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!)

True Believers

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.

Seth Godin has a great short on the Lifecycle of the Skeptic. In another article, We Can Do It, he has a great quote:

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.”

Fighting Cynicism

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?

Comments (11)

I think success is measured on a personal level, as long as you’re happy with who you are and with the people you choose to have in your life, monetary success doesn’t matter.

Cynicism is bad because I think it can throw you into a deep depression that, as a cynic, you can’t pull yourself out from.

Agreed. A cynical world view is a non-virtuous cycle of sorts. I know the less cynical I try to be, the happier I end up being – which ultimately gives me no reason to be cynical in the first place.

Thanks for commenting!

I don’t think it holds person back, but you can bet that regardless of how successful they become nothing well ever make them happy. Cynical and happiness are like oil and water, they just don’t mix.


@Debbie, I agree with you. Cynicism makes happiness a moving target. The tragedy is that we move the target on ourselves.

@Evan, you make a good point about the roots of cynicism. If something’s bothering you, masking it with sarcasm and invective.

Thank you both for commenting!

Cynicism, like other attitudes is a mental habit. It is a habitual, honed attitude. It may be due to disappointments or perhaps it is easy to be right by pointing out all the flawed human characteristics of others. Cynics lack a sense of gratitude, or at best it is quite weakly developed. There are two kinds of wealth according to Dr. Thomas Stanley (The Millionaire Nex Door) balance sheet wealth and income statement wealth. Most true cynics are only going to have income statement wealth which dries up in any crisis. Balance sheet wealth requires leadership and if cynics look over their shoulder they will see no one is following them.

Abosutely, Bruce! Cynicism IS an acquired habit. Luckily so are the habits and practices of hope and taking an active role in improving your situation.


I really don’t think your analysis totally holds water because there are manys studies out there that show that successful people come in all types of personalities and can suffer from all types of psychological disorders, including cynicism, depression and a great many things.

Sorry to hear that there is only one manager worth working for a the place you work at. Sounds like a place you should leave immediately.

If I might be so bold, I would suggest that you are young and as you grow in experience and life your opinions of a great many things will change. As you experience more and more of life you will come to realize that there is goodness in most people and you might just have to look for it a little. I get a sense you might be a bit quick to judge and perhaps label people but I don’t know you well enough to know that for sure.

Anyway, love your site! Keep up the good work.

Steve, I guess it just depends on how you define success. In my personal definition of success, cynicism doesn’t play a role. Happiness and contentment do. That’s what I was trying to stress in my Are They Rigth section. Apologies if that wasn’t clear.

I’m not sure where you are getting your second paragraph from. I’ve found several managers that are worth working for. However, as I wrote above, there is only one that is truly fun to work for as he dispells cynicism. I find that an organization takes on the personality of the leader and his teams certainly focus on the positive and the possible. Good stuff there.

Thanks for the warm comments, Steve. Glad to have you aboard and commenting!

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