Realistic Idealism: The Way to Progress
Humans are extreme: this is a fact. Good ideas are taken to its excess and become bad. Take water. We need it to live and thrive. But drink too much and it becomes toxic.
This is like many of the great movements, ideas and trends we see. Take two geopolitical trains of thought.
- Idealism and Values: as exemplified by Western Europe and the rise of Woke, ESG (Environmental Sustainable Governance), the Environmental movement itself, the use of Diplomacy and Anti-war movements. Each value at core is an incredibly worthy goal for human civilization. Morals are important for a well functioning society.
- Realism, Realpolitik & Pragmatism: as exemplified by the ossified John Mearsheimer & Russia/Chinese geopolitical moves in the last 20 years. This is a world of influence & power. You have no friends, you only have interests not allies. You look at the world in a very cold blooded and in many cases, a very effective lens.
Both do make sense. But due to the extreme edges these approaches have been pushed to, they both no longer seem to work nor make any sense to me. The idealism of Germany and most of Western Europe is what has gotten them into the mess they are in now. Being energy dependent on Russia, a country with hostile intentions, interests and values contrary to theirs. The EU & many of the NATO countries also under-invested on the military defense side too. Now due to the wake-up call of the horrible Russian invasion of Ukraine, they are scrambling to figure out a way out, way behind in the game. Idealism is great but when it meets the laws of physics and reality, idealism fails.
Yet, there is something uninspiring about the ideas of realpolitik. Values and ideals are what most people can support and fight for. Fighting for pure naked greed and self interest just makes you a mercenary. Mercenaries may be professionals but they are usually unwilling to die for a cause. Realism tends to ignore the people and values/culture pieces of humans. And it easily turns into cynicism. Very hard to motivate people to support or die for these motivations.
Most people don’t just want to fight for money or to ensure that we have cheap oil as important as both are. People are willing to fight for a true cause that is larger than themselves versus just pure self-interest. This is why we see the phenomenon of foreign ex-soldiers showing up and volunteering to fight in the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s, or the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s against the fascists and in 2022 again, joining Ukraine’s army to fight against the Russian fascists.
This is why for my life and business, I prefer the blended approach as an investor and operator. What I call realistic Idealism. I want to support and invest in mission oriented founders and companies. Ones that are creating a “vision worth fighting for.” My brilliant investor friend Jim Scheinman has written:
“We want to hear what they are planning to bring into the world that is worth all the time, effort and money required for success. We are also listening carefully if the founders are passionate about this vision. If they don’t have the passion, then they will likely give up when the going gets tough. And, the going gets tough most of the time with startups.”
Yet this needs to be combined with being pragmatic and realistic on what can be done and when. Basically having a clear plan and willingness to execute. As Thomas Edison was reported to have said:“Vision without execution is hallucination”. This is far too common in startup land. How many visionary founders have turned out to be great fundraisers but terrible managers and operators who end up destroying the business? This is actually quite endemic.
Sadly, that is where most of the liberal West (US, Canada & Western Europe) is right now, far too much on the Idealistic side. To the point that it has become ineffective or even immoral. As I paraphrase the smart folks at Doomberg, in government we have “policies driven by platitudes not physics.” This is because we have had way too much comfort and prosperity over the last 20–30 years.
We can still turn it around if we can become more serious. But sadly this may require more pain and suffering around the world before we truly wake up. The laws of physics usually catch up to us. We probably could do with a bit more realism in our way forward in Western societies.