Skip to main content Adam Avenir

Apparitions of idealism and the ghosts of true self

It’s really easy to see why people get cynical, stop caring, shrink their world, build walls, and exponentialize the number of people they couldn’t possibly give a flying f * about.

The past year I’ve just felt this constant beating drum urging me to give up and stop caring. At least to stop caring about so much stuff.

Buuuuuut that’s not really doable for me.

The counselor I’ve been seeing thinks this is a problem for some reason. (Hah, what does she know! (I’m actually quite sure she knows a lot and is probably right. (Unfortunately, I’ve not figured out how to not think this way yet! (Yes, that sentence could have been written with fewer ‘nots’ and would’ve made more sense, but we’re here inside the fourth Russian stacking doll parenthetical, so let’s you and me just go with it and get the hell out of this paragraph with our dignity intact.))))

My pinned tweet for quite a long time has been: "Never come to conclusions about people. We are all in process. Be kind. I wish to keep these words in my head at all times." I have a difficult time writing people off. Even when they’ve hurt me multiple times.

I have a similar sentiment when it comes to the needs of the world—something derived from my belief that many problems exist because everyone thinks they’re someone else’s problems, and few of us understand that our behaviors (or lack thereof) and our privileged ignorance (willful or not) of the impact of those behaviors may in fact be the root cause. And thus, my aim is to remain open to evaluating and re-evaluating what the impact of my action and inaction is, and attempt to adjust my behavior accordingly.

Do you have any idea how hard this is? (Yes, of course you do. I know a lot of you fight this same kind of thing.)

Such ideals are fully irrational.

I know that I can’t possibly have enough patience to maintain openness and warmth to everyone, nor can I address every single element of my complicity in the problems of my company, my circle of friends, communities I’m part of, or the world. (I’ve at least got a good shot of doing it within my family—and that gives me a lot of peace sometimes.)

People are hard. Ideals are hard. Life is hard. Being a person who gives a shit and stubbornly insists on doing things differently is hard.

But what else is there? And is the "else" even life?

I am a person of gut-level values and gut-wrenching ideals. I want to live up to them, even if I know I have no chance of doing so. Settling for less brings me peace and unrest. And when it comes to something I care deeply about, I absolutely can’t stand not to do better than my best.

But I also have learned (the very hard way—as usual) that my unreasonable expectations for myself spill on to others as well. (This doesn’t make me feel very good about myself, either, and tends to drive me to remove myself entirely from others, eager to avoid causing harm.)

Certainly a big part of this struggle is simply my personality.

Folks on our team started talking about Meyers-Briggs profiles recently and shared a site with a lot of information on various types. I’m an INFP, and I noted this line on the opening page of their profile:

…spread too thinly, they’ll run out of energy, and even become dejected and overwhelmed by all the bad in the world that they can’t fix.

I read that and thought, "Ha! ‘Overwhelmed by all the bad in the world I can’t fix’ could very well be my Twitter bio!"


I’ve been reading Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak and there’s this passage in it:

Engineering involves more than telling materials what they must do. If the engineer does not honor the nature of the steel or the wood or the stone, their failure will go well beyond aesthetics: the bridge or the building will collapse and put lives in peril.

The human self also has a nature, limits as well as potentials. If you seek vocation without understanding the material you are working with, what you build with your life will be ungainly and may well put lives in peril—your own, and some of those around you.

"Faking it" in the service of high values is no virtue and has nothing to do with vocation. It is an ignorant, sometimes arrogant, attempt to override one’s nature, and it will always fail. I stopped when I read this.

Palmer says that he spent a good portion of his early adult life doing just this—trying to shape his life after the values and ideals he aspired to and I realized that’s most certainly been me.

I stepped down as CEO after 7 years leading a company I founded because I didn’t even know where I wanted it to go—I just wanted it to reflect values that matter to me and I very badly wanted to make the people who were part of it me happy. I created something with so strong of a why (for me, at least) that I couldn’t even answer the what.

Shortly after the above passage, Palmer mentions the well-known quote from Frederick Buechner, where he defines vocation as "the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need." He says:

Buechner’s definition starts with the self and moves toward the needs of the world: it begins, wisely, where vocation begins—not in what the world needs (which is everything!) but in the nature of the human self, in what brings the self joy. I have so strongly invested in, pursued, and expanded the set of ideals that I hold, that I’ve often found myself out of control of my own life in many circumstances, enslaved by my own ideals.

The other night, I was trying to think about the difference between values and ideals—and I think ideals are just values with a good imagination.

I have an intensely vivid imagination. I’m haunted by ghostly hallucinations overlaying reality—seeing the "better" that’s anxiously waiting someone with enough courage to release it from the prison of the status quo.

But those ghosts aren’t friendly. They’re beautiful but harshly critical creatures. It’s overdramatic to say it, but those apparitions are sometimes torturous.

So, yes, I absolutely know I need to release some of my idealism (somehow?). I am simply not capable of being and doing and living up to the things that I’ve wanted and attempted to shape my life around. And I know that somewhere buried under the weight of those ideals is my true self, waiting to thrive.

But I know I don’t want to lose my idealism.

A few years ago, I co-organized a conference with Paul Campbell called Brio—and in describing it, one of the phrases I wrote was: "We aim to provoke and sustain your idealism."

I know that others’ idealism and dreams always provoke and sustain my own.

I had a conversation the other day with Liz McEnaney, who is in the midst of leading a project and a community who are creatively renovating a massive century-old riverboat which will take New York Cityfolk upriver in order to help revitalize the Hudson Valley.

I talked to Brian Bailey a few weeks ago about his vision for creating a sustainable online community with Uncommon in Common and he said that in designing the community, they often ask what the right way to do everything is—and intentionally choose not to accept the default path posed by most social networks, but reevaluate every decision, even something as mundane as subscriber account renewal and handling failed payments.

It was an absolute gift to be able to talk to Liz and Brian. Like a giant gulp of water for my parched soul.

And at one moment, what both Liz and Brian said echoed sentiments that I’ve felt: it is extremely hard to do new, hard, different things based on ideals that run counter to the status quo.

I’m coincidentally just finished helping organize a conference with the tag line, "because the status quo isn’t good enough." At &yetConf, our theme centered on the intersections of technology with humanity, meaning, and ethics—focused on people who believe the world should be better and are determined to make it so.

We did it because we believe these are really important conversations, and we feel like creating an artistic experience to surround the event will make them all the more meaningful and impactful. We created a choose-your-own-adventure story experience for the conference, had a play that ran through the event, a ton of original music, a diverse variety of artists involved, and a visit to the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor to add some gravity to the questions the conference asked. (The art itself was simply a tool in service of better connecting people and helping them engage with the theme. As someone said to me recently, "Art has a way of getting inside you without having to be invited.")

My company’s last event, RealtimeConf, was kind of wild, to put it lightly. And this one followed right in step with that one. But it was more difficult than anything I’ve ever done, and all along it really caused me to feel more isolated in my idealism than ever.

But why even do it the hard way?

Several years ago, after running a few events, I had a moment where I suddenly found myself saying, "I don’t want to just make events. I want to create gatherings that profoundly and positively affect the lives of the people who attend them—events that empower people to change their world and connect them to people who will encourage them along that extremely difficult journey."

Every time I’ve attempted to do that, it has proven to be one of the most difficult undertakings I have ever attempted. I can say the same applies to the teams of people I’ve collaborated with on those events.

If you want to do something that goes against the grain, expect to get rubbed raw doing it. I surely have! And it never seems to get easier.

I’ve received more criticism for this event than anything I’ve ever been part of making. And, dammit, maybe I should have given up, but I didn’t. Cos that’s not something I know how to do very well.

A few months ago, I was completely overwhelmed with this feeling and I posted this tweet rant:

Try to do things beyond categorization that are as hard to describe as they are to pull off and there will always be pressure to tame them.

And every moment you’ll have to decide whether to do the hard work of defying categorization or just pack it in and be like everyone else.

If you choose to do it differently, you will be—many times—utterly alone and everyone’s expectations will make you feel like a fool.

People celebrate creativity and uniqueness when the work is done and the artist buried—rarely before, rarely during.

Do it anyway.

And I stand by those sentiments and that stubbornness.

I don’t know how to release myself from the endless onslaught of ideals that just keep hanging around, in my face. I don’t know how to silence the ghosts of "we can do better" that haunt me.

But I know that in order to be myself, I must wholeheartedly embrace at least few of them, and hold on to them for dear life.