In the fields of human rights, social justice, and humanitarian assistance, opponents often attack practitioners as “hippy idealists,” as if such a term were a derogatory term that justifies the dismissal of a person’s opinions, beliefs, and practices. But I’d like to share why I think it is so important to be an idealist, and not just as a human rights/social justice practitioner. In fact, I venture to argue that idealists are more capable, perseverent, passionate, and even practical in these fields (and in any field) than a realist could ever be. Indeed, I believe idealists have inherent characteristics that justify my belief that more leaders and managers should be idealists.
1. As a human rights practitioner, faced with daily barrages of rights violations, of rapes, intentionally imposed malnutrition and starvation, genocide, murder, systematic denial of basic human dignities, etc, idealism is simply necessary, not only to remain in the field and prevent staff burnout, but also simply to survive your work experience without PTSD, transferred trauma, suicide, or long term physical implications caused by the emotional, mental, and psychological stress, fatigue, and trauma. If you can’t see the eternal value of your work and passion in the darkest of times (and in this field even the lightest of times is pretty dark), you will not survive in the field. And I mean “survive” quite literally. International aid work has the fifth highest job-related death rate among U.S. civilian occupations, and it is the only one where the leading cause of death is intentional violence.
2. Idealism is also an asset because even when working in domestic offices where exposure to direct trauma is limited, progress on a national or global scale is long-term and collective. This means that a decade of work in human rights may see little progress and may even see some decline in global progressive policies/practices. If you are not an idealist, you will not be capable of persevering in your work since in our increasingly globalized, collective world, an individual’s efforts, no matter how great, are only a drop in the ocean. This work thus requires a sense of faith in the value of your work even when you cannot see its direct implications or directly reap its benefits– something that idealism provides. This long term focus makes idealists excellent visionaries and leaders, as they are anticipatory of future trends and responsive to long term pressures like sustainability.
3. Idealists are also more perseverent, committed, and doggedly stubborn in achieving their goals than realists. This is because for idealists, there is always a “better” to a “best.” Idealists are able to achieve all that is possible only because they strive for the impossible– the attainment of ideals. Realists argue this makes idealists weak since they are thus more prone to disappointment and giving up. But the opposite is actually true. Because idealists are by nature never-ending problem solvers, they make excellent staff and even better leaders and visionaries because the problem is always adapting and the solution is never perfect. Idealists are harder workers than realists because for idealists, the work is never over. As a direct result of this fact, they are often committed lifelong to their passion and work and they demand results not just from themselves but also from those around them. Thus, they hold others accountable as well as themselves and can be counted upon to solve problems and be both results and long term focused in their problem solving– traits that should be valued rather than dismissed. Their commitment to the unattainable makes them more perseverent rather than less, as opponents argue.
4. Finally, idealists believe the best of people and consequently expect more from others and themselves. Because idealists are always searching for solutions to never ending problems and seek the attainment of the impossible, they are perfectionists. Realists argue this is a weakness since believing in the best of people and expecting a lot from others puts you in the weak position of dependence on others’ fulfillment of those expectations, setting you up for disappointment or betrayal. I argue the opposite is true. People can only achieve greatness when someone believes in their potential and helps them develop it. When you tell someone they are stupid, there are only two options. They can exceed your underestimation out of spite, luck, or revenge, or they can succumb to your low expectations and never achieve their full potential out of hopelessness or denial of their own worth. My belief that hope and positive reinforcement is stronger than fear, revenge, and negligence is strong and is supported by scientific evidence. Furthermore if you never question circumstances, demand change, and expect more from others, you create a self-fulfilling prophecy. And ultimately, it leads to burn out since you believe only you can “fix” things and are thus unable to delegate and incapable of trusting. This “realism” is what actually weakens you because it means you are unable to effectively create trusting partnerships and alliances, solve problems that straddle boundaries, develop or accept leadership from your peers or subordinates, or create solutions that bridge diverse, conflicting populations/pressures.
Im tired of people calling me an idealist as if it were an insult.
I’m damn proud to be one.