Tips for the Young(er) Idealist

by Roger Edwards

Your ideals are the language of your honor and integrity. Your level of honor and integrity comprises the core of who you are. This is why those without ideals, who vacillate continually hither and yon like flags flapping in the breeze, or who outright betray their ideals, lack honor and integrity.

Your ideals are only as valid as how well you stick to them when nobody is paying attention.

Do not apologize for your ideals. If somebody can't deal with it, too bad for them.

Avoid prefacing any expression of your ideals with:

  1. "I think ..."
  2. "I believe..."
  3. "It is my opinion that..."
Duh! Of course it's your belief or opinion, otherwise you wouldn't be saying it! Those phrases are extraneous, frivolous, useless and a waste of time. They constitute a passive form of communication, expressed from a point of weakness. Speak and write confidently and strongly, not from a position of passivity and vulnerability.

Straight talk is best. Be blunt. Get to the point! No euphemisms, beating around the bush, stammering or vague hints. Shooting straight with your audience commands instant respect. It leaves the least chance of confusion or uncertainty about your points or ideas. This way, you communicate most effectively, you're least likely to be misinterpreted, and the potential is lowered for your words being twisted into something different. As with the above phrases, any form of dancing around an issue -- including hints or euphemisms -- is weak, passive and vulnerable, and a terrible way to communicate. So...

Always communicate from a position of strength and confidence. They're your ideals! You are passionate and knowledgeable about your ideals or you wouldn't have them. Show it.

Don't dance around a problem. Attack it, straight-up and with great force. With regard to defeating the overwhelmingly favored opponent, Jimmy Johnson once wrote that the best way to take down a big ol' gorilla is to smash it right in the mouth. Same goes for most imposing-looking things in life which test your ideals.

Listen and read. Understanding is not possible otherwise. If for no other reason, you cannot debate a viewpoint you don't understand; and you cannot mitigate a threat you don't understand. And you might learn something.

Understand your opposition's views as well as, or better than, they do. Sun Tzu, hundreds of years ago, warned that we must understand an enemy in order to overcome him. Therefore, listen, read and learn all you can regarding ideas you care about, especially opposing viewpoints. It's in your best interest. It's not easy, and it may make your stomach turn to do this. But the reward is worthwhile. If you reach a level of understanding where you can thoroughly argue for the opposing viewpoint, you're now familiar enough with it to be able to tear it to pieces.

Get the facts straight. Nothing -- I mean nothing -- undermines your argument worse than factual error. By contrast, nothing will speed you along faster toward victory for your cause than irrefutable factual correctness.

Get the facts relevant. Just because every hurricane in the Atlantic formed right after somebody in Australia drank a beer doesn't mean they are related!

Accept challenges. Furthermore, encourage them. Your battles and hardships will strengthen you (another principle shared by Christianity and the "Art of War"). Along the way...

Don't be afraid to lose, fail, or to be proven wrong. It happens. I know. I'm a scientist. Being wrong, making errors, failing at a valiant effort, watching somebody else come along and do it better, is part of science, and part of life even for non-scientists. Accept that it will happen and learn from it!

If you don't know the answer, say so in three words: "I don't know." Then move on. Trying to BS an answer or concoct excuses for not having the answer is an open invitation to (justifiable) ridicule and a fast destroyer of credibility. Just tell the truth!

Idealism is the enemy of hypocrisy, and vice versa. As an idealist you will spend your life in a mighty struggle against hypocrites, in any and every cause about which you carry ideals. Many of them will be well-liked and/or -financed, or will sit in positions of power and authority above yours. Be prepared.

Expose hypocrisy at every opportunity. Hypocrisy is like the vampire -- the way to kill it is to bring it to light. Only the sociopath will proceed unrepentently with hypocrisy in the face of its exposure.

Artifice is the playground of the hypocrite. Avoid artifice in any form (such as pretension or pandering) and at all costs. Resist its temptations of convenience. Discourage artifice everywhere you see it.

Never, ever sell out! Money, power, fame or "advancement" will tempt you and every idealist eventually -- often repeatedly. More on "selling out" in another essay devoted exclusively to this topic. The urge to sell out happens to every idealist. [Even Jesus (an idealist to the core!) was tempted intensely in this manner by the master of temptation, and of course, did not give in.]

Never compromise ideals for out of ease, fear, or to avoid trouble. This makes you a hypocrite and invalidates your integrity. Examples include any form of being a chameleon, as I have discussed before in detail. This will make your life much harder, but also far more rewarding! By contrast, an ideal proven to be in error, i.e., shown to be factually incorrect or impossible, needs to be flushed. This leads to...

Rational thinking above all else! Never acquire or adhere to irrational ideals. Doing so means you have no credibility at all. An example is "sticking to your gun" when proven wrong, factually. Another example is spouting off totally unsupported crapola, such as mass governmental conspiracy theories about blowing up the towers, Area-51 alien claims, weather control by the mafia, or any other such kinds of ridiculous, whacked out rubbish. That's not the mark of a strong idealist, but instead of a nutcase in need of a rubber room.

There are absolutes. There is right, and there is wrong. Know the difference. This concept forms the basis for every ideal you've had since childhood, and guides your sense of justice and truth. Those who claim "everything is relative" have no solid foundation because it always floats on the tides of convenience.

You are responsible for everything you say and do, everything you have said and done, and everything you will say and do. Nobody else is to blame for how you choose to react or to handle a situation, because it is your choice. Hold self first, then others, to the same high standard of personal responsibility. Mistakes you've made in the past will be used against you, right or wrong. Admit your mistakes and learn from them. Take careful note of others' mistakes and learn from them. Then...

Forgive yourself and others for mistakes, because neither you nor they are divine and perfect.

Never forget your roots. Your idealism stems from a strong desire for truth and justice. Chances are that some event, or more likely many events, inspired this in your childhood. Close your eyes and take yourself back there often in order to stay well grounded.

Keep and nourish your sense of humor. Much of life is, when you really take a close look, pretty darned funny! Cut up sometimes. Laugh often, including at yourself. You'll be glad you did.

Respect authority...when they earn it. Position or title alone says nothing, and does not, by itself, command respect. It's how that position was attained, and what that person does with it, that will show you whether they are worthy of your respect.

Get a thick skin. You will be ridiculed, denied, mocked, punished by "authority," persecuted by opponents and told to get real. Learn to deal with it.

You will not please everyone, so don't try. The sooner you outgrow the desire to be accepted, to be applauded, or to be popular, the better. Then you can...

Be excellent for its own sake. Excellence is self-evident, intrinsically rewarding and needs no outside applause. Recognition is nice but isn't necessary; in fact, quite often your excellence may go unnoticed, unappreciated or taken for granted. That's their problem, not yours. As long as you've done your best, you don't need any validation from anybody else!

Ask for nothing less than excellence from others. Do not put up with half-_ss, token efforts, shoddiness, laziness or cutting corners. However, in order to do this, you must...

Expect even better from yourself! Demand of yourself a standard at least as high as you set for others, and you will be irreproachable in whatever you may pursue. Nobody's complaint about your standards for them has merit if your standards are even higher for yourself. This is a form of the Golden Rule (doing unto others as you would have done to yourself).

Recognize and reward excellence in others and in yourself. Great accomplishments are exactly that. You have nothing about which to feel guilty in celebrating a goal achieved or a victory won over untruth and injustice.So celebrate, for a little bit, then move on the even better things.

Stand up for, encourage and praise excellence in others. Excellence shouldn't require validation, but encouragement of it is always a good thing.

Speak from the heart, yes, but far more importantly, from the mind. It's OK to have emotions; you're not a robot. But reason should thoroughly dominate emotion in any argument.

Without apologies to Ralph W. Emerson: Inconsistency is the hobgoblin of hypocrites. Nail them on it. Hard.

"Tolerance" works both ways. Folks who accuse you of "intolerance" most often are not being tolerant of your "intolerant" ideas and therefore are hypocrites. Ignore them. Pay attention instead to those who are willing to discuss, deliberate and debate ideas on their merit, and not just dismiss them because they're not comfortable or in agreement with their own.

It's much better to be nice than to play nice. Playing nice is the behavior of a weak, spineless chameleon. Simply be cool by default, except when the occasion requires you to commence combat. And such occasions will arise often for an idealist! Therefore...

Fight hard for what you believe in. If your ideals are not worth fighting for, they're not worth having!

Do not be afraid to make people uncomfortable. Nobody promised anybody a rose garden. Life is not supposed to be comfortable. Sometimes folks need to hear things they don't want to, for their own good. This is important throughout life, whether as a parent, co-worker, supervisor, team director or any other form of leader. True leaders are servants to those they lead, but also know when to take the gloves off and kick butt for the good of the group as a whole.

"Love Thy Enemy" usually means tough love.

Having enemies is a badge of honor. It means you've taken a stand for something. [After all, as the old line goes, if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything.] Having enemies does not mean you're a bad guy or an ___hole. Jesus himself -- the Prince of Peace -- probably has had more enemies through the last two thousand years than anyone! People will be envious and jealous of the successful idealist and will try to cut him/her down at every opportunity. It's the price and nature of being who you are. Deal with it.

Taking criticism personally is for weaklings. Don't do it. Remember: Criticism is intended to help you, even of the critic screws up and doesn't present it that way. It helps to...

Be calm and levelheaded in all dealings. Your enemies will try to frustrate and antagonize you. Don't give them that pleasure. Stay above that level and above the emotion of the moment. Nothing cuts down BS better than looking someone square in the eye and calmly hammering home the point.

Experience always matters -- question is, for better or for worse? Experience alone says nothing about merit. Doing things the wrong way for a long time is worse than having no experience at all! Such people should be avoided whenever possible. By contrast, folks with a long history of doing things the right way are people to be respected and emulated, and from which you should learn.

Credentials matter...if earned. Those who haven't earned their credentials often got there by being liked (by the "right" people) instead of by being excellent. Be on your guard for their artifices and pretensions. Those who have earned their stripes the hard way deserve your respect, whether you like them or not.

Skepticism is healthy and proper and a defining trait of an active mind. As a young(er) idealist you've cut your teeth questioning stupid or nonsensical ideals and practices. Never stop. Even if you don't effect as much change as you want, it lets them know somebody's watching.

Skepticism yes, cynicism no. Understand the difference and don't cross the line, unless you want to end up bitter, ignored, forgotten and prematurely pushing up dandelions.

Complaints without solutions are worthless because they waste everyone's time -- yours and the reader or listener, and get nothing accomplished! For every complaint you make, have at least one solution ready.

Solutions should be simple. This way they can be understood by all who have the ability to adopt them. Ironically, many people often hide behind "complexity" because it is a simple cop-out to avoid dealing straightforwardly with a problem. Call them on it and offer alternatives in the form of blunt, unambiguous, pragmatic solutions. [Notice I did not say "easy" solutions. "Easy" and "simple" are not synonyms. The simple conceptual solution, in reality, often is the most difficult to make happen, but still the best in the long run.]

Foresight is your friend. When you can see past tomorrow, past this year, 50 years into the future, you'll begin to clearly see those solutions to which others are blind in their shortsightedness. Foresight and patience go hand in hand, which is why...

Patience is a virtue. Battles often must be measured in years or even decades to fruitful conclusion. And sometimes you must simply outlast or outlive a problem that won't go away and refuses to yield to your solutions. Maybe it's a solid piece of research that you can't seem to get reviewers to understand...keep on revising. Maybe it's a boss who hires simpering butt-kissers of lesser qualification than yourself...outlast him, or effect change over his head. Maybe it's a stupid bureaucratic rule of some kind that seems to take forever to get changed...keep hammering away on it. You can't usually work miracles on such situations overnight, but you can still prevail in the end, with patience and unwavering conviction.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly: Give credit where credit is due. Even those of us who have largely "bootstrapped" our way along still had help and gained inspiration and strength from somebody, somewhere (how about God himself?). Acknowledge it, and thank them (including God) for it.

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