Social change work is hard and frustrating and wonderful and terrible; it is also, at times, funny, quirky and just plain fascinating. With this blog we hope to capture all that goes into what we do at Capital Good Fund, and we invite you to join the conversation!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Pragmatic Idealism

A central aspect of my job and life as a social entrepreneur, social crusader and poet is to inspire and empower others to follow their dreams and, in turn, better the world.  Indeed, one of my favorite sayings is that there is nothing more beautiful than a life well-lived.  Unfortunately, there are so many obstacles to living the lives we wish to lead: societal and parental pressure, the imperative to earn money to pay off student loans, a lack of supports and examples for those seeking to do bold things, and so on.  

As a result, far too few people do what it is they truly want to do, and this has horrible consequences for the individual and for society as a whole.  After all, in the year 2013 we can no longer justify social or environmental injustice with the argument that we don’t have the capacity to solve them: we have all the technology, the money, the wealth, the examples and the business models needed to eradicate poverty, avoid climate change, and so on.  What’s lacking, then, is the will to do so. And as I often argue, there is a significant disconnect between our will and our desire--for how many of us want to see a better world?  I’d venture that the vast majority of us long for that.  So what’s the problem? Simply put, because we feel incapable of living up to our ideals we often pursue careers that, at best, are neutral and, at worst, negatively impact the world.

The more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve realized that the most pernicious paradigm in the world is the transformation our youth experience--a transformation from idealist to ‘realist,’ which is really a euphemism for a “person that has given up on his or her ideals.”  Given how strongly I feel about this issue, and after much thought, I’ve created what I call the ‘Framework for Pragmatic Idealism.’  

The Framework consists of four (4) core elements: 1) Expertise does not equal success.  2) The advice of others is rarely useful.  3) Ladling soup is an antiquated model for social change.  And 4) Social change and personal fulfillment exist at the intersection of cynicism and idealism.

1)  Expertise.  I always like to point out that Jesus was a carpenter, Gandhi was a lawyer, and the people that brought the global economy to its knees were considered the best and brightest minds on Wall St.  In other words, your expertise is neither correlated with your ability to do good nor you likelihood of being successful.  And not to put myself in that pantheon--either the good or the bad--but it is worth noting that when I was in high school my goal was to drop out and become a professional tennis player, my bachelor’s degree is in Spanish, my masters is in environmental studies, and even though I have no background in economics, finance, math or entrepreneurship, I run one of the fastest-growing financial service non-profits in the United States.

I believe that none of this is accidental, for when you are an expert you ‘know’ what can and cannot be done.  Muhammad Yunus, the ‘father’ of microfinance, was not a banker, but rather an economist who didn’t know that lending to the poor was impossible; as a result, he was willing to try it, to experiment, and to think creatively.  And lo and behold, he won a Nobel Peace Prize and his work has inspired an industry that now serves a quarter of a billion poor people in the planet.

 In fact, what we need are not experts but leaders.  And what a leader has to do is synthesize seemingly disparate bits of information, come up with groundbreaking ideas, and inspire others to buy into his or her vision.  There is no shortage of people that know how to do certain things, be it accounting, creating an algorithm, doing graphic design or translating from one language to another; but the role of those of us who have had the privilege of a good education is to be bold leaders.

2)  The advice of others.  Thoreau said it best when he said “Age is no better qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost.  One may almost doubt if the wisest man (or woman) has learned anything of absolute value by living.”  Far too often, those with experience and expertise counsel us to avoid a given path, and far too often their advice has more to do with their own shortcomings than what is best for you.  Especially for those that did not follow their dreams, it’s all too easy for them to denigrate your goals.  So I highly recommend taking what most people say with a grain of salt, if not altogether ignoring it.  Want to know how to determine if you should heed someone’s council? It’s simple. If someone says “You can’t do it,” they are useless.  If someone says, “Okay, if you want to do that, here’s what you need to think about...” then listen! 

3)  Ladling soup. It used to be that if you wanted to act on your desire to do good in the world, you would have your day job, and then you would volunteer on the side--ladling soup at a soup kitchen, mentoring a child, etc.  And it also used to be that if you were idealistic, your role model was someone like Gandhi or Mother Theresa.  The problem with role models that are saintly ascetics is that hardly anyone wants to or can live like that: who wants to give up love, sex, romance, good food and comfort to live like a monk?  And when our role models are beyond our reach, all we can do is admire them without being able to emulate them.

In fact, the new role models for social change are people like Bill and Melinda Gates, Elon Musk, Geoffrey Canada and Muhammad Yunus--people who earn a good salary, have families and friends and so on, but whose daily work is to fight for good.  What’s more, they are innovating in ways that are responsive to the challenges of the 21st century--soup kitchens are important, but they don’t solve the problem of hunger.  Initiatives that are data driven, cutting edge and scalable DO solve problems, and that’s why there is a wonderful convergence in the 21st century between the people we can emulate and our ability to effect change on a massive scale.  There is no excuse not to pursue our dreams, as there are so many career-compatible avenues--non-profits, government, social enterprise, think tanks, etc.

4)  The balance found in pragmatic idealism.  So where does this all leave us?   On the one hand, pure idealism is detached from reality, and on the other hand, cynicism is useless.  Over the years, I’ve come to call myself a pragmatic idealist, which means that I couple my lofty aspiration to practical steps I can take to achieve them.  For every innovation that is earth-shattering, there are a thousand little innovations that make it happen--and these are not ‘sexy.’  No, these innovations are detail oriented; they are business models, training modules, infrastructure development, organizational culture, operational efficiency, marketing strategies and the like.

Only once you determine to never stray from your core beliefs, while at the same time constantly looking for new ways of bringing them into being in the real world, can you be a true agent of change.  Not only that, but pragmatic idealism is the best way of avoiding the inevitable fatigue and ‘burnout’ associated with social change leaders.  This is true because you are always tempering your hopes with reality, but also infusing reality with your dreams.

So what’s next?  Grab hold of your goals, of your dreams, of your soul, and barrel your way toward where you want to go. It is not easy.  It will not be supported by many.  It will feel lonely and scary and difficult.  Keep in mind one of my favorite quotes: “You only live once, but if you do it right, that’s enough.”  I guarantee you that when you are on your death bed you will not be thinking about whether or not you paid back your student loans on-time, or the extent to which your parents and peers approved of your life choices.  Rather, what you will think about was whether or not you did the things you wanted to do and whether or not you left the world a better place than when you came to it.

There are so many sources of inspiration.  Read books, poetry, essays.  Seek out leaders.  Write down your thoughts.  And never, ever, give up.  The world awaits you.  The world needs you.


  1. I read a good article that I think relates well to this post ( When I graduated college with $60,000 in debt I thought I needed a well-paying corporate job to survive. But I quickly started to feel torn between making a decent living and making an impact on society. So many people feel that they need to choose between one or the other, so they take the easiest route. It is important for them to realize that with hard work and creativity they can have the best of both worlds!!!

  2. THank you, Amber! I'm so glad you make that point! More people need to hear that, feel that and feel free to live the life they imagine for themselves. Also, I'm so happy to see you and the other Ambassadors doing such a fantastic job :)