Meet the world halfway

Be reasonably unreasonable

Herbert Lui
Published in
5 min readMar 22, 2016


“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” — George Bernard Shaw

Some people just don’t fit in.

They find other people’s opinions irritating. They are constantly frustrated when other people don’t see their vision. Their thoughts, opinions, and values are often dismissed because they are “unreasonable.”

The world can be cruel to these people who do not bend to its demands. Moreover, the possibility of extremely negative outcomes for these unreasonable people (i.e., dreamers) — poverty, destitution, humiliation — can be very harsh realities.

Most other people are reasonable. They accept that the world is tough and too difficult to change, which is perfectly reasonable. Or maybe they just don’t think it’s worth it. Why go through the pain of a chance to do something they love or make an impact in the world, when they can get paid more and grin and bear through a reasonably painless work life, and go on vacations and live reasonably lavish?

Max Frisch, who I suspect was probably a pretty unreasonable person, came up with this saying to describe these reasonable people, “Many people die at 25 but aren’t buried until they’re 75.” (Unfortunately some of them die earlier.)

Therein lies the trick: If you’re not a bit unreasonable, you won’t venture out of your comfort zone and even try to change the way things are. You’ll unintentionally let the years pass your dreams by, unfulfilled. Yet if you’re not a bit reasonable, no one will listen to you. The world will dismiss and ignore you.

It’s a tightrope. The sweet spot is halfway between your vision and the world’s needs. This spot grows clear when you become reasonably unreasonable.

Be reasonable: The world will not magically come to you

Author Tim Kreider compares his father, a chief of staff health at Johns Hopkins Hospital, to his uncle, a con who died in prison. The two brothers ended up in extremely different circumstances, but they similar in many ways. Kreider writes:

“As my mother put it, “Your father had some of that same manic energy Uncle Lee did. They were both full of ideas. The difference was that your father’s ideas generally connected to reality, but Lee’s never did.”

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to connect to reality. Some people demand the world to bend to their whims and desires, and get upset when the world doesn’t accommodate them. They complain constantly. But they’re not willing to even take a step to support other people first, so other people don’t bother to get closer to them.

To my dismay, as I wrapped up the piece I found out that British programmer and writer John Graham-Cumming had already coined the term, “reasonably unreasonable.” To my even further disappointment, he explains it really well:

You have to be “unreasonable” to get things done. By that, I mean that you have to go against the norm. If you are reasonable and go in the direction of society, then you don’t contribute greatly. Just look at people like Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds. Stallman’s ideas were pretty “unreasonable” at a time when there was a large move to proprietary software. Torvalds was “unreasonable” in thinking that he could build his own kernel and in telling Tanenbaum where to go.

I say “reasonably” because you shouldn’t take being unreasonable so far that people don’t listen to you.

Be unreasonable: Leave the world better than you found it

It rarely “makes sense” to be unreasonable. That’s why it’s unreasonable.

This unreasonable-ness is the foundation of a better vision of the world. And remaining reasonable is why so many people fail to leave a deep mark on the world. They may have once had a fire to make a dramatic, unreasonable, change, but they don’t tend to their desire and it flames out. As B.H. Liddell Hart writes in Why Don’t We Learn From History?:

“A different habit, with worse effect, was the way that ambitious officers when they came in sight of promotion to the generals’ list, would decide that they would bottle up their thoughts and ideas, as a safety precaution, until they reached the top and could put these ideas into practice. Unfortunately the usual result, after years of such self-repression for the sake of their ambition, was that when the bottle was eventually uncorked the contents had evaporated.”

Compromise is important. But knowing what not to compromise on and where to draw your boundaries is equally important. As J. Cole says, “Play the game, to change the game.” After you’re reasonable with the world, you must be unreasonable and change it however you think you must, so that you can leave it better for the next generation.

When you’re young, you’re generally allowed to be a bit optimistic, naive, and unreasonable. You have time before the demands of reasonable-ness, and your friends are probably just as unreasonable. As time takes its toll, people become more realistic and “reasonable.” They lock their unreasonable selves up, unintentionally starving them of oxygen.

Thankfully, for me — and I’m sure for many of you — the unreasonable self never truly dies. We just have to open its door, and let reason figure out when to keep it quiet and when to let it out and speak its piece. Let the world cultivate your reasonable side, and do what it takes to keep your unreasonable side alive. As Shaw says, all progress depends on it.

Herbert Lui is the Creative Director at Wonder Shuttle, a content marketing agency that makes impressions instead of buying them. Their most recent product is the content canvas. It’s a framework that marketers and strategists use to create useful, contagious, content.

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Herbert Lui

Covering the psychology of creative work for content creators, professionals, hobbyists, and independents. Author of Creative Doing: