R. on July 9, 2006 at 8:15 pm

    Adam, here’s how it was spelled out on my mission:

    Working Hard

    Working Smart

    Working by the Spirit

    My mission president explained that these are the three progressive levels of missionary service.

    Obviously, “working by the Spirit” is the highest ideal we are shooting for.

    But President Figuerres explained that you CANNOT work by the Spirit until you have put in the effort at the two lower levels in their turn.

    You cannot “work smart” until you are “working hard.” Likewise, you cannot “work by the Spirit” until you are working both as hard and as smart as you are capable.

    And you can’t expect to skip steps. God may, in His mercy, speed up the process. But you cannot expect it.

  22. Adam Greenwood on July 10, 2006 at 6:57 am

    Clever, Mark B. And in the spiritual realm, probably true.

  23. Daniel B on July 10, 2006 at 8:44 am

    # 3 “If doing worth is something it, then nothing not well doing is.� James Joyce

    Are you sure that wasn’t Yoda?

  24. DKL on July 10, 2006 at 9:42 am

    Mark Butler, you’ve got it wrong. Let’s take a real life instance, like Orrin Rockwell shooting at Governor Boggs. Presumably it was worth doing, because Joseph ordered it. Given that Rockwell missed and that he had to suffer greatly for it and Boggs remained alive (i.e., it was the worst of both worlds), shooting Governor Boggs was definitely not something worth doing badly.

  25. historical nitpicker dude on July 10, 2006 at 11:31 am


    Well the jury’s out on that set of facts, no? We don’t know who shot Boggs.

    On the anti-Rockwell side, there’s the timing (when Rockwell was out of town, no alibi); there’s the bad blood between Boggs and Mormons; there’s Rockwell’s reputation; there are tertiary reports that Rockwell himself later claimed credit for it.

    On the pro-Rockwell side, you’ve got the fact that the evidence is only circumstantial; that the gun belonged to one of Boggs’ commercial competitors; that Boggs was getting threats from that competitor and a few others; that Boggs had made lots of enemies; that the authorities investigated a number of other characters in their inquiry.

    And Rockwell’s own defense: “He’s alive, ain’t he?”

    That said, your broader point isn’t bad — if Rockwell was the gunman, then shooting was not something to do badly.

  26. Mark Butler on July 10, 2006 at 2:28 pm

    DKL (#24), If one is going to strictly abide by the rules of bivalency, then it follows as well that “(nearly) all generalizations are false”.

    I am sure Chesterton would agree that his statement was a generalization – he was trying to make a point. Coming up with bizarre anecdotal examples rather furthers his point, rather than contradicts it, under the “exception proves the rule” principle.

  27. Kimball L. Hunt on July 10, 2006 at 3:49 pm

    Re # 24.

    Being a “calling a spade a spade” man misself, I for one am extremely glad someone like brother Landrith (sic) blogs here.

  28. Kimball L. Hunt on July 10, 2006 at 4:59 pm

    Directly below Times & Season’s masthead, the epigram:

    Truth will prevail.

  29. Mark Butler on July 10, 2006 at 5:22 pm

    Ye were also in the beginning with the Father; that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth; And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;
    (D&C 93:23-24)

    For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
    (1 Tim 2:3-4)

    For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit, even the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
    (D&C 84:45)

    For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.
    (2 Tim 4:3-4)

    Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth… But they shall proceed no further: for their folly shall be manifest unto all men, as theirs also was.
    (2 Tim 3:7,9)

  30. DKL on July 11, 2006 at 2:05 am

    historical nitpicker dude Well the jury’s out on that set of facts, no? We don’t know who shot Boggs.

    You’re right! Read more about it in my response to John Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, available here.

    Another example of a fictional crime with real world ramifications is Jean Valjean’s theft. Because he did it badly, he ended up sacrificing those he was hoping to save.

    Mark Butler, I didn’t mean to start an argument. I agree with this post. I’m no mind reader, but it’s my best guess that that Chesterton would be happy to allow crime as a notable exception to his famous maxim.

    But another notable exception would be Christ’s Atonement–a badly done atonement is as bad as no atonement at all, and that would mean no redemption from spiritual death. So Chesterton must allow another exception for acts required of a deity.

  31. Mark Butler on July 11, 2006 at 2:30 am

    DKL, I didn’t mean to promote bad feelings either. Just friendly debate.

    I disagree with you on your implicit theology of the atonement by the way, because it also appears to contain a bivalent proposition I find untenable – that spiritual redemption is an either / or thing. A stronger argument would be redemption from physical death, but I do not believe that is strictly necessary to make any form of at-one-ment worthwhile. In particular, I believe this assertion of Jacob’s is untenable, in its most literal form:

    For behold, if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more.
    (2 Ne 9:2)

    This assertion appears to be based un an untenable assertion about the Fall. It should be obvious to the most casual observer that the Fall long preceded Adam and Eve’s tenure in the Garden of Eden – at the latest it began with the rebellion of Lucifer and his followers.

    Of course resurrection is a critical component of the plan of salvation, I am just saying it is hard to conceive of this life being useless without it – a return to the status quo ante, with a bunch of added experience seems to be the worst case.

  32. DKL on July 11, 2006 at 3:14 am

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say that spiritual redemption isn’t an either/or thing.

    I think that in this instance, it’s fairly simple. Spiritual death is inability to return to the presence of God. Everyone has sin, and sin makes someone ineligible to be in the presence of God. Thus, without some expiation for sin, everyone would be stuck in a state of spiritual death. A botched atonement (if we allow for one hypothetically–though I’m not sure it’s an altogether tenable notion) would fail to expiate at least some of our sins and therefore stick us in a permanent state of spiritual death.

  33. Mark Butler on July 11, 2006 at 4:26 am

    I am not a particular fan of defining salvation as “returning to the presence of God”. It is a little too namby pamby for me. According to Joseph Smith, salvation is the triumph of a man over all his enemies, the last one being death.

    The Book of Mormon speaks of all mankind returning to God’s presence at least twice, once immediately following death, and a second time at the final judgment (cf. Alma 40:11, 21). The question is whether we purify our souls enough to stay there.

    Now the rest of your argument still seems unnecessarily bivalent. In short it accurately describes the conditions when the plan of salvation fully succeeds, but it does not accurately describe the differential conditions in the region between no success and complete success.

    The reason it does not, is because it does not account in any way for the contingencies of God’s own divinity (as a person or as a concert), nor the incomplete state where some people are prepared for salvation and others are works in progress, nor a proper process view of the atonement, nor what would happen if we just wrapped up this soteriological episode early and punted the incomplete work to the next (cf. Alma 42:13, D&C 121:46)

  34. DKL on July 11, 2006 at 9:09 am

    Mark Butler: I am not a particular fan of defining salvation

    I don’t think that I’ve mentioned salvation, just spiritual death, which is a natural consequence of the fall. Thus, I’m not talking in terms of falling short of anything. I’m approaching it from the viewpoint of emerging from the baseline spiritual condition of mortality. Spiritual death does not preclude discrete appearance of God; e.g.,. Joseph Smith experienced the first vision before he had even been baptized; thus your appeal to returning to “God’s presence” on judgement day is not exactly to the point. For all we know, God may visit the Telestial Kingdom from time to time, this doesn’t mean that those who dwell in that Kingdom dwell in God’s presence.

    Mark Butler: The question is whether we purify our souls enough to stay there.

    Well, the question of whether is a bivalent one. The question of how much is, I think, what you’re getting at. But it doesn’t matter how much if it’s not complete purification, and complete purification would be precluded by a botched atonement (God seems to be a stickler in regard to cleanliness).

    Mark Butler: Now the rest of your argument still seems unnecessarily bivalent

    Well, you seem to have it in for bivalence per se. I let it slide earlier, but your earlier comment to the effect that “nearly all generalizations are false according to a bivalent system” is mistaken. There’s no use adopting truth conditions for generalizations which cause almost all of them to be false. Generalizations represent a distribution. The question of whether they are true is simply the question of whether or not the distribution they purport to represent obtains. This is an easy enough question to answer, provided you can come up with a plausible threshold for deviation (and there’s an entire mathematical discipline devoted to this).

    But even so, I’ve no particular attachment be bivalence per se. It’s the scriptures that say that God can’t bear the least bit of uncleanliness, and this results in a bivalent condition. Unless you want to say that the atonement might be botched in such a way that some people could have complete forgiveness but other’s couldn’t (given the same sins and the same steps of repentance from the point of view of the sinner). But this would seem to violate the notion that God is no respecter of persons, along with a tacit assumption of equal treatment with regard to the judgment day.

    Mark Butler: it does not account in any way for… the incomplete state where some people are prepared for salvation and others are works in progress, nor a proper process view of the atonement

    Well, no. This incompleteness is exactly what I’m appealing to. You seem to think that there is some engine at work in the purification process besides Christ’s atonement. Our own work in the repentance process is nothing more than a mere token, and does not in and of itself get us any closer to God.

  35. Mark Butler on July 11, 2006 at 11:58 am

    DKL (#34),

    Yes, I have it in for bivalence in natural language. The bivalence of the metaphysics of being, as taught by Aristotle, is I believe responsible for more logical and theological errors in Western civilization than anything else. To be a good thinker, you have to understand the rules of classical logic, and also the limitations on their applicability – in other words the metaphysical reasons why so many perfectly valid looking arguments fail in practice. Many such arguments fail due to the “law” of the excluded middle, which is nothing of the kind, nor are alternative semantics a necessary denial of logical realism.

    You were speaking of “spiritual redemption” being an either or proposition. I admit, that it is part of God’s design to make salvation ultimately into an either or proposition, that there are benefits to doing so. That is the question I was referring to.

    I am complaining about making the word redemption strictly speakind and either / or, or bivalent proposition, of *necessity*, because redemption is a process. Neither persons nor cultures overcome the consequences of sin and ignorance overnight. We usually call the process “sanctification” or “glorification”, and there the incremental or differential nature of spiritual redemption is quite apparent:

    That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.
    (D&C 50:24)

    And I, John, saw that he received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace; And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness; And thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first.

    I give unto you these sayings that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness.

    And no man receiveth a fulness unless he keepeth his commandments. He that keepeth his commandments receiveth truth and light, until he is glorified in truth and knoweth all things.
    (D&C 93:12-28)

    That is definitely not a bivalent process, indeed bivalent process is an oxymoron.

    Now “obtain” is a perfectly good word that does not need to be bivalent to be useful, as I have demonstrated with regard to truth and light. Now of course it is often useful to normalize a standard, so you can ask “whether” questions, but strictly speaking that is a condition imposed on the metaphysics of the question, which the mathematics inevitably demonstrate are continuously valid, and not bivalent.

    Bivalence is just a quantitization system, a crutch, an excuse for not treating the metaphysics in the proper detail in the first place. All the weaknesses of a legalistic, black and white view of the world are a testimony to its weaknesses. Sometimes bivalent legalism is necessary – but there is inevitably something akin to the theater of the absurd about it.

    We can only trust at the last day, the process of spiritual redemption will bring the redeemed into a state where it is most clearly apparent who belongs on Christ’s right hand and who on his left (there won’t be many on the latter), and not some sort of hair splitting decision on the boundary. Indeed the Book of Mormon often speaks of this very process, a process that leads to bivalency, but is by no means bivalent throughout – that is why we have the scriptural language – “in process of time”:

    And it came to pass that the Lord showed unto Enoch all the inhabitants of the earth; and he beheld, and lo, Zion, in process of time, was taken up into heaven. And the Lord said unto Enoch: Behold mine abode forever.
    (Moses 7:21)

    Notice the paradoxical contra-bivalency of that statement, as if Zion gradually ascended into heaven, instead of being translated in a moment.

    Now with regard to the idea that repentance per se does not get us any closer to God, I most heartily disagree. That is the doctrine of total inability, and is an extremist interpretation of the writings of Paul, a world where mankind is scum, by definition, and God is absolute, by definition, and never the twain shall meet, nor gap close in the slightest, except according to God’s sovereign will and pleasure to save whom he will save, and damn whom he will damn.

    In particular, the LDS doctrine of exaltation is metaphysically impossible under such a system. How can God give us *all* that he has, under a doctrine of total inability? Paul and others taught contrary propositions in several places, as I have been quoting lately to make a point:

    And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
    (Romans 8:17)

    For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ.
    (2 Cor 1:5)

    For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren,
    (Heb 2:11)

    Therefore, blessed are ye if ye continue in my goodness, a light unto the Gentiles, and through this priesthood, a savior unto my people Israel. The Lord hath said it. Amen.
    (D&C 86:8-11)

    Now this topic comes up quite often at the New Cool Thang, if you are so inclined. My position is the Protestant view of the at-one-ment, grace, and total inability and the LDS doctrine of exaltation are metaphysically incompatible. Grace and sacrifice are two sides of the same coin, and any Christian who suffers as such, is indeed participating in the great at-one-ment.

  36. DKL on July 24, 2006 at 6:23 pm

    For some reason, when I saw this cartoon, it made me think of this post. Seriously. Nothing against the post, Adam. It was probably just a random thing, because I can’t really explain why.


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