How to Overcome Cynicism

How do you overcome cynicism in an environment determined to maintain it?

You overcome a toxic environment by walking out the door. Unless you happen to be a powerful person in the organization, it is not your fault that the environment is cynical, broken, dysfunctional, toxic, demented, twisted or incompetent. Managers and executives are paid a great deal more than the average employee and the main thing that comes with that pay grade is accountability. If the place depresses you, look upwards: the people in power make it this way. If nothing changes, it is no accident. It’s uncommon for people in power to be motivated to make big changes since they like being in power and change creates risk.

On a personal level, cynicism is for cowards. To be alive in this mostly dead universe is a miracle. To be born in a time and a country with clean running water, electricity and public schools is another. To be able to read, write and think well enough to complain coherently is a third. When it comes down to it, cynics are simply not paying attention.

Progress might be improbable, but low odds are what we’ve been working with all along. Do the thought exercise: if you had to time travel to the past, what year would you pick? If you do your homework I bet you’ll discover that the year you are in, as terrible you might see it, is better in most ways than any other so far. I’m not saying it’s great, or good, but if it sucks the least we can also say it’s the best we have, at least so far.  

While I am all for skepticism, and by that I mean the challenging of assumptions, I am an unrepentant optimist about the opportunities we have, simply because we are alive. We can do almost anything. The problem is most of the interesting things take significant effort to do and it’s far easier to be cynical, not try, blame others and take false pride in complaining than to put effort into the uncertainties of trying to change things.

Cognitive bias wires us for denial and avoidance. It’s not easy to keep your eyes open but that is the only way progress is possible. History tells us progress can happen but is never likely. It is never the default and not something we get for free. In the worst of all cases I’d rather be Sisyphus walking up that hill every day, thinking, pondering, trying, learning, than the nameless guy at the bottom of the hill doing nothing for all eternity and whining about it.

If you do have an ally, talk to them. Come up with a plan. Aim for small wins and use them to draw others to your cause. You may need to do most of the work at first, but their support to defend what you do, and provisioning resources, may be enough to convince peers to join in. 

If you don’t have an ally, make a friend. Who do you get along with in your world that you can share your point of view with? Maybe they see something you don’t. Outsiders can’t see everything insiders can and vice-versa. If you have no friends, read. You will find friends in our histories of people who felt like you do and did something about it. 

Even if you are powerful, you can only change a culture one person at a time. See how to fix a team for advice on how to lead change. All change starts small. It must be grown, not constructed.

If you have no power, but have the choice, there is no shame in leaving a situation. It’s brave to quit in our culture if it’s for the right reasons. Only by leaving a bad situation do you give yourself the opportunity to create a better one.

“In this very real world, good doesn’t drive out evil. Evil doesn’t drive out good. But the energetic displaces the passive.” – William Bernbach

10 Responses to “How to Overcome Cynicism”

  1. Steven Harris

    Your comment “it’s brave to quit in our culture” reminded me of a recent essay by Paul Krugman: “The Fear Economy”. It explores how employees lose their power in their relationship to their employers, and how companies benefit from from having people stuck in place.

    One nit:
    s/Only by quitting a lame situation that you/Only by quitting a lame situation do you/


    s/Only by quitting a lame situation that you/It’s only by quitting a lame situation that you/

  2. Shantnu

    “In the worst of all cases I’d rather be Sisyphus walking up that hill every day, than the nameless guy next to him doing nothing at all for all eternity.”

    This is easily the quote of the week. Feeling and acting cynical or sarcastic may make you feel smug about yourself, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

    I think the current western culture encourages this cynicism- one of the often repeated characters in comedies is the cynic who sits on his chair and makes fun of the simple minded (read: foolish) “positive thinker” for trying to act goody good. The sitcom ends with the cynic being right, and the positive thinker with an egg on his/her face.

    The problem I’m seeing more and more is that whole countries are becoming cynical. My birth country, India, has so much cynicism about the political process (due to corruption and bureaucracy), there is an increasing trend amongst people towards China envy. As in, “If only we had a dictatorship like China, all the politicians would have been shot, and we’d have some real progress.”

    And why just India- far right parties are winning in Europe and America as well. The common people are so cynical they feel that nothing will change, so they don’t even bother, leading to a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    You can quit a cynical company. How do you quit a whole country?

    1. aaronson

      leave the goddamn country! that’s what I did, don’t look back!

  3. Lucy

    Sometimes I think that a lot of emotionally fragile people are identified as cynical (both by themselves and by those around them). And I’m not necessarily referring to the clinically depressed. Just the average, overwhelmed citizen, just resilient enough to make it day by day, but not enough to be happy (or quit his or her job). I don’t think all cynics are cowards. It think a lot of them are hiding behind that negative attitude because they don’t have the coping systems/environments to fuel them up, energize them. I find it really hard to imagine a human that doesn’t WANT to be hopeful, grateful or driven.

    1. celina

      Thank you Lucy! You hit the nail on the head! I desperately want to be different but it feels as though my surroundings keep knockinge back down :(

      1. Lucy

        I know Scott’s post referred mostly to workplaces, but on a side Celina, don’t try to change who you are. There is very little you can control in your life and that is OK. Make small changes, tiny ones, throughout the day or week and praise yourself about them to others. Acknowledge the little positive things or risky choices that you do make and pat yourself on the back. Loving yourself is a very long process and it is absolutely influenced by people around you. I think sometimes we are made to feel like we can just choose to surround ourselves with positive people….ummm, OK, but I am not avoiding my negative relatives or friends. They need me as much as I need them. It’s a group effort. I agree with Scott though, that there is a certain saturation point of cynicism where there is nothing you can do, especially when you’re not in power.

  4. Sean Crawford

    On a minor note, in my home life I am cheered up by reading the young adult novels of Robert Heinlein. In two of them a young man is, at the ending, on a good career path and musing that some day he will make some little changes in the system. In a third a career bureaucrat, surrounded by politicians who don’t know science, (Grrr!) ends up a little happier about life, after surmounting a challenge, and resolves to keep doing his little bit.

    In other words, a good citizen’s life can be humble like the serenity prayer.

    Heinlein knew about the seedy side of human nature because he was quite involved in politics. Yet he stayed optimistic about the republic. (While some of his adult novels are thought experiments about how the republic could go wrong)

    As a citizen, Heinlein and his wife would re-read the US Constitution every 4th of July. And I know Scott has read it, and I suspect (I forget what he said) he reads it yearly too.

  5. Evan Parker

    But Sisyphus doesn’t do anything – that’s the whole point of his curse. No one is helped or harmed by Sisyphus. So you’re saying you’d rather be known for doing pointless work than be someone who is unknown who is “doing” equally pointless idleness?

    1. Scott

      Sisyphus is a probelmatic example as his situation was intended to be a punishment. Camus explores what might be going on inside his mind and that’s what I’m interested in.

      What I meant was I’d rather be known for working hard towards what ends up being a pointless life, than not working hard and never knowing what the outcome might have been if I worked hard.

      When I lie dying, assuming I’m granted the gift of time to reflect before my death, I don’t want to wonder what my life would have been like if I’d invested more in the people and ideas I cared about. I’m ok with the possibility my life ended up changing nothing for anyone, but I’m not ok with having those last hours be filled with regret for effort I didn’t choose to give.



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