Exploring the origins, ethics and future of changemaking

It is that really going to work? The ups and downs of cynicism

In Personal Reflections on June 13, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Over the weekend I was sent a business plan for a new initiative being set up in remote Australia to address significant and complex issues including health, school retention and employment for Aboriginal Australians. The business plan was well researched, incredibly detailed and I’m sure very compelling to most readers and investors. The catch was that I was immediately struck with this overwhelming cynicism around whether it would work.

This automatic reaction surprised me. Who have I become? I recall a number of years ago I was working on a project where a collaborator accused me of being blindly optimistic (as if optimism is a bad thing). He couldn’t believe that I had such an unwavering belief that what we were working on would work. Meanwhile, his default position was what I described as ‘willful pessimism’. It was willful as we were responding to the same inputs, but with very different reactions. For me the situation was not pessimistic, it was his willful response that was.

Pessimism and cynicism are different of course. Pessimism is focusing overly on the negative, while cynicism usually implies a mistrust of people’s motives. Perhaps my reaction was not purely cynical, but definitely had a high level of doubt mixed in there.

How have I come to be this way? For the last few years I have had a number of people pitch their ideas to me, and many of them very credible. Over that time I have seen a number of the same ideas, and people often suggesting that they are either the first to try it or that their idea is “The One”. I am suspicious of this as I don’t think that there is one ‘make-or-break’ idea.

Indigenous communities in Australia have been a classic case of this. Over the years many well meaning individuals and organisations have come in and attempted to ‘fix’ the problems, many claiming that theirs was the best way. These communities have experienced so many new variations of intervention. Initially they weren’t called intervention of course – it has been called missionary work, community development, education and more. But each of these are basically just new variations of intervention. The only positive thing I can say about the Howard Government 2007 Intervention is that at least they finally called it what it was, and didn’t disguise it by using weasel words. It just happened to be not Intervention 2.0, it was more like Intervention 219.0. (See what I mean – look at what I have become!)

So I got thinking about whether my response was actually true, useful or kind. It may well have been justified in terms of how I arrived there, but it really doesn’t aid anyone.

I recently wrote about Paul Simon and his role as changemaker in the final stages of Apartheid South Africa. While Paul did not approach the Graceland album with blind optimism, he certainly came up against pessimism, cynicism and a host of other resistance. It took a great deal of courage, resilience and optimism to withstand this resistance. In any change process, resistance is guaranteed. It may also be needed as a force for the changemaker to push against and test their resolve.

So I reckon that with complex social challenges, optimism is required. After all, there is no one right way to change. Perhaps we need people who are prepared to just forge ahead with what they think it right. And of course there is a role for cynicism as well. We need people who are prepared to question and be cynical. We need to have our motives and the quality of our thinking checked. How these two values or approaches come together is actually of more significant than we perhaps realise. Like my experience with my colleague a few years back, we both needed each others’ different approaches and perspectives.

The business plan that I was sent may work or not work; it will only be a matter of time before that is known. The only guarantees are that there will be people who want to make it work, and others who will resist. Change will occur, some for the better and other parts for the worse. What is it that we are learning about ourselves and the world along the way though is what is really significant.

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  1. From the man who taught me sage leadership – yes and 🙂 where warriors and teachers meet

  2. Life is about the journey. Never lose the optimism of a child. Good read 🙂

  3. […] For more on optimism vs pessimism, check out “Is that really going to work? the ups and downs of cynicism” […]

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