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The Poison of Cynicism

In the novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, author Tom Wolfe refers to cynicism as a “cowardly form of superiority.”

Sounds harsh? I don’t think so.

Cynicism is a poison that seems to have found its way into our collective hearts. It used to be that my generation, Generation X, was known for its cynicism, but I have to hand it to the Millennials – they seem to have outdone us.

I suspect the specifics of this age of cynicism, and why it seems to have infected the Millennial generation with such force will be the topic of many future Ph.D theses. Maybe it’s a result of being raised on The Simpsons and The Office, or maybe it’s due to meme culture, or having come of age during the great recession of 2008, one of the most devastating economic downturns in history, or the crushing pressure of student debt, or the unaffordability of even the tiniest bachelor apartment. These all seem like reasonable explanations, but they don’t make the resulting cynicism any less poisonous.

Psychologist Frederic M. Hudson calls cynicism a “failure of nerve” and he credits it as one of the most prevalent reasons we become stuck, particularly in midlife. In his book The Adult Years, Mastering the Art of Self-Renewal, Hudson states that “Motivation to make life work is disabled by a vicious circle: personal daring and adult empowerment are curtailed by social disillusionment and cynicism; social empowerment is curtailed by reduced personal vision, motivation and leadership.”

Do you get it?

Millennial or not, we must diligently watch for cynicism in ourselves. Because it’s impossible to create, innovate, and to find joy and fulfillment in life if we indulge in the cowardly superiority, the failure of nerve, of cynicism.

Because what cynicism tells us is that nothing matters. There’s no point in trying, and in fact, it’s stupid to try. Only fools try.

Unstuck Project interviewee Felix was an executive at a consulting firm, when the company was acquired by a competitor. Felix was flattered when he was asked to sign a retention agreement. That is, he agreed that he would stay with the company for at least a year to help with the transition to new ownership, and in return, he’d be awarded a substantial cash bonus.

It sounded great on paper, but it didn’t take long before Felix felt terribly stuck.

“It was incredibly unpleasant. They came in, took over everything I had worked for and everything I thought was important, and then said, ‘No thanks, none of this is valuable to us.’ It was a huge, wild disconnect. Like watching someone wear your clothes.”

As Felix’s stuckness grew, so did his cynicism. “There was a realization that I was on the losing team. Nothing was working. I wasn’t motivated to get things done. I tried to divorce myself from it and just collect a paycheck until I could collect my retention bonus.”

Felix believed he was on the losing team. That’s where cynicism is truly born. I’m on the losing team, so I no longer care. The whole game is stupid. I’m better than the game. The game is for suckers.

Felix fell into the cynicism trap. “I used to say, ‘Not my monkey. Not my circus.’ My wife and I used to joke about it. But I came to realize, it also robbed me of my agency.”

And that’s the point. Cynicism is poison because it paralyzes us. It prevents us from acting in our own best interest. And, it makes us feel oddly superior at the same time. It’s like scratching an itch, but it leaves a gaping wound. It doesn’t make you smarter. It doesn’t protect you from pain. It only gives you a false sense of certainty and the kind of significance that leaves you empty. Do not give in to it.

Felix saw his cynicism for the poison it was, gathered his courage and recovered his agency. He left the company, leaving his retention bonus on the table. The money didn’t matter. Felix needed to break his unhealthy pattern and get back into alignment, so he could move on with his life. He prioritized his values over his need for certainty and significance.

If you want to end your cynicism, and you have to if you want to achieve anything worthwhile in life, then you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable. And that takes courage. You might look stupid. You might fail. You might get hurt. Felix walked away from a high five-figure bonus. That took balls. But to him, it was a small price to pay for his integrity.

And that’s why Felix is no longer stuck.

Hey! This post is an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Unstuck Leader: Getting unstuck. Staying Unstuck. If you’d like to learn the five steps to eliminating the patterns of belief and behavior that are holding you back, sign-up for my email newsletter, and you’ll be the first to know when the book is published.

The Unstuck Leader book is now available.
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