Losing faith in idealism
February 27, 2014 1:12 PM   Subscribe

I’ve realized that I’m starting to lose faith in idealism, perpetuated in part by instances where reality hasn't lived up to it, so I'm beginning to become more "realistic" about where the limits are. However, I’m worried that this leads to mediocrity. Has anyone dealt with this?

Over the course of the past few years, my faith in idealism and being able to come up with optimistic outcomes has been gradually growing smaller, and it has accelerated since I returned to university a month ago, after being out for a few years. I notice that instead of being idealistic about things, I’m forcing myself to reduce the level of idealism to something more “realistic”.

An example is the ideal of “I’ll do well in school because I can avoid procrastination and be able to understand things and manage my time well, based on the things that I’ve learned in the real world”, and then the reality hitting where it’s not that easy to do well in school. Then I have to correct my outlook on school, as well as my outlook at the idealism that caused this thinking in the first place.

I’m worried that this is making a negative impact on my ability to be optimistic/idealistic about outcomes and is instead pushing me further towards pessimism. When I come up with an optimistic outcome, I then almost immediately come up with a rebuttal on why it won’t work, like “I’ll get to building a study plan” to “No I won’t, things will come up”. In other words, I’m automatically being skeptical of idealism.

Another example is my thinking of my ability to gain knowledge and expertise in a field. I used to be optimistic that I’ll be able to gain knowledge and make connections and build expertise, but now that I’m in the academic system, it seems harder and harder every day to gain that knowledge, to think in those ways, and to simply be excellent.

On one hand, this kind of thinking is more “accurate”. On the other, I feel like it may lead to mediocrity, in thinking that there is a ceiling and that going past it is futile, and as a result, I won’t ‘reach’ as far. Instead, I’ll predict that “that won’t work” in advance, as a method of “optimization”, instead of actually pursuing that.

I’m worried about ending up like many other people that have a sense of where their “limits” are and never try to go past them.

Has anyone gone through this before? It’s certainly a delicate balance. I’m currently 21, and it seems like a lot of these kinds of shifts in thinking take place at both this age and in the higher-ed environment, so I’m curious if folks here have gone through this.
posted by markbao to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm not sure if pessimism is necessarily more "accurate." I think a sense of realism mixed with optimism (or healthy pessimism) is fine. What I think you should try to do is act on good faith to follow the things that you believe will help you to achieve your goals. So if your mind is saying, "That won't work because X," learn to say to yourself, "X could happen, but if I account for X and also add Y, that may help me do what I want!"

It's just self-talk, really, and the way you talk to yourself can be modified to adjust your attitudes and behaviors.
posted by xingcat at 1:16 PM on February 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


Get over yourself.

Put a study plan in place and concentrate on getting out of school. Acknowledge that some things are not easy, and some are. You may learn a lot from one course, and another may be a complete waste of time.

Optimism, pessimism, idealism, realism, majoring in philosophy much? It's not what you feel about things, it's what you DO that matters. So put aside your feelings/thoughts about what you need to do, and just DO what needs to be done.

It really is that simple.

I'll tell you something my Dad told me. "Sometimes, you'll be sitting there, and you feel the lecture washing over you, or you're reading the textbook and only 50% of it is making any sense. Power through it. At some point it will all come together." He was right. That I passed Stats is proof of that.

Also, never pull an all nighter. Rather study up until bedtime and get a good nights sleep. While you sleep your brain will take all that weird stuff and try and build something out of it. You'll wake up and have a MUCH better grasp of the subject matter.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:25 PM on February 27, 2014 [21 favorites]


"cynicism is the last refuge of the idealist"

Keep your heart strong and remember that everyone on this planet is struggling with something. You too. Go easy on yourself, everyone has flaws.

Switch your focus to being more internally motivated. Gain knowledge not to be impressive, but because in your heart you enjoy the art of mastering the topic. The attitude that sincerely wishes to master something is more profound than mastering itself.

Keep a check on your thinking because you don't want to slide into depression.

see also The Serenity Prayer (lord grant me the serenity...)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:27 PM on February 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


I was way too idealistic when I was 21. I'm freaking glad I grew out of that. I was also a humanities major unrealistic about the job market.

Don't get me wrong though, despair should not be the inverse of idealism. I know it can feel that way especially when we are young, and if it gets bad, please ask for help. The inverse of idealism should be a comfortable "old sock" feeling, a nice, quiet, good enough satisfaction.
posted by quincunx at 1:27 PM on February 27, 2014


quincunx — "I was way too idealistic when I was 21. I'm freaking glad I grew out of that. I was also a humanities major unrealistic about the job market.

Don't get me wrong though, despair should not be the inverse of idealism. I know it can feel that way especially when we are young, and if it gets bad, please ask for help. The inverse of idealism should be a comfortable "old sock" feeling, a nice, quiet, good enough satisfaction.
"

Just curious: why do you feel that it was good to grow out of it? The "good enough" satisfaction seems like a bit of a limit to me, which concerns me.
posted by markbao at 1:34 PM on February 27, 2014


Because I feel like it's about 5-10% better to go with consistent, drama-free, stable unchanging happiness than to go with symphonies and crashes, fireworks and ashes. It's a relief.
posted by quincunx at 1:37 PM on February 27, 2014 [5 favorites]




Nothing is perfect, but that doesn't mean we can't strive for perfection, even while we understand that there is always room for improvement. I'm hardly impeccable, but the idea that I should be will often give me not only motivation to push ahead with something but also a vision of an impossible future that even one more step toward would mean improvement.

I don't think it's incongruent to accept that mistakes will be made and nothing will ever be the Platonic ideal and still refuse to let that stop you get everything as perfect as you can. When I was your age, our mantra was "Argue for your limitations and, sure enough, they're yours." You can stop yourself from doing anything by having a bad attitude. Having determination and grit doesn't mean that you'll achieve everything you hope for, but at least it doesn't stop you dead in your tracks.

There's no static perfection because nothing reaches its pinnacle and simply rests there. That's true with everything. No matter how clean you are, you still have to dust your home. Dust happens. You can't find a relationship, get married or whatever, and stop working at it because it's the "right" one. Even the "right" one requires work. Everything changes. All the time. For everyone. So that means your idealistic goal is one that is by definition somewhat slightly out of reach -- you'll always have to keep striving.

But is that a reason to stop? Not in my book.
posted by janey47 at 1:41 PM on February 27, 2014 [5 favorites]


Doing the best you can is the best you can do.

Do that.

And for god's sake don't worry about it. That just makes things worse.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 1:42 PM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Just curious: why do you feel that it was good to grow out of it? The "good enough" satisfaction seems like a bit of a limit to me, which concerns me.

Oh god I loathe the hands that type this but

wait until you're older.

Seriously. Even Chris Rock has a bit about this... your 20s you're like Rah! change the world, your 30s you're like Yeah I'm still gonna do it and your 40s are like hmm I could really go with a sandwich right now.

Maybe it was Seinfeld.

Anyway, I never thought I would grow out of it either, but I did. Practicality mixes with wisdom; you pick your battles. You realize what you DO have control over (yourself). You realize that emotional programming is HUGE and takes time to rewire. People can change, but not over night, and only if THEY want to.

If you have lots of energy and want to perfect something then may I suggest meditation! Growing in depth and wisdom is something that does not leave you, and can always be improved.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:43 PM on February 27, 2014 [6 favorites]




Idealism without a grounding in reality and a workable plan to make those ideals happen is fantasy. Nothing wrong with fantasy - it certainly has its uses and pleasures. But your optimism will serve you better if you do what you can to make your ideal outcome possible, and that means thinking things through, and planning, and contingencies, and also being kind to yourself.
posted by rtha at 1:50 PM on February 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


I feel like you're one of those smart kids that everything naturally came easy to so you never really learned to put in work. Well, now you're finding out what it's like for everyone else. Sometimes you really can just do your best and all you can get is a C even if you work really, really hard.

But the real value of things is not the result, it's the process of putting in the work that defines us.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:51 PM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Being unrealistic isn't much assistance in being excellent. Thoughts of "except I won't manage that because X will come up" can be far more productive to your outcomes than having your optimistic plans go down the toilet in flames because you were blindsided by X. You can fly higher when you're paying attention to the air currents.

You've got a problem if:
1. you don't consider for X even though there is a good chance X will happen, or
2. You consider for X when it's highly unlikely X will matter,

If 2 is what is happening, then start making yourself do reality checks. But it sounds like neither is happening and you're just getting more experienced about how you operate.

If you're not having to do reality checks, then do the opposite - remind yourself every now and then to think bigger, just to test that you're not boxing yourself in.

TL;DR: Maintain the cognitive self-awareness that your question demonstrates you already have, but use it for productivity instead of worry.
posted by anonymisc at 1:59 PM on February 27, 2014 [5 favorites]


At your age the tendency begins to keep viewing/gauging yourself in the long view. I.e. to watch the cinematic version of your life and its arc. This leads to pain as this narrative fails to jibe (in a great many ways) with what you'd intended...as it always will. The pain usually manifests with the feeling that you're missing stuff and failing to measure up (again, in many ways).

The quality and growth you seek are not to be found by watching this view with self-consciousness. Quite contrary, it's to be found in shaking that off and, rather, immersing utterly in the task at the hand. Doing everything with love and thoughtfulness, even the most trivial things. Subtle things count!

The over-arching cinematic narrative view of yourself and your life is a fakeout. There's no truth there, only pain. The narrative of your unfolding life story is a mental abstraction, nothing more. You can't accomplish much working with that perspective. Where things get good is when you shut that down and bear down on your action RIGHT NOW, and performing it conscientiously. Surely you've noticed that when you really concentrate and immerse in a task, you lose that big-view self-consciousness. That's a GOOD thing. Aim for that. Aim for only that. And let the chips fall where they will (as if you had any choice!).

You will not wind up where you'd intended, but you'll wind up somewhere good, with a purity and self-confidence that comes from knowing you're earnest and conscientious and you sweat the details. If you try to force the movie to adhere to a certain plot-line, you'll waste your life flailing amid fantasies, ever vaguely (if not sharply) disenchanted.
posted by Quisp Lover at 2:03 PM on February 27, 2014 [15 favorites]


Ghostride The Whip — "I feel like you're one of those smart kids that everything naturally came easy to so you never really learned to put in work. Well, now you're finding out what it's like for everyone else. Sometimes you really can just do your best and all you can get is a C even if you work really, really hard.

But the real value of things is not the result, it's the process of putting in the work that defines us.
"

I wasn't—quite the opposite—but I understand what you mean. What's guiding this is that it has helped me in the past, even when my idealism was less than rational, because I didn't feel like I was limited by e.g. school (so I did other things) or age (so I was able to do things folks my age didn't).


rtha — "Idealism without a grounding in reality and a workable plan to make those ideals happen is fantasy. Nothing wrong with fantasy - it certainly has its uses and pleasures. But your optimism will serve you better if you do what you can to make your ideal outcome possible, and that means thinking things through, and planning, and contingencies, and also being kind to yourself."

That makes a lot of sense. I'm trying to develop an approach that's pragmatic, and this seems close to that.


St. Peepsburg — "Just curious: why do you feel that it was good to grow out of it? The "good enough" satisfaction seems like a bit of a limit to me, which concerns me.

Oh god I loathe the hands that type this but

wait until you're older.

Seriously. Even Chris Rock has a bit about this... your 20s you're like Rah! change the world, your 30s you're like Yeah I'm still gonna do it and your 40s are like hmm I could really go with a sandwich right now.[...]
"

This is the kind of 'mediocrity' (not the right word, but can't think of anything else) that I'm looking to avoid—this kind of understanding that "this is how it is". Legitimate arguments on both sides, but, where I am in life, I don't really want to find myself at 40 having a kind of defeatist(?) attitude. It might be the right way, but I don't want to just fall into it unconsciously but rather make a deliberate decision on it (if that makes any sense).
posted by markbao at 2:05 PM on February 27, 2014


Another example is my thinking of my ability to gain knowledge and expertise in a field. I used to be optimistic that I’ll be able to gain knowledge and make connections and build expertise, but now that I’m in the academic system, it seems harder and harder every day to gain that knowledge, to think in those ways, and to simply be excellent.

I wouldn't call this "idealism" at all. "Idealism" is "We can achieve world peace in the next 10 years!"

It seems like you're just running up against the fact that accomplishing anything meaningful in life takes time and hard work, and there are no shortcuts. That's a good thing. The only way anyone ever gets anything significant done is accepting that it's never going to become "easy" and you just have to get up every day and do your best anyway.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:07 PM on February 27, 2014 [6 favorites]


You can be extremely pragmatic (not idealist) and still accomplish things that other people might deem impossible, as long as your pragmatism is grounded in the basic belief that you will accomplish only what you possibly can while working as hard as you possibly can. It's not idealism that leads to accomplishment, it's hard work. Now, if you think hard work won't help, then that's pessimistic, and probably wrong.

Of course, hard work is hard, and many people quite reasonably make the correct cost benefit analysis in limiting the amount of hard work they put into life (because hard work is not the only thing in life). You could argue that those people's choices "limit" the amount of "success" they will have (for some, but not all definitions of success), but really it just means those people are finding their own optimum balance between hard work and whatever else they enjoy in life (and there are so many things!).

Many super driven A+ type successful people actually value hard work over anything else, and that is one road to take in life. But it's not the only road, and it's certainly not the road that most people *choose* for themselves. I would encourage you not to ignore the collective wisdom of humanity on this matter.
posted by grog at 2:12 PM on February 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


It might be the right way, but I don't want to just fall into it unconsciously but rather make a deliberate decision on it (if that makes any sense).

You will, trust me. But you're not there yet. It really is a conscious decision: I can conjure up the exact moment at which I sprouted my "AIN'T GIVE A DAMN" wings. But you can't pretend to make the decision in advance of all of the experiences that will make it the CORRECT decision.

Just one more of the billions of things you're about to learn have no shortcuts or guarantees.

it seems harder and harder every day to gain that knowledge, to think in those ways, and to simply be excellent.

That's because excellence is damn hard. So is knowledge, and thinking. That's why so many people you see around you are pretty bad at them, and why they are so highly valued. The trick is to remain optimistic that you can handle the difficulty and the uncertainty, because the success is in the striving.
posted by like_a_friend at 2:14 PM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


I heard a story once that I unfortunately can't find right now. I think it was told by Leonard Cohen, about his time at Zen monasteries.

At any rate, the teller of the story, as a short-term visitor, found the monastic life incredibly difficult. He asked a monk who had been there thirty years, who appeared to be utterly at peace and enlightened, if he had ever considered quitting because the life there was so difficult.

The older monk replied that he still thought about quitting every single morning.

No matter how it may look from the outside, it's never easy for anyone.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:21 PM on February 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


hmm I could really go with a sandwich right now.[...]"

This is the kind of 'mediocrity' (not the right word, but can't think of anything else) that I'm looking to avoid—this kind of understanding that "this is how it is".


I view it not as resignation, but as an appreciation of what you've got. Here's my preferred sandwich metaphor.

Don't give up on striving for excellence and self-improvement; there's no greater feeling than having really tried at something and succeeded. But it's pretty closely followed by the feeling of self-acceptance, of not tying your worth to greatness or achievement. Sometimes success is out of reach for reasons that are completely out of your control, and being able to say "well, I still did pretty good and learned a lot" is healthier and more useful than dwelling on what couldn't be.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:26 PM on February 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


I don't think it's mediocrity or resignation. I think it's perspective. I wrote this, here, in answer to a different question, but my friends can tell you I say this a lot. A WHOLE lot.

To wit:

The great virtue of youth is certainty. It takes young people to lead a revolution, because only young people have the certainty that things must change and things can change in one generation. Only young people have the ability (and tendency) to see things in black and white -- yes, no, right, wrong. I LOVE how young people can run with a firm idea (see, e.g., Occupy).

The drawback of certainty is that stuff gets thrown out with the bathwater. Especially in adolescence, everyone believes that there is ONE way to do things (what clothes to wear, what music to listen to, whom to have sex with, and what sex positions are acceptable) and it takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to break free of that. Adolescence can be summed up by: "Mom, you can't tell me what to do, I am my own person now and I MUST have the same sneakers everyone else is wearing!"

So then old age. Or middle age. Or whatever you want to call it but not youth. The virtue of age is perspective. That's why you see (old) people (like me) saying "I so do not GAF what others think of me." We tend to get less overwrought by certain issues, because we've seen the pendulum swing each way a time or two and we know that (a) it's REALLY hard to push that pendulum our way and keep it there for any length of time and (b) it'll come back our way in its own time anyway. This too shall pass.

The drawback of perspective is that it leads to passivity. "Oh who cares, it's all ephemeral anyway."

The other big problem is that curmudgeons can get snarky about youth. I tell my friends that you know you're old when you start giving in to the pessimism bias -- "In my day, we had it much harder than kids do today but we were better people for it." "That's not music, that's noise." "Fashions in clothing today are ridiculous, people who buy whatever is currently 'in' are just fashion victims" (I noticed this last one the first time from someone who was wearing what was 'in' when he was a teenager, but he thought it was a 'classic' look. Uh, no. It was unattractive.)

But I think it's relatively easy to watch for and avoid the pessimism bias once you're aware of it. And as long as we remind ourselves to watch out for passivity, perspective can lead to pretty great wisdom in things both large and small. That makes for a really wonderful life. And that perspective is also what lets us see that it's coming to an end, and pretty soon at that. And the more aware we are that our time is limited, the less we take for granted what we have and the less we procrastinate. When we really get it that everything ends, we don't waste a minute. We say "I love you." We realize that there no sense in "protecting" our hearts, because they'll be broken no matter what we do. We give things away because they're better off with someone else. Realizing the truth of impermanence is one of the greatest gifts of age.
posted by janey47 at 2:46 PM on February 27, 2014 [9 favorites]


janey47 — "The great virtue of youth is certainty. It takes young people to lead a revolution, because only young people have the certainty that things must change and things can change in one generation. Only young people have the ability (and tendency) to see things in black and white -- yes, no, right, wrong. I LOVE how young people can run with a firm idea (see, e.g., Occupy).

The drawback of certainty is that stuff gets thrown out with the bathwater. [...]

So then old age. Or middle age. Or whatever you want to call it but not youth. The virtue of age is perspective. [...]
"

This was fantastic, thank you. This is really close to how I perceive the young/older difference. I guess my qualm is over whether this perspective/deference/resignation/whatever is the right thing to do. Is it right to fall into these patterns, or is it better to hang on to that idealism/optimism of young people that things can change? What this really boils down to is a sense of jadedness as one gets older, which I think is something I want to avoid because it relates a lot to closed-mindedness. But I'm not totally sure.
posted by markbao at 3:31 PM on February 27, 2014


My partner has been an activist for years (we're in our 40s). She got arrested a lot in her 20s when she was in ACT UP.

These days, she goes to a lot of meetings, presents at conferences, talks on a lot of phone calls, works with legislators to get bills introduced and passed....and still gets arrested every once in a while.

It doesn't have to be either/or. (As long as you watch out for burnout, anyway.)

Another friend of mine also got arrested a lot, thanks to ACT UP actions. She now works as a medical person who treats people with HIV, and people in prison.

Another friend: also with the getting arrested! And is now a middle-school counselor, working in a not-wealthy public school.

Activism and idealism can take many forms.
posted by rtha at 3:47 PM on February 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


Finding any kind of limit is an opportunity for personal growth in several ways.

You may be able to find a way to break through that limit, and discover new strength within yourself as a result.

You may decide that other aspects of your life, other problems or potentials, are more important than the things walled off by that limit, more deserving of your focus, and in this sidestepping gain greater understanding as a result.

Or... you may realise that some limits are beyond your ability to influence and control, that in some cases your best will always fall short of an arbitrary mark. It is undeniably difficult to put a positive spin on it, but at the core this situation presents an opportunity to cultivate wisdom and humilty as a result.

Learning the difference between 1 and 2 is hard, but truly accepting 3 is harder still.

Nonetheless, it is just as possible to grow as a person in failure as it is in success, and I personally believe that a person who is as accepting of their role in one as in the other will always be better placed to do right by themselves and others as their life progresses.
posted by protorp at 3:49 PM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


I guess my qualm is over whether this perspective/deference/resignation/whatever is the right thing to do.

It's less about whether it's right to do and more about how you're going to handle it. You can't NOT gain perspective as you get older, unless you wall yourself off in a little garden of identically-minded people and never leave or have experiences. You WILL gain perspective; your idealism and mindset and ideas and beliefs and priorities WILL change. They just will. 40 year old you won't recognize 20 year old you on the street.

Your decision is what to do with your new perspectives and knowledge. Are you going to block it all out and refuse to see nuance and refuse to ever back down from the positions you hold currently? You can, but you'll miss out on a lot, because changing is fun and interesting.

Are you going to embrace your new perspectives and find ways, like the ones rtha describes, of living your ideals within the framework of the world and its practical and existing elements? This won't be exhilarating the way, I dunno, winning a Nobel might be, but it will be challenging and interesting in its own right.

Are you going to look at the whole mess and say, fuck it, let's watch Star Trek? And then maybe you realize that finding someone to watch Star Trek with in a cozy, pleasant home with some great little kids and a job that is interesting and maybe some trips to see the world...is really not such a bad way to spend 75 or 80 years on earth, and you wonder why you ever thought it was so mediocre in the first place.
posted by like_a_friend at 3:59 PM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Just do your best for yourself. That's all you have control over. There are an infinite number of paths your life can take, and you control that path. It's probably true that zero of those paths result in you being on the level of Kant, Guass, Michael Jordan, or that really smart kid in your 8:30 class that gets an A on every exam.

But that's really out of your control. So compete with yourself, and the alternate lives you could live if you slacked off.

I have a feeling, even if you're not aware, you're comparing yourself to others and letting that get you down.
posted by jjmoney at 4:27 PM on February 27, 2014


Perspective comes from experiencing so much more over such a much longer period of time that you're able to see the larger view. That doesn't mean settling and it doesn't mean giving up. It means that you can focus on what is really important and stop obsessing over little stuff that, it turns out, isn't all that important to you in the long run big picture.

You may find as you get older that things that seem SUPER EXTRA IMPORTANT right now seem a little, well, over dramatic as you get older. That's because you're super close to them right now, so it's like you're looking at your face in the mirror that's held two inches from your nose and ALL YOU CAN SEE IS YOUR NOSE AND IT'S HUGE. Perspective is having a large enough view of the world to hold the mirror far enough away from your face that you see your nose in proportion to the rest of your face and you see that it's not so big after all and oh hey over your left shoulder you can see something ELSE that you never even saw before while the mirror was up really close and it turns out that THAT is a very important thing that is worth your time and energy.

I hope that metaphor is helpful. It made perfect sense to me while I was typing it.
posted by janey47 at 4:36 PM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Also, re-read what I wrote about the certainty of youth up above. There's a shit ton of closed-mindedness in the young, largely because of the certainty. So don't think that your sense of right and wrong is perfect and immobile. It too follows the everything changes always for everyone rule.
posted by janey47 at 4:38 PM on February 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


I’m worried that this is making a negative impact on my ability to be optimistic/idealistic about outcomes

The entire way you frame your "problem" is a result of inexperience. Worry about the outcomes, not whether your thought patterns meet some fuzzy, arbitrary moral standard that you won't even be able to remember in 5 years. This navel gazing won't survive real responsibility, so you might as well try to cultivate being responsible now. Responsibility is what matters to success, not "idealism" or pessimism.

I’m worried about ending up like many other people that have a sense of where their “limits” are and never try to go past them.

Like a lot of people in school, what you're actually worried about is defining yourself. But while you can try to adopt a way of being the same way you can try to adopt a fashion, ultimately you get defined by what you do, not what you say about yourself.

Define your goals, decide what you need to do and achieve them, and then do that. Most people aren't good enough to really have to worry about accepting a "good enough" attitude.
posted by spaltavian at 8:08 PM on February 27, 2014


« Older Recommended resources for intermediate Mandarin...   |   MFAaaaaay 401Kaaaay PHDeeeeee IRAaaaay Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.