In a recent visit to the UK, Barack Obama urge his youthful audience to “reject pessimism and cynicism and take a longer, more optimistic view of history and the part that you can play in it”.
There are of course no shortage of things to be cynical about. There are so many things that can easily make my eyes roll about the way the world is right now. However cynicism, together with it’s sister-in-arms sarcasm, need to be handled with great care. If you are not careful they can overwhelm hope and make matters worse than we perceive them to be.
I used to be incredibly sarcastic, and dare I say I think I was pretty good at it. There is nothing that makes me laugh harder than a well timed sarcastic jibe at somebody overvaluing their own self-importance. However with the grey hairs, and especially through becoming a parent, I’ve realised that I don’t enjoy sarcasm and cynicism nearly as much as I once did. In fact, I increasingly get frustrated with the self-indulgence of negativity.
“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence.” Oscar Wilde
When it comes to the nebulous and overused concept of innovation, I have realised that it’s simply not possible without a spark of hope. If we allow negativity and cynicism to creep in then of course innovation won’t be possible. Rather it is necessary to suspend disbelief, even if only momentarily to take a step into the unknown and see what happens, requiring courage and faith, and the support and encouragement of others.
And yet we should also be careful not to go too far in the other direction and swallow the whole positive thinking schtick unthinkingly. If we are genuinely trying to do something new and make stuff better, then it is inevitable that we will make mistakes. If not then we are probably not trying hard enough. And it’s only through the audacity of hope that we will stand up and try again and apply whatever lessons we learned that last time. Churchill said that “success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”, and I think the same is true of innovation.
And it is perhaps symbolic that Obama made his comments whilst in the UK. It is possibly the global epicentre of sarcasm, and yet also weirdly a wonderful crucible of innovation where it is also possible to suspend the jokes and incubate and tolerate what was previously deemed to be impossible.
“There are no facts, only interpretations” Nietzsche
All innovation efforts are self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believe it won’t work, then one way or another you will undermine it, either intentionally or inadvertently, and of course you’ll be proved right. Whereas if you believe that it could work, then it just might. I for one would like to sacrifice a few more cheap laughs, and remain hopeful that change for the better is possible.