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An Epidemic of Cynicism?

I don’t deal with happy people very often.  As a disaster recovery consultant I represent clients who have suffered catastrophic property loss from fire, flood and storm. In short, my job is to help desperate people piece their shattered lives back together.

I negotiate with Goliath insurance companies who go to remarkable lengths to avoid paying fair settlements. After decades of premium payments, loyal customers with valid claims are deceived, denied and kicked to the curb with stunning efficiency. I’ve watched the largest business strategy firm on the planet advise insurance carriers to shelve the good hands and put on the boxing gloves. I’ve seen the worst that these companies have to offer as I balance tremendous need with unquenchable greed. 

So yes, I may be a little cynical.

I bet our worlds are not much different.  It’s hard not to be cynical when you fight for a living and these days, who doesn’t fight for their living?  Unfortunately, irrefutably, we’re all exposed to negative stimulus every single day. 

Wake up and start fighting a schedule before we are even out of bed.  Roll out and fight traffic.  Fight the line at Starbucks.  Fight the never ending stream of voice mail and email.  Fight the boss, fight the deadlines, fight the constant pressure to produce.  

And fight to find a little peace and harmony in life and the time to enjoy it.

Fight.  Fight.  Fight.

In the middle of an unreasonable, demanding life, does it make sense to be cynical?  You bet it does.

But at what price?

Cynicism is innately protective, but it is also a barrier to our evolution.  The cynic dwells on the bad and has trouble seeing the good.  The cynic expects the worst.  Cynicism hinders creativity, prevents productivity, and is an obstacle to action. 

In a Boston University study, nearly 700 American workers were surveyed. The survey revealed 65% of the workers believed people will lie if they will gain from it, 41% doubted management tells them the truth, and 49% believed management will take advantage of them.  If these numbers seem low, it’s because this study was conducted way back in the late 1980's.  Confidence in business has fallen dramatically since then and of course, cynicism has risen.

One of my closest friends, a world-class cynic, is also a world class artist.  His paintings are glorious, inspirational works, highly regarded in the art world.  But he is tortured, a walking contradiction. His work reflects his negativity, in a beautiful and profound way, but he pays a high price, constantly, painfully, struggling to create through the barriers of his mind.

I know we can’t help it, we’re the products of our environment, molded by our need to fight, to survive.  We need to be cynical.  But we also need to adapt.  The enemy of cynicism is trust.  And by innovating and inspiring, we can begin to build a culture of trust.

I’ve only recently acknowledged the dramatic effect cynicism has on me, both professionally and personally.  And I’m brought to face a challenge I’d never anticipated. Is it possible to be discerning and cautious without being cynical?  It seems unwise to let the guard down completely, but maybe it can be rolled down just enough to let our creative, productive and emotional senses realize their potential.  It’s a leap of faith, I know, but the possibilities are limitless and liberating.

Hemingway once said “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self”.  That might be the toughest challenge in the world.

For those that think it will never work, let me challenge you to look in the mirror and shift that cynical perspective, just enough to see past it.