After many years of wanting to do so, I’ve finally begun writing my first book, to be called ‘Pragmatic Idealism.’ Instead of the traditional model of a writer toiling away on his work in a dark corner of his office, I’m going to take a different approach: every day, I will post my writing from the day. What I hope is that you, o reader, will provide feedback and suggestions. THat way, this will be a kind of collaborative, open-source process. What could be more aligned with my core beliefs? This is exciting–let’s get started!
Pragmatic Idealism – An Introduction
When I was little, my family lived on a Cul-de-sac near the top of a steep road that wound its way into the Santa Monica mountains in Los Angeles, CA. From my balcony I could see long, straight streets point like arrows across the San Fernando Valley and into a distance I could only fill with my imagination. I remember one weekend I became deeply interested in paper airplanes—I believe my mom had even bought me a paper airplane design book—and I proceeded to design and build a number of different models. Armed with this veritable Air Force of childish delight, I stationed myself behind a gate overlooking a steep drop and began to launch plane after plane into the sky; after each throw I would watch my creation mingle with the wind and excitedly count every second of tenuous flight. By the end of the day my arm was aching from so many throws, my eyes stinging from staring up into the sun.
Even though I am only 28, I already find it hard to recall all the moments in my life, the variables that, taken together, comprise the equation of who I am today. I suppose it would be easier to identify a single, seminal moment, but reality is more subtle, more nuanced than that. Did I decide to commit myself to following my dreams and battling injustice because of a day, 18 years ago, when I transmuted paper into possibility? Was it when, at age 14, I was first introduced to Romantic poetry and philosophy? Or what about the fact that my dad, an engineer, and my mom, a university professor, have infused my life with a love of science, literature, ideas, technology, language? Does it matter?
For whatever reason, the thing of which I am most proud is that I am living exactly the life I wish to lead. There is nothing I would change; no regrets; no doubts about my path. And of all the things I’ve done—however few—and all the things I hope to do—however many—I believe my greatest contribution to this world is and always will be the passion that drives me.
This book is based on a simple assertion and a daring hypothesis. First, that there are far too many problems in the world, and far too few people pursuing their dreams. And second, that if more people pursued their dreams, there would be far fewer problems. Over the past decade, I have watched in agony as, time-and-again, brilliant, exuberant, kind and wonderful young people go from idealism to ‘realism’ to ‘pragmatism’ and, ultimately, cynicism. I call this the Meatgrinder Paradigm, which is the subject of chapter three. And the more I’ve thought about this tragic dynamic, the more I’ve come to see that giving up on our ideals is more than an abdication of a fulfilling life: it is also a barrier to creating the world we would all like to see, one that is free of poverty, environmental degradation, human rights abuses…
I’ve long been a restless soul, and I’ve long wanted to channel my boundless energy into the container of a great and important thing. Even when I was in my early adolescence, I would sit in my room and long to undertake something, anything, but I could never get over the fear of starting or the mystery of how to collect a nebulous desire and make it concrete, tangible, malleable, real. I tried several approaches—training to be a professional tennis player, riding my bicycle across the United States, studying abroad in Spain for a year—before I hit on two satisfying approaches: starting an organization, Capital Good Fund, and writing poetry, essays and, now, a book.
In case you haven’t noticed, there is quite a streak of grandiosity and hyperbole in me. I am not the least bit interested in writing something that will be useful for our day and age, but only our day and age. Sure, utility is well and good; a paper airplane that flies for 45 seconds is an accomplishment. But why stop there when what we build has the potential to orbit the earth in perpetuity—attracting the eyes of astronomers and dreams for centuries to come? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in his poem A Psalm of Life, wrote that “Lives of great men all remind us/We can make our lives sublime/And, departing, leave behind us/Footprints on the sands of time.”
Still, the question remains: how do we create those footprints, and what do we want them to mean? A great life starts with the lofty but takes shape with the mundane; the same is true for social change. For every Martin Luther King giving an ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, there are 10,000 passionate changemakers focusing on logistics, marketing, planning, accounting, legal, human relations and the myriad other things needed to create a movement. There is a significant difference between serving others, say by ladling soup, and creating an organization, a movement that not only ladles soup to tens of thousands, but also works to eliminate the reason for there being a soup kitchen to begin with. In other words, the initial impulse—to serve others, to do something meaningful—is essential. But without the second, much longer step of creating and carrying out a thought out strategy, that impulse will die the death of a ‘dream deferred,’ to paraphrase Langston Hughes. I explore this difference in Chapter 6, ‘How it Happens.’
The good news, and the point I’m going to make time and again, is that there is a magical intersection between social change and personal fulfillment. Equally importantly, the notion that you can maintain a boundary between what your day job is and your deepest convictions—say by making money and then donating it, or working long days and volunteering your time on weekends—is outdated and, as we’ll see in chapter 4, utterly untenable.