How to Keep Idealism from Ruining You

“Scratch the surface of most cynics and you find a frustrated idealist–someone who made the mistake of converting his ideals into expectations.” -Peter M. Senge, “The Fifth Discipline” (p. 146)

A number of years ago I noticed a distressing pattern in my life. Despite my best efforts to “make things happen” in business settings, relationships, and other areas, I was continually disappointed. Nothing seemed to work out as I had hoped.

I had a miscommunication on a business deal that caused me great embarrassment and almost cost me money. In another situation I allowed myself to be led astray by my own blinding emotions. Then there was the time that I neglected to cancel my classes and almost paid dearly for it. Yet another time, I believed a promise that appealed to my high ideals and aspirations, only to find the “opportunity of a lifetime” go up in smoke.

And on it went. What was I doing wrong?

Little did I know that I was gaining valuable experience and learning many lessons about reality, people, and relationships. I wouldn’t trade these failures and hardships.

Looking back, I was incredibly idealistic. Beyond that, I believed that my worldview — how I thought everything should be — would somehow be translated into my reality.

I had transformed my ideals into expectations. And I was on the road to becoming a cynic.

I deluded myself into thinking that I was something of a philosopher and economist, but I ignored the important distinction between the positive/descriptive (what “is”) and normative/prescriptive (what “ought” to be) categories of thinking.

Because I believed that the ought and the is should correspond, in my thinking, they were one and the same in reality.

Occasionally, I would stumble across a realist — i.e., someone who understood the clear distinction between how things should be and how things really are — and I would become frustrated. I would wonder why the person could not see how things should be.

I thought idealists were the ones who had everything figured out. Realists were simply those who had gotten tired and given up.

Since then I have learned that we need not abandon standards of integrity in order to be realists. Instead, we must simply make the choice to get to the truth.

Here are some tips that have helped me:

  • Take a step back and detach. I used to take everything so personally, even as I considered myself the paragon of rationality. I believed that many others were primarily driven by emotion, whereas I was driven by logic. Now I can see how misguided I was. I now know what I need to work on with regard to controlling my own emotional reactions to triggers, whereas before I thought everything was fine. My weaknesses were someone else’s fault and problem. This delusion and denial placed me in great danger.
  • Choose to see people for who they are. Observe people. Learn the rules. Use the metaphor of a game, much like any sport. Don’t view anyone as 100% on the side of devils or 100% on the side of angels. No one is that perfectly consistent. You will be less disappointed by your bad assumptions if you choose to see people for who they are rather than imposing your own biases and projecting your own weaknesses on them. Once you have a general idea of the rules about “human nature” and its specific manifestation in various individuals, understand that people will suddenly change when you least expect it. That is simply part of the game and part of the fun.
  • Get to the truth rather than indulging in wishful thinking. Big plans, fast talk, grand visions. All these things and more are available at the low, low price of a dime per dozen. Don’t let yourself be bamboozled. Commit to seeing reality for what it is, even when this involves the painful admission that you were wrong previously.
  • Enjoy the process. Learn to laugh and not take things too seriously. Don’t think that your serious demeanor will translate into serious success. We all have to step back and realize, in the midst of stress, that we are acting as players within the larger “human comedy,” as one author explained it.

Avoid cynicism. Be real. Keep your ideals, and commit to practicing them in your life. Gain private victory and personal mastery. Then your circle of influence will widen so that your ideals can become reality more and more in larger contexts and relationships.