I read a great article on cynicism this weekend. It was written by a guy who’s job it is to interview achievers of our time for a Men’s magazine and extract useful bits of abstraction that the rest of us not wearing cleats, flying our own gulf streams, and otherwise being awesome can apply to their lives. Along the way he’s met politicians and artists, hall – of famers (or to be hall of famers) of nearly every sport, and other famous public icons. Talk about your jobs that don’t suck.
In this article he takes all of those interviews and mashes them together to see what pearls of wisdom he could extract into greater trends, truths, and advice. For those who haven’t read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, this is the same model – although a cottage consulting industry and religion hasn’t yet risen from this work. (See that? That’s cynical!)
At the core he talks about how cynicism is ultimately self-defeating and that he couldn’t find one truly successful person who was a cynic. It’s almost like cynicism is the opposite of success. The article author talks about a downward spiral (referred to eloquently in his work as the ‘bitch cycle’) where you complain and moan and generally don’t accomplish great things.
Successful people rarely confuse a can-do attitude with a smart plan. But they realize that one without the other is unlikely to get you very far.
Are They Right?
When I think of the most successful people I know, the author’s right. Empirically I can’t find many. Most of those in popular culture that I can think of exist in the entertainment industry. And they are successful at being cynical. I know one guy who is successful by conventional methods (high paying job, nice house, etc) but he’s such a cynical SOB that I can’t really put him in the successful category. At least not in the kind of success I envy category. He’s more in the ‘kinda pity him’ bucket.
What About Me?
If you knew me early years you would have labeled me a cynic. My attitudes and actions would have strongly landed me in that camp. I don’t think I am now. I certainly have cynical qualities and they shine in full glory some times. And, in retrospect, those times gain me nothing aside from a small sense of catharsis. My greatest victories came from an unshakeable belief in something (usually myself) and a correspondingly low amount of major failures have come from a lack of skepticism.
My bouts of cynicism have always been preceeded by greater periods of enthusiasm and for that reason alone I hope that at heart I truly am an optimist. Maybe all succesful skeptics are really that; cynical optimists. Take those famously successful entertainers I mentioned before (Carlin, Black, Bourdain.) The heart of their comedy is a cynical interpretation of life. But the punchline is always some sort of hope. Perhaps Carlin himself sums it up better than I could: “Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist.”
As a recovering cynic I have no good idea on how to solve cynicism. I do have a few good ideas on how to fight it though:
(Yes, I did read Harry Potter. All of it. And your point is?) At the place I work there is really only one manager that is fun to work for. He has a great way of dispelling cynicism in a twofold manner. First he makes you realize how silly your cynicism is and secondly he helps you realize that there is a way to reinforce and repair your disappointed ideal. That’s a pretty effective combat strategy.
I dislike the phrase “finding your passion.” (It brings to mind potheads playing hackey sack all day and skipping classes. ‘I’m finding my passion, man!’) Leo of Zen Habits has a good (non-hippy) guide here for doing so. If you’re working on your passion it’s hard to be limited by cynicism. I guess that’s why, despite the politics, is why I love the West Wing series so much. Smart, driven people doing passionate work.
Wake up the Sleep Walkers
Cubicle Warrior fav and Non Conformist, Chris Guillebeau has an effective strategy for combating other cynics in his post Welcome to the Real World. And that’s ‘welcome to the real world’ as in they lyrics from John Mayer’s “No Such Thing”
“Welcome to the real world”, she said to me
Take a seat
Take your life
Plot it out in black and white
What About You?
Do you think cynicism holds people back or is it a natural, equal and opposite reaction to a pollyanna-like naivety? Is there a such thing as unhealthy skepticism? If so, how do you fight it?