I admit it: I’m an idealist. Over 20 years ago, when I had been working my first corporate job for about a year, a well-intentioned executive gave me feedback which has stayed with me. During a rare one-on-one conversation lasting only a few minutes, Wayne offered me this assessment: “Terry, you are too idealistic. You need to learn to be more practical, more realistic. It’s that simple.”
The feedback was powerful for me then, coming as it did from an executive who I believed managed his own career by setting the bar low and maintaining the status quo. I was privately resentful of his assessment, condemning it as narrow-minded, but the message has fueled an ongoing inquiry and discovery process that continues to engage me in my work with executives today. In my 20’s, I believed that to survive in “the organization,” I either needed to suppress my aspiration for something better and learn to lower my expectations for wholeness, fulfillment or meaning at work, or, I needed to leave the organization. It wasn’t till much later that I recognized that this either/or thinking might actually be interfering with a more mature and sustainable understanding of idealism.
Many clients I work with today are motivated in their work lives to making things better. In fact, I’ve never run across a coaching aim that isn’t somehow connected to improvement. My clients’ inherent idealism shows up as personal improvement goals, values clarification work, vision statements and both private and public missions. I can hardly imagine that my coaching work would be worthwhile without it. Idealism fuels the possible. It expands potential. It concretizes outcomes. It enrolls others. It inspires purpose, it evokes conviction, and it ignites the passion that fuels sustained effort, sustainable results.
Idealism is also easily confused with perfectionism and/or fantasy. For example, you may know someone who holds an ideal for, say a stream-lined work process, but who becomes obsessed with creating each step of the process so “perfectly” that it never materializes. Or a colleague who fantasizes about a brighter future without ever making a move to bridge the gap between where she is and where she’d rather be. My own development has required me to work with both these non-resourceful habits, and to cultivate a more mature and nuanced understanding of adult idealism, which includes the understanding that true freedom comes about when we both aspire to something beyond our current reach, and acknowledge the current situation accurately.
That’s why I love Susan Neiman’s description of grown-up idealists. Here’s an excerpt from her book, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists.
I think it’s always good to be a grown-up idealist…. A grown-up idealist is someone who recognizes the equal importance of things as they are and things as they should be…. Most people tend either to look at things as they should be and talk themselves in to the idea that things really perhaps are as they should be without looking at the facts on the ground. You can also err in the other direction and use the word “realistic” to mean just taking things as they happen to be right now. Think about what you mean when you tell somebody to be realistic. What you’re really saying is, “Decrease your expectations. Things aren’t going to get much better. They’ll probably get worse and you’ve got all your psychological bases covered if you assume actually the worst.” So that’s a form of realism that says, “Well, the way that things are now is the only thing that’s real and it’s the only thing we should pay attention to.” A grown-up idealist pays attention to both. He says, “I absolutely can look at things as they are in the face while still guiding my actions by ideals of things as they should be.”
To bring forth your own grown-up ideal, I invite you to reflect on the following questions:
- What is an ideal you aspire to?
- What makes this ideal important to you?
- How do you currently explain the gap between this ideal, and where you find yourself today?
- What would you need to consider to diminish this gap?
- What’s one step you can take today to initiate a move toward your ideal?
I’d love to hear what you discover.