The World As One

The World As One

Apparently, I’m an “idealist”. As if that was some kind of bad thing.

“Oh, idealists. Pshaw! Here, we have to deal in realities.”

Yes. I am an idealist. In that I see myself as someone who chooses to imagine things as they might be, in addition to how things are – or, at least how most people regard how things are. I have no problem with that. Maybe this fits your definition of idealist. Maybe not.

Yet, I see no need for idealism to exclude realism. Why does a vision for the future need to exclude “reality”? Surely the challenge we all face is getting from where we are to where we’d like to be? From needs unmet to more needs met? Of course, that’s the unreasonable man’s point of view.

And somewhat at odds with the Buddha – of inner peace coming from an acceptance of the way things are. I can live with that cognitive dissonance. At least I choose to avoid complaining. Instead I try to find solutions. And solutions mostly require doing things differently, or seeing things differently. A change of perspective is as good as a rest.

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

~ Albert Einstein

I do find it strange that “idealist” has become inextricably associated with “impractical”. I choose to regard preserving the status quo in the face of changing situations, environments, contexts, as impractical.

I have to say I don’t much like reality. Particularly the current realities of software and product development. We could be doing so much better. That’s not vain idealism. Just observation. There ARE companies doing better. Much better. The reality is that few people know this.

My idealism is grounded in realities, though. For example the reality that I don’t expect more than a very few people will act on the knowledge of the existence of these outliers. The reality that the status quo is powerful beyond measure. And the reality that in most organisations, most people don’t need to be improving, and so don’t do much about that.

“Nothing is Nirvana, nothing is perfect.”

~ Jon Stewart

So should we just give up? Pursue our own narrow agendas, serve ourselves? Research tells us that’s not how we human beings are wired. We’re wired with a social conscience. With the need to see others fulfilled as least as much as ourselves. With the need to make a difference. Maybe we’ve all been denied such opportunities in work – and life – for so long, that we’ve forgotten the joy they bring us. But the wiring’s still there.


Having ideals doesn’t preclude a desire for action, either.

“You see, idealism detached from action is just a dream. But idealism allied with pragmatism, with rolling up your sleeves and making the world bend a bit, is very exciting. It’s very real. It’s very strong.”

~ Bono

When people dismiss ideas as “idealistic”, most often they’re saying that they can’t imagine how to bring about that idea. How to effect it. They’re rarely saying that such ideas have no merit, or wouldn’t meet folks’ needs. Failures of imagination seem quite widespread, I note – with some sadness.

“No period of history has ever been great or ever can be that does not act on some sort of high, idealistic motives, and idealism in our time has been shoved aside, and we are paying the penalty for it.”

~ Alfred North Whitehead

How do you feel about idealism? Is there a place for it in your world? It seems like we don’t hear so much about ideals these days as we used to.

“I am an absurd idealist. But I believe that all that must come true. For, unless it comes true, the world will be laid desolate. And I believe that it can come true. I believe that, by the grace of God, men will awake presently and be men again, and colour and laughter and splendid living will return to a grey civilisation. But that will only come true because a few men will believe in it, and fight for it, and fight in its name against everything that sneers and snarls at that ideal.”

~ Leslie Charteris


The anniversary of the death of John Lennon (8 December) is coming round again. For me his words say more about the idealist than any other:

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one”

~ John Lennon, Imagine

– Bob

  1. “How do you feel about idealism? ” I feel that idealism can lead to ideology and ideologues. Ideology can lead to intolerance, extremism, murder and mayhem. Marx, Hitler, any extreme religious faction, the “Tea Party”. They all had/have ideals that got/get you excommunicated (or much worse) if you didn’t/don’t share the same ideology.

    • Are you sure you’re not confusing “idealist” with “ideologue”, and “ideal” with “ideology” (dogma)?

      – Bob

      • No Bob. I’m never sure about anything 🙂 But you may be splitting hairs here?

        ideology: The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture.
        idealist : An adherent of any system of philosophical idealism.

        Do you think it’s a huge leap from “idea” to “ideal”? Even if you do, no big deal.

  2. pklipp said:

    I committed most of my free time to changing the world for twenty years. I stopped at 6PM on October 15th, 2010. I was tired and disheartened by people throwing up barriers (“that’s impossible/stupid!”) to everything I did and then opportunists selfishly following in my wake. But I’m still an idealist. I just no longer use my vision of how the world ought to be to change it. Instead, I just live in the world I want to live in and my idealism provided the moral framework for my actions and decisions. It works for me, and others have taken over most of my public roles. I disagree with Bulldozer00 that idealism is inherently dangerous or destructive. Saloth Sar was an idealist, but so was Martin Luther King Jr.. You need a vision to change the world, for better or for worse. The opposite of idealism is moral apathy.

    • I’ve not stopped yet. Although I can relate to the fatigue and loss of heart. Maybe my second wind is due soon. 🙂

      – Bob

  3. Bob,
    I like this post. My mum called my dad a dreamer – always with the putting down overtone – and I too inherited that part of him. I actually think that most developers are likely to be dreamers, that inner world thing again. For me there came a point where I realised I had put a rational shell around the dreamer. So now I have to mediate all the dreamer’s thoughts through that rational shell. Not good – talk about splitting yourself.

    However, despite the comments from pklipp above, I believe there is a big change happening, but you cannot push it, just do your bit to get the consciousness up. I have been researching some of the work that the later 20th century philosophers have done and there has been a sea change going on which is only just now – seemingly – working its way into general culture. I think there will have to be some pretty big changes in how we do business if we are not to have a big blowup.

    I think these changes will mean that our dreamer natures have a better time in the world – so I would like to hope. Thanks to the Cartesian ‘rational’ mode and the financial imperative it is just too easy for any human to burn out – and not just the dreamers. We have turned our companies into machines rather than organisms. Once this realisation is seen widely enough things will change I reckon (hope).

    Thanks. Charles.

  4. Much of these essays deal with issues that arise when we are trying to “explain” the real world to robots, for which read computers “who” have little capacity, currently, for understanding either uncertainty or metaphor. Yet we tackle large problems at great expense, with a very high failure rate, even when such projects are putative successes. The “anti-matter principle” seems to aim to address worker’s needs but some of those are likely in conflict with reality. For that matter, the high level decision makers needs are likely in conflict with reality.

    At the beginning, the decision makers “need” to know what the project will accomplish, in some detail, and when it will be done, and how much it will cost. However, at the beginning is when we know least about what will actually be needed, what will actually work, how long it will take to do it, and what that will cost. None of these are minor matters, but those who undertake the job will be chosen from among those who (must) claim to know those future facts.

    Thus, any team chosen to undertake the work starts mostly blind with fixed objectives of unknown complexity and difficulty.

    Then virtually every worker will be uncomfortable about her ability to meet any measurable objective at any specific time. Each will incline to push away those test points. “This is a hard job. Leave us alone for 18 months and we’ll do it. You will love the result.” I call this the big bang theory of project management. It almost never works.

    What works is to confront reality quickly and frequently, the better to learn more about what works, what fails, and why. But that is in direct conflict with every worker’s desire to avoid facing frequent deadlines and evaluation experiences. Only when the workers have been educated to be comfortable with proceeding in the face of the many uncertainties, and even to be willing to accept failures, at least when they yield better understandings of what will and won’t work, can their other needs be addressed while also solving as much of the project objectives as is actually possible.

    When you know that much up front, it may be possible to devise an approach and appropriate education for the high level decision makers so that they can accept a proposal that has a good chance of substantial success. Tom and Kai Gilb call this EVO or evolutionary development and discuss it at length at and in Tom’s books.

  5. Since “Much” is singular, “deal” should read “deals”.

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