“I am a pragmatic-idealist.” This is the dichotomy of a tagline I use to describe my life/business philosophy. The result of a spontaneous response at a dinner party, this phrase has proven to be not only a catchy one-liner, but to my surprise it has become a core value, as well.
Unbeknownst to me when I sat down to write this post, this phrase was first presented by philosopher and psychologist John Dewey in 1917. In addition to discovering the phrase and philosophy had just celebrated its 100th anniversary and that I was late to the party, I learned that my intention, and therefore definition, was very different from other interpretations.
Apparently, some define Pragmatism and Idealism in absolutes. They are of the belief that being practical (Pragmatic) and having moral principles (Idealism) are in opposition, and therefore, one must choose between the two. Others see the two as polarities on a continuum that one moves between. In either case, one option is optimized at the expense of another.
I have a different perspective in mind when I use the phrase. To me, pragmatism and idealism are not mutually exclusive nor are they polar extremes that we must balance. I have always seen pragmatism and idealism as complimentary components of a single effort. Pragmatism relates to the realities/limitations of our current circumstances and is simply a component of our strategy for moving forward – It is the path. I view idealism as being a quality of the goal or vision – It is the destination.
In other words, Pragmatic-Idealism represent the two components of a journey.
Being pragmatic, the path, is how we navigate to the destination, the ideal outcome. This path of pragmatism, like any path on a journey is made up of a series of choices. Perhaps a longer route is required because of the steepness of the terrain or because of the resources we have available, i.e., will we walk, drive or fly? Occasionally, we may be delayed and need to layover due to weather. Regardless, it is our approach that should be modified, not the destination.
Idealism, the destination, represents what would be possible if our best efforts and intentions were realized. It is conscious planning that mandates we think in terms that are broad and inclusive, taking into consideration our community and, in some cases, even the global and moral implications of our actions. It necessitates that we reflect on the full impact of our decisions and look beyond the metrics of short-term economic gain and the narrow concerns of self-interest.
Consequently, the destination does not have to be pragmatic, only our day-to-day pursuit of the ideal must lean its direction. Unforeseen obstacles may, at times, delay us from arriving at our original goal, the ideal. But, I would argue that we got closer to the ideal and are likely to have achieved more because we set our original sights on the optimum outcome.