Great work requires idealism AND cynicism

There’s a backlash against tech industry idealism. Hey, I get it. Few tech products “change the world” or “make the world a better place” but lots say they do.

But I also know why people want to make the world a better place. We spend the bulk of our waking lives at work. We get one shot at being human beings. Who the heck wouldn’t want their time to count for something bigger?

Sure, idealism as a smug veneer is irritating. But what’s worse—and much more common—is a lack of idealism and optimism. Regardless of the mission statement on the website, most workplaces don’t suffer from excess idealism. Much more common in every industry is compromise, lowered expectations, optimization by micro-degrees, and reaction to workplace defaults. Much more common is inertia. Much more common is the creation and incessant incremental improvement of products that don’t really matter to our lives.

This is what really sucks, not a cheesy mission statement. When company politics and balance sheets become the center of attention, when a team gives up on doing something great for their customers, it’s worse than irritating. It’s a damn waste of human time.

We should encourage each other to be honest, and to do work that matters. That requires idealism. The secret to successful idealism, I believe, is to mix it with cynicism. Don’t dial your idealism back because it’s uncool. Don’t dampen it or give up on it because it’s not rational or because your office culture doesn’t encourage passion.

Be idealistic and cynical in equal, full-strength measures. Know the downsides, the worst downsides, the most difficult-to-voice unpopular downsides, and voice them. Put your wildest hopes and darkest fears on two shelves, right next to each other, where everyone can see. Don’t combine them into oatmeal. Keep them distinct. Make them visible. Don’t let them smoosh together into “good enough.”

I say, don’t give up on your idealism. And don’t be a half-assed idealist, with cynicism weighing you down. Embrace the positive and the negative honestly, wear your heart and your fears on your sleeve, and try your best to do something great.

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