Why the world needs visionaries, and 8 practical ways to use your idealism for good.
The dictionary defines an ideal as something “existing only in the imagination; desirable or perfect but not likely to become a reality.” If you, as I, identify as an idealist, welcome aboard, and buckle up; not even the dictionary believes in us! And yet, Steve Jobs made a good point. “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who actually do.”
As far as my personal history with idealism, I’m pretty sure I entered the world wearing rose-colored contact lenses. That prescription is even stronger than glasses. I rewrote my own versions of fairytales where the villains turned into good-hearted characters. I assumed there was less traffic on Sunday mornings—not because of a decrease in commuters— but because so many people were in church.
Unsurprisingly, the optical optimistic disposition led me to walk around just a hint oblivious. As I grew older, and typical trials of life inundated the wide eyes beneath the rose colored contacts, disappointment levels ran especially high. Whether the robbery of a dorm room, horrific events on the news, or the betrayal of a trusted friend, I felt completely blindsided, every single time.
Victim vs Visionary
Starting off, most idealists walk similar paths to one another: As children, we dream wildly of what could be; as adults we face what is. But it is the chosen response to the contrast, which distinguishes the visionaries from the victims. An idealist victimized by fear lives confined inside a self-created protective bubble incapacitated from engaging with the world in a meaningful way. Sadder still, is the jaded idealist—cynical and wounded from disappointment–who buries their imagination away with their ideas.
Living painfully aware of surrounding problems, brokenness, and inefficiencies, you may believe this sensitivity to be your greatest weakness. And yet, to throw away the idealism trait entirely would disown a great strength: your uncanny ability to see. This is useful. In a world full of battles one must first detect darkness and see solutions before carrying the flaming torch to victory.
Our goal on earth is not to simply imagine wholeness, but rather, to show up with our acuity of insight, hindsight, or foresight, and redeem something. A doctor stitches a gaping wound from open to closed; a writer sorts disorganized thoughts into coherent strings of words; a chef turns bitter baking chocolate into a delicious sweet cake; a tutor takes a student from confusion to understanding. Many of our hours are spent in the realm of restoration. A victim looks at the expectation/reality gap and reacts with despair. A visionary sees the same gap and acts on a call to close it.
Part II: 8 steps to channel your idealism for good.
1. Be wildly outrageous with where you want to go (the dream) – Whether it’s finding a cure for cancer, learning to salsa dance, or hosting a lit Christmas party in multiple senses of the word—be specific and unfiltered about your vision.
Example: Josh dreams of starting an orphanage in anchorage Alaska. He envisions 500 children learning sustainable ice fishing skills by day, and studying astronomy by night as they drift off to sleep underneath glass domes overlooking the magnificent aurora borealis.
2. Be brutally honest about your current reality– An insecure idealist typically neglects this step but becomes severely hindered as a consequence. In some ways, people operate similarly to google maps. When searching for directions, the GPS first needs your starting location coordinates to figure out a clear route.
Example: Far away and underfunded, Josh lives in San Diego with a fear of cold weather and $10 in his savings account.
3. Ask “Why?” Clarify your motives and potential barriers by asking “why do I want this? And why is there a gap between reality and my dream?” Bring understanding by articulating the gap between point A and point B as precisely as possible.
Example: A love of children, a fascination with arctic science, and a heart that breaks for orphans, fuels Josh’s desire to start the orphanage. Josh realizes he has yet to act because of his limited work schedule, and his fear of driving through the icy highways of Canada.
4. Ask “How?” – Overwhelmed with possibilities, many idealists sit stuck on the question where do I even start? After already identifying barriers in step 3, ask the question HOW can I begin with a small and practical step.
Example: To ease his fear of freezing to death, Josh works one extra hour every day until he can afford a new fur coat from REI. After the purchase, he starts a go-fund-me account where friends and family can donate to the cause of his orphanage.
5. Start livin’ the journey – When “livin’ the dream” becomes the main focus, then the distance to the destination will appear as a discouraging eternity away. Instead, redefine success as consistent steps in the right direction, and be patient with inevitable obstacles on the way.
Example: As Josh drives to Alaska, a blustery Canadian snowstorm sets his timeline 3 days behind schedule. Nevertheless, he has peace and satisfaction knowing he moves in the right direction towards something good. He remains unfazed and posts on Instagram daily that he is #livinthejourney.
6. Be open to change – Ideas are like light bulbs: attractive in their brightness, but breakable if we cling too tightly. Likewise, a vision must be clear, yet flexible enough to change along with setbacks or new opportunities.
Example: After 3 months in Alaska, Josh bumps into the principal of a local public school while at the annual northern lights festival. Josh realizes he is actually far more passionate about education than social work. Instead of an orphanage, he opts to open a nonprofit boarding school.
7. Take ownership and let go – It’s tempting as an idealist to project our own sky-high expectations on other people before even tending to our own standards. Instead, take responsibility to do your part and let go of the rest.
Example: Josh invites 50 teachers to interview at his startup school. He prays for favor, diligently prepares good questions, and then… kicks back in a leather chair. Josh isn’t stressed out because he only plays tennis when the ball is in his court.
8. Choose joy with the unfolding- When a journey or destination turns out differently than expected—as it often will—choose joy.
Example: A year later, 300 students enroll at Josh’s school come August. While falling 200 short of the original goal, Josh is grateful for each one of the attendees. He is glad he didn’t wait for perfection or permission to offer an educational opportunity to the Alaskan community. As an added bonus, Josh has long since overcome his fear of cold weather and participates in snowball fights during recess all winter long.
For the idealist: At the beginning of each day, imagine yourself as a tea bag made of optimistic, fanciful, radical, and exotic tea leaves. It is in steeping yourself in the hot water of reality, that your flavor truly comes to life.