Disclaimer #1: I am a self-proclaimed Idealist
Disclaimer #2: This article is not referring to or focusing on the philosophical view of Idealism, rather the practical and personal view of Idealism - also known as: being an Idealist.
Disclaimer #3: This is a longer article, so if you don’t care that much and just want to read the summary - you can scroll to the end of the post where I give the highlights of the argument I am making. Cheers.
"Never give up on a dream just because of the length of time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.” - H. Jackson Brown
"elevated ideals or conduct; the quality of believing that ideals should be pursued" (Vocabulary.com)
"The unrealistic belief in or pursuit of perfection." (Oxford Dictionaries)
"The belief that your ideals can be achieved, often when this does not seem likely to others"
The idea of “Idealism” is a concept discussed by many in a broad swath of cultural spheres and influences, ranging from Forbes to the NY Times to Psychology Today (which we will be looking at today). It is a concept that appears nuanced, but the implications can be seen on multiple levels. From politics, to society, to relationships, careers, and beyond, this is a concept that has cascading effects on the general population at large, and my goal in this article is to help you see how this is true and why it is important.
To begin, let’s make this personal…
I am one of the most idealistic people I know (sad but true). The funny thing about my idealism is: I have an unwavering confidence in my ability but a skeptical uncertainty in others who are overly zealous about themselves (we’re all hypocrites to some degree).
One of the ways this expresses itself is in the inner-dialogue I experience. I recently submitted an self-tape and proposal to give a Ted Talk at a nearby Tedx event happening later this year. I had spent several weeks solidifying the concept for the pitch (which is actually closely tied to this post), and had finally come to a point of clarity and confidence in what I was presenting. I spent the whole afternoon finalizing my pitch and filming the audition tape I submitted later that evening. I was feeling good…
Fast forward two weeks and I was still waiting for the verdict on whether I made it past the first round or not. My confidence had actually grown in the time of waiting, and a majority of my mind believed I would get the call-back.
Then the email came…
The submission was denied, and my opportunity was squelched - talk about an anti-climatic illustration. Initially this was surprising, frustrating, and aggravating. “How could they not have liked my idea? Why didn’t they choose it? What was missing? How could I have been more convincing? Was it foolish and naive to even believe I could land a Tedx Talk?”
The way we react to these types of disappointments tells us a lot about our place on the spectrum from Idealism to Cynicism.
Before we get to the spectrum, I want to spend a second on the last question that was posed in my mind - was I being naive, or even worse, was I being foolish in believing I could (and should) give a Tedx Talk?
I firmly hold the conviction that it was neither naive nor foolish, but rather: idealistic.. and ultimately, positive and beneficial. Regardless of what you may think while reading this, or what the Speaker Selection Panel thought in rejecting the submission, that does not change this self-assessment.
Does that mean I deserved to give a Tedx Talk? Well apparently not because it didn’t happen. But that’s not the point. And this gets us back to the spectrum -
In the realm of “Idealism”, there is a spectrum that ranges from Idealism on the positive extreme to Cynicism on the negative end. In the middle lies Realism - another important concept in understanding how to live a balanced yet impactful life.
I do believe that we are born with, and genetically wired to fall on different places within this spectrum. Alongside innate characteristics, there are the life experiences that vastly impact our view of the world. Nature and nurture as they say. Both are incredibly shaping forces upon our lives and our outlooks.
To speak to my own experience, I have been blessed in greater proportion than most. I would agree wholeheartedly with Bill Simon when he said: “I was born on third-base and thought I had hit a triple.” I can’t change the reality I was born in, I can only control how I use what I’ve been given (which is why we emphasize “being faithful” so much on our podcast - The Up & Comers Show). Due to being born into an upper-class family as a caucasian male who is of good height/build and fairly attractive (trying to speak objectively), I have been given way more opportunity than most people in this world simply from being born. Combine this with being raised in a Christian family with two loving parents who are still married, and then attending a University and pursuing the dream of professional golf; it has been an incredibly blessed life full of rich experiences. And from these experiences, I have developed an intense Idealism that pervades my outlook and perspective on the world.
The point of saying all this is: I’m biased. I’ll admit it. And ultimately I can’t change my bias. But even if I could, I wouldn’t…. and here’s why:
From examining some of the scientific studies done on the concept of idealism, there were some fascinating (and convincing) results.
One of the most interesting to me was the study done on student-teachers during their first four years of training. The study examined their approach during the first year compared to the second year, and focused on the modification of their beliefs regarding their role as teachers. What they found was that there was a notable shift from an idealistic stance/approach to a more pragmatic view of the teaching experience. If I can paraphrase and summarize it simply: they came into the first year with a heart set on changing the world by impacting the youth they were teaching, and ended up reverting to a more pragmatic (realistic) view of them assuming the role as teacher and not much else beyond that.
This isn’t a surprising conclusion. In fact, we’ve all experienced this to some degree. Whether it be when we entered college expecting to be the next “one and done” athlete, or graduating college expecting to be the most coveted recruit for X, Y, or Z company to fight over; hardly ever are we the self-made, self-imposed, divine-gift brought up to bless humanity with our presence. Again, I fall into this category in many ways - e.g.: writing a full-length manuscript this last year, fully expecting it to be published by now…(still working on that).
But, here’s the point: we - no, better yet - the world/humanity needs more of this idealism.
In fact, this is the conclusion that the researchers came to at the end of the teaching study mentioned above:
"Contrary to the view that sees primary idealism as an immature, undeveloped position, we contend that idealism and a sense of mission are desired qualities and the shift from “idealism” to “pragmatism” indicates a regression and not progression.” (emphasis added)
Pragmatism is a “regression” from Idealism…
From Politics to the Workforce
David Brooks wrote an interesting piece for the NY Times on “The Death of Idealism”. In the article, he points out how the political sphere and the recent election in 2016 highlights the complete absence of any form of ideals. He writes:
"There is no uplift in this race. There is an entire absence, in both campaigns, of any effort to appeal to the higher angels of our nature. There is an assumption, in both campaigns, that we are self-seeking creatures, rather than also loving, serving, hoping, dreaming, cooperating creatures. There is a presumption in both candidates that the lowest motivations are the most real.”
Caroline Beaton writing for Forbes highlights the fact that most Millennials approach the workforce with the overtly-idealistic idea that they want to (and even can) “make a difference in the world” in their job. Even Caroline wonders whether these individuals will ever survive the realities of life facing the average person, even in America - one of the least “average” societies.
Yet, both Caroline and David come to the same conclusion… we need us to. We need the younger generations to infuse an optimistic outlook into the currents of culture within our nation and throughout our world. Idealism is what should characterize the younger generation, because pursuing ideals is what leads to human and societal progress.
To quote David on this point, speaking to the political realm, he says:
"Ironically, one of the tasks for those who succeed the baby boomers is to restore idealism. The great challenge of our moment is the crisis of isolation and fragmentation, the need to rebind the fabric of a society that has been torn by selfishness, cynicism, distrust and autonomy.
At some point there will have to be a new vocabulary and a restored anthropology, emphasizing love, friendship, faithfulness, solidarity and neighborliness that pushes people toward connection rather than distrust. Millennials, I think, want to be active in this rebinding. But inspiration certainly isn’t coming from the aging boomers now onstage.”
Caroline also ends by affirming this need:
"Idealism doesn’t always run counter to reality. In some critical cases, it makes reality. I think the big challenge for millennials isn’t to abandon their idealism. It’s to keep it even once we have reason not to."
Where’s the Balance?
Like everything we try to emphasize, there has to be a healthy balance. If all we ever do is lean into the idealism brewing within Millennials, or those who believe the world needs change and are audacious enough to think they can affect that change, chances are we will never take the practical steps needed to ever arrive at that destination. Ideas are sexy, but until you take action on those ideas they really don’t mean anything.
Leon Seltzer, writing in Psychology Today, makes the case for a “cynical idealism” - a view that pairs the belief in the impossible (idealism) with the cynical reality of life that sees human motivations as being solely for the promotion of self-interests, and that recognizes the endless challenges of living on planet Earth. His extensive work on this issue is worth a read as he presents a very balanced and thorough perspective on striking a balance.
How I like to approach this balance follows a slightly different path. Instead of pairing idealism with cynicism - the opposite ends of the spectrum, I prefer to marry idealism with realism - the reality resting in the middle-ish of the spectrum. Yet, the only way this union is successful is by the simple, foundational pursuit of discipline.
The Importance of Discipline
Changing the world is a monumental task. It is so massive a task it can make the staunchest idealist end defeated. From the realistic point of view, no one person can ever change the world (other than Jesus Christ who undoubtedly did just that). Yet, we can leave a lasting impact, but only by working incredibly hard for an incredibly long period of time - which, at the end of the day, takes boatloads of discipline.
Discipline is the one element that can unite Idealism and Realism in holy matrimony. It facilitates the union of two, fairly incompatible perspectives, by daily pushing towards a balance on the see-saw that each side rests on.
Weekends are for dreaming, weekdays are for working. This is an example of a healthy balance in my opinion. Having a big vision is exciting, captivating, and inspiring. But, the only way you ever reach that big vision is if you start putting one foot in front of the other in a practical, yet strategic, pursuit of turning the ideal into a reality.
Ideals are important, but so is realism, and even more-so is discipline. The combination of all three takes a presence and comfortability in the place of tension. Tension, by its nature, is never comfortable. It’s not something you simply “get used to”. It’s always uncomfortable. But, I do believe we can become more comfortable in that place of being uncomfortable - the space of tension between two opposing forces.
Again, I cannot stress enough: the only way this space of tension, this merging of idealism with realism, the only way it is helpful to you and useful to those around you (and the world at large), is if it's lived out and pursued with discipline, the discipline that holds the union together daily.
Dream big, live disciplined.
In summary, here is my point in this lengthy discourse on idealism:
Is Idealism a good thing? I believe it is.
Millennials are often branded as “too idealistic”. This isn’t helpful or fully accurate.
I believe what people really mean when they say this is: Millennials are “too entitled” - and I would agree with that.
Language matters, and the distinction between entitlement and idealism is very important.
Entitlement is the belief that we deserve something that hasn’t been earned.
Idealism is the forming and pursuing of ideals - which can often be unrealistic.
… But that’s what our generation is for - it’s the purpose for this stage of life: to see the opportunities that lay beyond our current grasp. To dream a vision of what the world could be, not what it already is.
Without idealism, humans would not progress. Norms wouldn’t be challenged, and the status quo would never shift.
Yet, there is a balancing reality that needs to be recognized - the need for and importance of realism.
If Idealism is the airplane flying at 30,000ft., then realism is the boots on the ground floor doing the dirty work to make things happen.
Realism is the day-by-day, practical, effortful work need to turn the ideals from ideas into reality.
At the end of the day, this takes one vital component — discipline. Saying no to how we feel when it differs from what we know. Saying yes to the work needed in order to get us one step closer to the ideals we hold so dearly. Accepting the reality of our current life and the fact that nothing in life just happens, and if it is to be it is up to me.
Discipline leads to ownership. And ownership leads to proper preparation, which leads to more opportunities, and ultimately to optimal performance when those opportunities arise.
So here's to Idealism and Discipline - a match made in heaven.