Stranglers or Wranglers

The Latest Word from John Ed Mathison

I read that several years ago the University of Wisconsin had an excellent reputation for its curriculum in literary endeavors. Many brilliant students came to Wisconsin for this curriculum.

A group of very competitive students formed a literary society for the purpose of helping each other improve. They would meet and criticize each others’ works. They would look for the smallest flaws in another person’s presentation. They always pointed out the places where either the ideas or the presentations were subpar. The group became known as the Stranglers. The results of their extremely critical process tended to “strangle” the life out of a potential writer.

Another group formed a comparable literary society who also studied the works of fellow students for the purpose of helping each other improve. Their criticism was offered in a positive, constructive way. They focused on looking at the things that were right rather than wrong. They encouraged each other. They became known as the Wranglers because they could “wrangle” out of each other the best gifts and talents.

Here were two basically different philosophies. One was ultra criticism so that something had to be perfect to pass. The opposite philosophy was constructive criticism. The group recognized that nothing was perfect, but they needed to focus on the good rather than the bad.

The results were astounding. The Stranglers did not attract many new people and many of them dropped out of their pursuit for literary presentations. They felt discouraged, demoralized, and ultimately defeated. The creative juices were strangled from them.

The Wranglers group became a place where people liked to go. They felt encouraged. They were willing to try out new ideas. They could “think outside the box” and be encouraged by it. They could improve and help each other.

Twenty years after the graduation of these students, an alumnus decided to check and see what the results were in their careers. Both the Stranglers and the Wranglers were students who were fairly equal in talent and ability. The results were astounding.

The alumnus found that not a single person that came from the Stranglers group had made any kind of significant literary accomplishment. But from the Wranglers there were at least six or more successful writers, some of them were of national prominence.

I have experienced both processes in my life. I relate very well to constructive criticism and encouragement. I’m easily discouraged and feel defeated when surrounded by destructive, dysfunctional criticism.

One thing I try to teach pastors is to surround themselves with people who will offer constructive criticism and encourage them. During my ministry I have had some people who were able to do that. I learned a lot from the criticism, but it was always done in the spirit of encouraging me to improve.

I experienced the same thing when I was playing sports and going to school. I always fared much better in a class or on a team where I was encouraged and given helpful criticism. I fortunately never had any coaches who “stayed on my back” all the time. A basketball player cannot perform well on the floor if you are always looking to the bench every time you make a minor mistake. It is encouraging to see a team cheering for you and the coach giving you a thumbs-up!

Paul wrote, “therefore encourage one another and build up one another just as you also were doing.” (I Thessalonians 5:11) Solomon reminds us that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21)

Choose your life – Stranglers or Wranglers!

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