A friend of mine on Facebook regularly rails against Barack Obama. Pretty much every decision the US president makes, every word he utters, every bill he signs off on (or not)… is further evidence to my friend that Obama’s not only unfit to be the leader of a country, but also a complete dumbass.
A few months ago I found myself standing in a pokey little print shop in Bucharest, trying to get a visa application in order. While there the shop owner did his best to sell me on Amway. I didn’t know much about Amway except for some whispers of shadiness. The words “pyramid scheme” came to mind. But I decided to give this guy a fair hearing anyway.
I listened as he told me all about his experience with Amway and why it was so great. After about five minutes of this, I asked him an important question: “What don’t you like about Amway?”
Almost immediately he replied, “Nothing!”
That’s when I stopped listening.
What Amway dude and my Facebook friend have in common is this: They see complex matters as black and white. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned the past eighteen months, it’s that most matters are far from that.
Flash back to November of 2010. I’d already learned by then that preaching is an amazingly ineffective way to change minds. So while I tried to hold back from voicing controversial certainties, I still held many simple beliefs about complex matters:
- I considered 9-to-5 to be a terrible idea for any self-respecting individual.
- I saw no reason why humanity couldn’t thrive on a vegan diet.
- I believed Ireland could pull itself out of a recession if only my fellow countrymen would take a little more personal responsibility.
Thankfully, my thinking has matured a lot since then. They say that the more you learn, the less you realize you know. That’s definitely been true for me.
Death of an Idealist?
That was the working title for this post. Sounds catchy, but I can’t say it’s true. I’m still an idealist. I continue to dream big dreams and aim for the ridiculous. I still believe that people are mostly good and that we can find sustainable solutions to the big problems facing the world, problems like poverty, famine and global warming.
But I no longer believe that the solutions are simple. Well, perhaps they are, but if so, we’re talking about that breed of simple which lies on the far side of complexity.1
One thing I am pretty sure of though, is that we can’t begin to solve the big problems until we recognize and accept their complexity. That means considering the possibility that your preferred political punchbag might actually have the best of intentions and occasionally do some good in the world. It means owning up to the fact that there may be some basis to the criticisms of that business model you so strongly advocate.
It means knowing that we — each of us, individually — are wrong about a great many things, and ignorant of a great deal more.
I visited a slum last Saturday afternoon here in Mumbai. Every evening I see young and old sleeping on the streets amid fat rats and stray dogs. All in the shadow of valet parking and highrise buildings, including the most expensive residence in the world. The contrast is insane, and the solution seems so simple.
But I know I’m viewing it all from the near side of complexity. I’ll try hold tight to my ideals while stumbling on towards the far.