The Power of Ideals

When you hear or read the word, ‘Idealistic’, what are the first few thoughts that spring to mind?

Chances are, you may have heard others voicing out certain adjectives that have become synonymous with the word in recent times. Adjectives such as ‘Unrealistic’ and ‘Naive’, with perhaps the odd ‘Impractical’ thrown in.

It is clear that in today’s world, being seen as idealistic carries with it a certain negative connotation. On the flip side, phrases such as ‘feet planted firmly on the ground’ and having ‘a good head on one’s shoulders’ depict the positive traits we attribute to having common sense and being practical.

But is it really true that idealism and pragmatism cannot co-exist? And is it a fair judgement to classify one as bad and the other as good?

To answer the questions above, we must delve into what an ideal is, and whether ideals still have a place in our ordered and practical world.

So, what is an ideal? defines the word as either an ‘ultimate object or aim of endeavor, especially one of high or noble character’, or ‘something that exists only in the imagination’.

Proponents of the first definition are those most likely to be deemed as idealists. These are the people who believe that ideals are standards that, while lofty and difficulty to attain, must nonetheless be striven for in all things. They see the world in black and white, and can display extreme rigidity in their unwillingness to compromise on what they see as a clear violation of their principles.

This stands in stark contrast to the second group. These are those most commonly known as realists. They thrive on living in the ‘real world’, dealing with everyday issues and problems with grit and sheer determination. For them, every decision is a compromise, for they understand that to choose one path is to give up the other. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ choice for this group, and the concept of ideals is nothing but an impossible fantasy for them.

Thus it would appear that everyone falls into the two distinct categories featured above.

But what if the two definitions aren’t mutually exclusive? If an ideal is a standard that is understood to be unattainable, is there any residual value in holding on to these ideals?

We believe that the answer is yes.

In all the companies and organizations you see around you, take a deeper look and you’ll find something called a Mission and Vision. While we will not go into the technical differences between a Mission and Vision statement, suffice it to say that a Mission deals with the organization’s present work, while a Vision deals with an optimal desired future state. In fact, you can check out The Thought Experiment’s Mission and Vision here as an example. We can therefore say that a Mission, if carried out effectively, leads to the Vision becoming a reality.

If we think about the word ‘Vision’, we get a decidedly different vibe from the word ‘Idealistic’. The founders of large multi-national companies are commonly said to have ‘vision’, while being labelled as a ‘visionary’ means you have a much-coveted big-picture view on things – the kind of mindset top management executives often purport themselves to possess.

As I mentioned before, an ideal is a high and noble aim, while a vision is an optimal desired future state. Since they are so similar, why is there a disparity in the way we treat the two?

The answer lies in our results-oriented society. To put it succinctly, a man who is idealistic is one who has strong principles or goals, but has yet to effect any significant progress towards the upholding of those principles or achieving of those goals. The lack of any tangible result invites criticism, and makes him the butt of jokes among realists. This is opposed to a man who has vision, where he has either already achieved his goals or laid the critical foundation towards achieving his desired end result.

Does this mean that ideals are useless if they do not translate to any visible result?

While this certainly appears to be the case, it is not so. To answer this question holistically, we must acknowledge the bias that has been inculcated in us by young: The tendency to ignore intangible benefits in favour of tangible gains.

Consider the following fictional scenarios:

  1. The doctor who envisions a world without HIV and AIDS. He quits his high-paying secure job as a consultant in a private hospital, and sets up a clinic in Africa to provide highly active antiretroviral therapy to existing sufferers of the disease. However, he fails to make any significant dent on the growing numbers of people infected.
  2. The audit partner who believes in his role as an objective and independent check for companies’ financial accounts. When asked by the client’s management to assist in tying the bank balances and to provide a positive audit report in exchange for ensuring a continued business relationship for the next five years, he declines. As a result, the client fires his firm as their auditor and engages a more pliable one elsewhere. His audit firm suffers a significant loss in revenue.
  3. The investigator who believes that evidence is everything. When confronted with a case involving a high profile politician as the victim, he is pressured by his superiors to obtain a conviction in order to restore public trust. He is told that if he cracks this case, he might receive an early promotion. However, upon deeper investigation, he discovers that there is no evidence to suggest that the politician was a victim of a crime, and issues his recommendation to close the case, despite warnings that his career will be adversely affected. Eventually, the case is given to another ambitious detective, and he is overlooked in future performance appraisals and rankings.
  4. The space scientist who has the goal of bringing Mankind into a new Space Age by colonising the moon and Mars. Despite knowing that his country’s government is more concerned with fighting off nuclear threats from other superpowers, he nevertheless chooses not to work on a countermeasure system to the nuclear threat, which would result in generous funding and a large salary, working instead on a proposal to request for more funding to the national space agency to research more deeply into space exploration. Despite an impassioned speech to the country’s lawmakers, his request is denied, and the funding is instead routed to another scientist seeking to make his fortune in the defense industry.

Would you say that these individuals are idealistic? Should they have valued the tangible benefits evident in each of the scenarios more highly? From a purely tangible point of view, they gave up significant gains for seemingly nothing.

But if we look at it from an alternate point of view – one that values intangibles just as highly -if not more so – than tangibles, we get a different result.

  1. The doctor may not have succeeded in reducing the numbers of HIV/AIDS-sufferers, but his clinic treats hundreds of patients daily. Each patient is a person who would not have received the necessary treatment otherwise. Also, his exit from the private hospital inspires younger doctors to follow in his footsteps, and years later they set up a charitable movement to raise awareness of the disease in Africa.
  2. The audit firm may have lost the business of unethical companies, but as it steadily weeds out such clients, it finds that it has begun to build a reputation for being unwavering in its ethical principles. Eventually, the audit firm becomes the preferred choice for companies who seek to earn and retain the trust of its shareholders and investors.
  3. Knowing that his ideals run counter to that of his bosses, the detective quits and starts his own private investigation company. Unconstrained by external pressures, he is free to exercise his objective judgement in his new role.
  4. While disappointed with the government’s decision, the scientist continues his work into space exploration, doing the best he can with his limited budget. His resultant work is later used by future generations of scientists as the critical foundation for a large scale colonization mission to Mars.

In these scenarios, we see that while they suffered tangible losses initially, their reluctance to give up their ideals eventually translated to some tangible benefits later. It is also noteworthy that not all ideals necessarily contain a moral aspect (as in the case of the scientist).

Despite the tangible gains, what is critical to note is that by adhering to their principles, they also experienced the intangible gain of being true to themselves. For such people, it is nigh impossible for them to give up their beliefs, for to do so is to admit defeat to the forces of today, whether they be pervading social norms or the current state of technological progress.

In this sense, all idealists and dreamers are alike – they see a disparity between the world as it is and the world as it should be. I’ll let the following quote do the rest of the legwork:

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

The importance of being practical and levelheaded cannot be overestimated, to be sure. But Mankind would be doing itself an extreme disservice to sideline its idealists,  for we only need to look at the annals of history to see that it is this group of unreasonable individuals who have brought the human race thus far, and will continue to bring us forward into a new age, little by little and step by step.

Do you have dreams and ideals you have shunted to one side in pursuit of the daily challenges in front of you? Maybe, just maybe, it is time to take them out of the closet and give it a good dusting.

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