I sat down recently with a mentor whom I admire for his ability to dissect how the world works.
He proposed that there are essentially three types of people in the world: Pessimists, Realists and the Impracticals.
The Pessimists, as their name suggests, look at the world and see hardship and defeat. Typically risk-adverse, they are frightened by new ideas that goes against the grain. Instead of assessing a situation as it presents itself, they have the habit of projecting into the future the various ways things have failed in the past. If a Pessimist were a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, they would generally admit that they’ll end up being a 4 at some point. And like a walking, breathing self-fulfilling prophecy, they are usually right. They are very proud of being correct about failing.
The Realists, on the other hand, are very grounded people. They see reality as something that is tried and true. If they are a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, they might set their sights on 6… because Realists are, well, realistic. How they are perceived by the world is a big deal to the Realist. To protect their egos and to save face, they usually set small goals for themselves. If they fail to reach one goal, they will set a smaller one the next time. Since realists are by far the most abundant group in our society, their message is also the most prevalent. One generation of Realists passes their message onto the next, and they to the next. To the Realists, the status quo is their safety blanket, for this environment is where they are comfortable.
And then we have the Impracticals. They are a strange breed. Realists and Pessimists think these guys are off their rockers. To most of the world, they are considered “unreasonable”, “unrealistic”, or “crazy” even. They challenge “truths”. They question authority. When 99% of everyone is running one way, they are not afraid to run the opposite direction. Given a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, they would aim for 12. Of course, they almost never make it to 12. When the Impracticals fall short of their goal, the Realists, enforcers of “reality”, tries to convince the Impracticals they should just be satisfied with a 6. The Pessimists, proud of the fact that they’ve, once again, been “correct”- ridicules the Impracticals with I-told-you-so’s.
In short, “Impracticals” catch a lot of flack for missing their mark. People roll their eyes at their audacity and their ostensible arrogance. Why can’t they just be like everyone else? Content with the status quo? Conform to general opinion?
Before we arm ourselves with tar and feather, consider this lesser known fact: Impracticals are also known by other names. Idealists.Visionaries.
Even though they may almost never hit their mark, in reaching for 12, Visionaries end up an 8 or 9 instead. Sadly, Realists and Pessimists often fail to appreciate how valuable this is. By measure of sheer innovation and results, Visionaries make in leaps and bounds what others are afraid to take in steps. Whenever Visionaries are out to create something extraordinary, they usually disrupt the status quo, the social norm, the perceived limits … and Pessimists and Realists do not like that very much. The kicker? It is the Visonary’s responsibility to convince them. Maybe not today. Maybe not even next year. Or the next decade. Or in the Visionary’s lifetime (think of how many Greats are recognized posthumously but ignored in their era).
The Visionaries throughout history who have made great strides in business, science or the humanities have all been considered, at some point, as impractical. Where would we be if no one dared to prove that the world is round, that racial harmony could be fought for and that personal computers could be a reality?
As Mahatma Ghandi said,
“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”
The Makings of A Visionary
So what makes these people tick? Having observed a few, I suggest that successful Visionaries:
i) have a strong identity that can withstand the criticisms and calls to question of their judgment and ability
ii) do not aim to satisfy everybody (much like artists, they produce for the select few who get it, not for the masses that don’t)
iii) embody unbridled passion for what they do.
iv) work damn hard, and then some
Who is the Good, the Bad & the Ugly?
We were all born with a bit of Visionary inside. But to live as one, there is a price to pay.
To be sure, we need Pessimists. Some one who will think about winter all summer. Somebody to be thinking about the worst-case scenarios. And we also need Realists, some one to check off boxes, put their heads down, mute out the grand schemes and get sh*t done.
But the world will always be a secret fan of the Visionary.
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