Spirit At Work -- Hope vs Cynicism

Dec. 21, 2004
The odds are in your favor.

You are two years old and your mother has invited Julie and her mother for lunch. You offer to share your apple with Julie, who is your best pal, but she surprises you by grabbing it for keeps. Your internal computer drive starts its first entry: Don't trust Julie. A subprogram is created: Don't share: You may lose everything. This data is filed in a shiny new space in your heart in a new directory labeled "Cynicism." A lifetime of similar entries will follow. H. L. Mencken said, "A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin." Cynicism is the triumph of pragmatism over hope. Cynicism is the polar opposite of mysticism, which is the capacity to retain a sense of wonder at the marvels of life-seeing miracles in everything, every day. A cynic not only learns bitter lessons from the past but is disappointed about the future before understanding it. From a lifetime of experiences, the cynical person learns to distrust, to be wary, and to suspect the worst in people and life. Over time, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cynics are demoralizing leaders. All this is reinforced by our educational experiences, during which we are taught to identify and solve increasingly intricate problems-a sort of heroic act of good over evil. To ensure we "really get it," our teachers set us a final exam: Solve the following problem, in the time allotted, with the perfect solutions. If we pass this final test of our cynic-virility, we graduate proudly from the educational system as full-fledged, accredited adults. Years later we sit in our corporate meetings as virtual saboteurs, practicing the skills we strived so hard to learn, shooting down the ideas of creative souls. As we expose the weakness in each freshly germinated suggestion, we further hone the skills of problem-solving we learned so well. And thus the cynic triumphs, the creative thinker shrivels, and inspiration evaporates. In reality, only about 2% of the people who touch our lives will disappoint or let us down. Ninety-eight percent of our human experiences will be gifts of love and good intentions. But a cynic learns disproportionately from the 2%, building an entire world view based on these few experiences that will rule his or her life. Logically and mathematically this does not make sense. We should learn our lessons in life in proportion to the shades of our experiences. But many humans don't work that way. We may sit on stoves often, but we will sit on a hot one only once. We are programmed to "be careful." Thus we learn to avoid unnecessary disasters. But this learning conflicts with other values that we are urged to adopt, such as adapting to change, risk taking, courage, daring, audacity, original thinking, and inventiveness-all, we are told, hallmarks of inspirational leaders. But a cynic inspires no one. So how do we square these circles if we are to inspire others? What sets inspirational leaders apart from others is that they have overcome one of the most difficult hurdles in life. They have acquired the necessary courage to unlearn, to retrieve and delete some of the earliest life-lesson programs stored on the internal hard drive in their hearts. They have successfully erased programs such as "most people will hurt you," "people are lazy," "people will cheat if you let them," and "life is about being tough and winning." They have restored the programs we all are given at birth, including "catch people doing something right," "people want to love and be loved," "people love their work," "it is natural to succeed," "when you share, you will be rewarded tenfold," and the new Platinum Rule, "Do unto others what they want you to do to them." The new-story leaders understand the value of learning from the 98% of our life's experiences, accepting that they can expect to be wrong 2% of the time. These are odds to live for! Such leaders create organizations where hope triumphs over cynicism every day-at least 98% of the time. Lance Secretan is an advisor to leaders, a public speaker, and a recipient of the 1999 International Caring Award, presented by the Caring Institute, Washington. Author of nine books, including Inspirational Leadership, Destiny, Calling and Cause (1999, CDG Books), Secretan can be reached at [email protected]

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