Seeking Out the Curious Idealists

One question I've been asked in a wide range of job interviews is whether or not I consider myself an optimist. Talk about a softball. What person says, "Actually, I'm a pessimist and there's a good chance my ingrained negativity will cause irreparable damage to your organization's culture?" If you have answered the question that way, two points for honesty, but I'm guessing you didn't get a callback.

Essentially, it's a throw-away question for both interviewer and interviewee, as it tells an organization very little about the candidate. Its value in an interview situation aside, I've been thinking about the question recently through the lens of optimism's place in the professional world. I've come to the conclusion that we must aspire to be more than optimists in order to drive the change we want to see in our work and our personal lives.

Let me first say a few words in support of optimists, those wonderful people we can always count on to brighten our days and to remind us to maintain perspective in every situation. Merriam-Webster defines optimism as "hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something." Confidence and hopefulness can go a long way, and I think both would appear on a list of shared traits for a large number of successful and happy people (depending on your subjective definition of each term). Frankly, these are the type of people who I want to be around, especially in my personal life.

And yet, I've found that optimism, while an important ingredient, is far from the only personality trait necessary to overcome the resistance to change and aggressive adherence to the status quo many of us encounter in our professional lives. Perhaps the biggest struggle optimists face is in manufacturing continued confidence in the face of stark realities - in other words, keeping the faith. One of the most deflating things we can experience is to see an optimist's flame of hope diminish or completely die out.

In my experience, an optimist's aspirational worldviews are often countered with sobering truths by the realists, those who accept the situation as it is and adjust to deal with it accordingly. Importantly, a realist is different from a pessimist, in that they see things as they are without expecting or believing that the worst will come to pass.

So should we all ditch optimism in favor of realism? While, like optimism, I believe realism has an important place in a professional environment, it alone is also not enough. I've found the greatest issue for realists to be that, because they are so focused on the present and the current state of things, it can be difficult for them to drive large-scale change forward.

Realists are wonderful at helping keep an organization grounded and focused on what the company "can" do (as opposed to making impulsive decisions based on what it "should" do), but the adjustments they are willing to make or champion are often incremental instead of transformational.

My theories on optimists and realists in the professional environment are generalizations based on my experience, and I'm certain there are exceptions to these rules. That said, I think it's time to add a new personality profile to the professional mix: The Curious Idealist.

Curiosity, the strong desire to learn or know something, is central to the ability to advance change, as it incites us to ask the all-important "Why?" and "Why Not?" questions, regardless of the political or cultural barriers to doing so. Irish novelist and poet James Stephens perhaps said it best in that "curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will." To be successful change agents, we must first put aside our fear. Thus, curiosity can help the realist move beyond what is, to what can or could be.

In the same way, I believe that idealism builds upon optimism, adding the formation and pursuit of ideals to the hope and confidence that a better future can exist. A realist might say that an idealist does not want to face reality, and will thus always be searching for something that does not and will never exist. In response, the idealist might say that it's better to pursue what could be and fail, than to have never pursued it in the first place. It comes down to personal preference and worldview - one is not "correct" or better than the other.

In terms of those I want to work with, I prefer the idealists, as their vision of a better place infuses the workplace with continued passion and helps avoid the ever-present specter of stagnation. For reference, the ranks of well-known idealists (based on the standard definition) include Oprah Winfrey, Eleanor Roosevelt, Alexander Hamilton, Charlotte and Emily Bronte and Abraham Maslow (creator of the ubiquitous and phenomenally useful Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs). Like curiosity, idealism alone can be powerful, but combined, the two are a force to be reckoned with.

The Curious Idealist will not just accept the status quo, but will work to improve it. They will not just work to "fit" into a culture, but to contribute to it. They will not be afraid to ask the questions that need to be asked to begin to build a different future. They will never stop learning as they continue the pursuit of their vision, driving constant improvement along the way. When they suffer failure, their curiosity will sustain them, and when their curiosity wanes, their idealism will give them a second wind.

And perhaps most importantly, the Curious Idealists will push us when we give into the temptation to stop pushing ourselves.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was one of the great idealists (and, I would make the case, Curious Idealists). Photo Credit: "A statue of Gandhi is unveiled in Parliament Square in London, 14 March 2015" by Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Gandhi statue).

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was one of the great idealists (and, I would make the case, Curious Idealists). Photo Credit: "A statue of Gandhi is unveiled in Parliament Square in London, 14 March 2015" by Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Gandhi statue).