Tag Archives: Henri Nouwen

Fruitfulness vs Productivity


How much of our day or week is truly fruitful? When I say fruitful, I don’t mean productive. I believe there’s a significant difference but I understand it can be deceptive.

What do you think the difference is?

“We’re living in a culture that measures the value of the human person by degrees of success and productivity….Do we dare to look at weakness as an opportunity to become fruitful? Fruitfulness in the spiritual life is about love and this fruitfulness is very different from success or productivity.” —Henri Nouwen

In my mind fruitful is relational, productive is task orientated. Fruitful is difficult to quantify or box but productive has concrete measurable outcomes. With fruitfulness the impact is deeper, more long-term, bringing something good to a person or situation, positive growth in yourself or others. Fruitfulness often comes from a place of vulnerability and apparent weakness, productivity comes from a place of apparent strength.

Having lived in a London city culture I am used to a society that is productivity obsessed and sometimes blind to fruitfulness. It’s been a real journey for me in recent years, learning to prioritise fruitfulness over productivity. Not that productivity is wrong but it’s only dangerous when it rules us and squashes the fruitfulness out to the edges.

How often do we sacrifice the fruitful for the sake of the productive? Wanting to feel significant by having concrete outputs to show for our investment of time. How often do we allow the urgent to displace the important? Often in my case but I’m learning.

I wonder whether choosing the fruitful and important requires a level of peace with yourself, security, knowing you have nothing to prove.

If we always let busyness, deadlines and projects take priority over people and deep relationships we may look back on life and have some regrets. It’s worth reflecting on what you’d like your life to look like when you look back on it towards its end. (Top regrets of the dying include working too hard. Interesting article on that here)

If we have a choice between putting the extra hours in to get a project or presentation that 5% more perfect and spending time with family, or taking the time to listen to and encourage a colleague who’s struggling… What’s our auto-pilot reaction? What do we want it to be? Which is going to be remembered by others in years to come? Which is going to have the deeper and more lasting impact? Which is more fruitful?

I’ve been so challenged by this recently. I’ve caught myself sometimes rushing to fill my days with stuff that I think will make others think that me being here in Cape Town is ‘worthwhile’; trying to have ‘outputs’ I can talk to people about, that I think will validate me and my presence here. But I know that’s not the point and that’s not how fruitfulness works. I’m learning that my life is more fruitful when I’m not thinking that way and I am feeling increasingly free from those concerns.

I feel that God’s been teaching me that ‘less is more’. Less frantic activity, more fruit. Less in my own strength or wisdom and more in His. Letting go of my own need for validation in other people’s eyes through ‘successful outcomes’ and following the gentle prompting to see what God is up to in people’s lives and in situations and joining in with that Prioritising the relational, deep, long-term stuff that’s where the real fruit is found, even if that doesn’t feel very ‘productive’ or if the fruit is hidden. I’ve been amazed by the privilege of the doors and opportunities God’s opened up for me, and by how fruitful I feel my life is as I step into what he opens up, not what I feel I should do.

A few years ago I went on a retreat and one of the reflections was to draw a tree that represented your life. Afterwards he asked whether there was fruit on the tree. I was distressed to see I’d drawn no fruit on mine and didn’t feel my life was very fruitful. I’ve done the exercise again more recently and could honestly draw fruit on my tree – I really feel something has shifted for me… which really excites me.

I want to share with you a few specific insights I believe God’s been sharing with me on this subject over the past few years… The first is about the picture of a vine, the other two are from stories in the gospels.


“There is a great difference between successfulness and fruitfulness. Success comes from strength, control, and respectability. A successful person has the energy to create something, to keep control over its development, and to make it available in large quantities. Success brings many rewards and often fame. Fruits, however, come from weakness and vulnerability. And fruits are unique. A child is the fruit conceived in vulnerability, community is the fruit born through shared brokenness, and intimacy is the fruit that grows through touching one another’s wounds. Let’s remind one another that what brings us true joy is not successfulness but fruitfulness.” – Henri Nouwen

 “Do not depend on the hope of results.  You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.  As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.  You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people.  In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.” – Thomas Merton