I Told You So!
“Scratch the surface of most cynics and you find a frustrated idealist — someone who made the mistake of converting ideals into expectations.”
― Peter M. Senge
As I was applying for the Acumen Regional Fellowship in 2015, I encountered an interesting reflection in the application we were asked to fill where we were tasked with picking a line from the Acumen Manifesto that resonated with us and explore how it was linked with our work. The line I picked was: “the radical idea of creating hope in a cynical world.” My work was focused on building leadership capacity for systems shifting partnerships in the public sector, which entailed a lot of conversations around individual and collective blockages preventing systems change. My gender equality advocacy work, also entailed shifting perspectives around the role and contribution of women and the potential to build a gender equal world.
Both engagements required, at least in my view, the radical idea of hope. That line in the manifesto stood out and still stands out for me even today as it embodies the struggle to make a choice each day between seeing the world for what it is and resigning to its difficult currents. Or seeing the world for what it is and riding the currents of what it can be.
A process model I use a lot in workshops to facilitate personal and organizational change – Theory U by Otto Scharmer – affirms the individual as the most important leadership tool. In Scharmer and his teammates two-decade extensive action research at MIT to develop Theory U, they interviewed global leaders exceling in their fields on how they innovate. A key element of their innovation included retreating for a period of time to distil their understanding of the world and the problem they were attempting to solve before jumping to a solution.
This retreat to the ‘Self’ involved meeting and mastering what Scharmer refers to as the three enemies – one of which is the Voice of Cynicism. According to Scharmer and his colleagues, the Voice of Cynicism blocks the gate to an open heart, which manifest as different emotional acts of distancing. That voice is cynical about the outcome and intention of other humans. It is not without any prior history that the Voice of Cynicism emerges. In fact, clearly seeing the world for what it is, predicated on similar experiences is prone to make the best of us resign to cynicism. However, cynicism can also be our defence mechanism. Our shield from facing probable disappointment lest we put our guard down and believe a little that perhaps this one time around, it might be different. Cynicism is a stagnant energy. And energy follows attention. Where we sow seeds, there we may reap them. Hope on the other hand, can be a catalyst for action and change.
This is not to say let’s throw caution to wind. Rather, a call to nurture the radical idea of hope where we can, for in the absence of hope, we are stagnant and docile.
If cynicism is protecting our critical thinking and knowledge of the past, and hope is waiting for a future unlike what we know to be born, but which may not meet our expectations, it will still be okay if we don’t revel in the joy of confirming our caution and saying “I Told You So” when that future doesn’t materialize, for in the fields of hope, we are planting what we may not reap in our generation, but grow it will eventually!