Rational Optimism vs. Professional Cynicism

“I  have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”  John Stuart Mill

In today’s Wall Street Journal essay section, both Bill Gates and Matt Ridley cite the above Mill quote approvingly.   There is much else about which they agree as Gates takes issue with a single chapter in Ridely’s new work, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.  In fact, all these two great thinkers-achievers-writers disagree about is the degree to which climate change and African poverty are problems which can  be resolved with the application of normal human effort.  When you carefully analyze their debate, I am not sure they even disagree about the methods needed to solve these concerns they both share.  Because I lack substantive understanding about these significant challenges to human well being, I will not offer an opinion on their “debate”.

However, the discussion generates a more fundamental question about which is the more effective approach to problem solving:  optimism or cynicism?  The thoughts shared by the essays remind me of over 40 years of experience in law, politics, education and religion.  I have never ceased to be amazed at the power of cynicism to thwart forward progress.

When an erstwhile graduate student aspiring to a professorship in English literature and theater, I learned quickly that the powerful commentator was the one who found fatal fault with another’s work.  I was taught that great thinkers don’t agree, they criticize.  Higher education required one to achieve such supreme status of thought that criticism was unavailing.  This means that one must know more and more about less and less until you remain the last man standing knowing all there is to know about nothing at all.  I abandoned academia in large part because this seems like a lousy way to build a railroad.

Surprise! The study and practice of law proved similar in many respects.  What I hoped would be a practical approach to innovation and positive change in the world’s condition, proved to be another arena in which your ideas must be challenged and diminished so mine can prevail.  It is amazing how often the lawyer’s answer to a question about strategy or approach is, “You can’t do that.”  Little wonder clients are loath to ask.  Risk aversion is one thing.  The lack of creative innovation in response to clients’ needs is another.

Politics and religion seem to fall prey to the same win/lose dynamic. Oneupsmanship must be endemic to the human condition.

Ironically, the Gates and Ridley debate today in the WSJ demonstrates the value in building on great ideas and advancing them without destroying the other’s.  Are these great thinkers demonstrating the power of managing polarities?  See, Polarity Management post.  Apparently, they don’t need to build a career in law, education, politics or religion.



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