Pragmatism, Please

Don't bring a knife to a gun fight, but you don't need a nuke, either

Don't bring a knife to a gun fight, but you don't need a nuke, either

I believe that I have reached the saturation point with regards to news, commentary, and punditry regarding the financial crisis, the war, our botched foreign policy, and a litany of other ills – – I think we are all there. The “never waste a good catastrophe” faux-optimistic cliché isn’t much help, but it does ring true for me, and I figured it was an opportunity for me to put it to good use.  Other than taking time off from working in order to have the leisure time to sit around and think about this stuff, I figured it was also a chance to examine the relevant life and professional lessons that might be gleaned.

I watched President Obama’s inaugural speech, what I was most impressed with was his pragmatism, and I think that America is seriously jonesing for a healthy dose of pragmatism (as opposed to blind faith, dogmatism, etc.).  The other night on 60 minutes, again, I was impressed with his pragmatism – – at one point, Steve Croft gave him a bit of a hard time for laughing, but I would argue that in the face of partisan bickering from all sides, what could one man do but laugh. A lot of people talk about Obama’s competence as a major reason for their affinity to him and his message, and here’s to that, but pragmatism, I feel, is always a key ingredient in building competency.

So what do I mean by pragmatism?  Well, in general, it seems the consensus is that there are two major definitions: the dictionary definition of the word (“a practical approach to problems and affairs”) and the philosophical movement surrounding the work of men such as Charles Pierce, William James, and John Dewey in American in the late 19th century. The two meanings, while different in terms of the level of complexity and provenance, are quite similar in practical terms (yes – practical… forgive the sort-of pun).  The definition I like the best is the first line on the Wikipedia Page for Pragmatism – a quote from William James: “Pragmatism is the philosophy of considering practical consequences or real effects to be vital components of meaning and truth.”

Competence and pragmatism seem linked to me, and I often think that pragmatism is a prerequisite for competence.  Once in a while, you may encounter someone who seems effortless in their competence and success without showing any signs of pragmatism – – they seem to float above any need for a pragmatic approach and they forge their reputation and empire on ideals and brains alone – – they appear to never to have to make a trade-off.  I’m not saying they don’t exist, but my feeling is that they are just very good at making it look easy (the best at anything always do).

Its always so easy to look at a problem or a challenge through the lense of emotion, religion, cultural bias, or even superstition – we are wired for that.  Real competence is to look ahead the reality of consequences and understand that principals are very important, but only if positive results are ultimately achieved.  If there was ever a time for pragmatism – – man, this is it.
“I want to conquer the world, Give all the idiots a brand new religion…”

–          Bad Religion