How to not become (too) cynical

As design researchers at STBY we are dealing with lots of complex issues and data. We are diving into root causes, problem areas and, luckily, also opportunities for change of issues that sometimes threaten us in our own existence (climate change!). When dealing with so many problems for months in a row, it is easy to start feeling down. How to not become cynical seems a challenge sometimes. But being cynical is not necessarily a bad thing. A healthy dose of cynicism can actually become a call to action, an incentive to fight for a good cause. But we have to choose our battles wisely, because there are things we can change, and things we cannot. 

Being realistic about the limits of what we can do, helps us to keep some peace of mind. However, we do want to be a piece of the puzzle, and we think we definitely can. Something we can contribute to as design researchers is knowledge creation, which is needed to make a start into thinking about solutions to complex problems. Yet, there is always a chance to start feeling pessimistic and lost in the course of a research project. Over the years I have found my own strategies for dealing with complex, and sensitive issues, from breathing exercises to consciously ending my working day. 

I asked my colleagues how they deal with not becoming (too) cynical, and as their responses show, there are many ways to avoid cynicism, and we probably all use different ones at different times. Sharing and discussing these helps to stay sane. I think we can all learn from their answers. This is what they say: 

Qin: Don’t worry about the things you can not control 

“I guess my response is a bit more related to my personality type. I have always been an optimistic, pragmatic person. ‘Deal with what you can deal with, and don’t worry about things that are outside your control’.  I do try to make myself aware of things that are going on, but not to worry about it, or invest too much emotion in things outside my control. My father has always told me that if there is a problem you find ways to solve it, if you can’t, live with it till you find a way to solve it. Also having children sort of makes you believe that there will be a future for them – things will get tough but as parents my job is to prepare them for it, so being cynical simply doesn’t help it.”

Daphne: Contribute to knowledge creation 

“It is interesting to look at how to fight cynicism when working in a space of understanding and solving problems, like we do. There are a lot of ethical questions for example when it comes to the tech sector. I think instead of being cynical about this industry and the services or products that people use, it is more important to understand the contexts of use, the behaviours mediated by technology, the needs and the potential. That is the only way to get ahead of problems or create meaningful solutions in a fast-paced and ever-changing space. So contributing to that understanding makes me hopeful as I want to see the ongoing knowledge creation contributing to impact. Similarly with climate and social issues, I think knowledge creation is needed there to make a start into thinking about solutions, and provide this knowledge to others.” 

Bas: Indignation protects me from cynicism

“When I find myself being cynical about something, I know that at least I care. That is a positive sign and for me it’s only a small step to feeling indignant. Indignation saves me from being cynical. It works like a call to action: I need to do something about this! I’ve always lived with the idea that to achieve a more just world, you need to fight for it. A more just world won’t be handed to you on a silver plate. When I feel this indignation, I’m ready to start a new fight, small or big. The fighting itself is important, not the expectation of a solution or major change. It is about making a contribution to the change I think is necessary, however small. I do what I can, and I connect to others who are fighting for the same thing. There are many people like me that inspire me, James Baldwin and Greta Thunberg for instance. Their writing and speeches are brilliant and full of eloquent indignation. They energise me.”

Yoni: Think like a cat; think nothing at all! 

“Yes, I recognise the feeling of being overwhelmed by the subject. Especially when it comes to climate change. It has an effect on humans, animals, plants, basically on every living organism on the planet. Sometimes I have the feeling it is too late, we can not turn it back. I don’t really have a strategy, I just try and force myself to think of something else. You need to avoid entering the rabithole of misery, because then you start questioning everything in life. My two cats help me to focus more on the here and now when I have those racing thoughts. I recently read a funny book about the philosophy of a cat and what we, humans, can learn from them. We as humans are constantly searching for meaning in our life, and hoping for ultimate happiness. Cats don’t overthink or question the lives they could have, had or (don’t) want to have. Cats are independently happy with the life they are living, and rely on their senses (touch, sight, smell) that guide them through life. ‘The meaning of life is only a spontaneous touch or sense which will disappear before you know it’ (Gray, J. (2020), De filosopfie van een kat, Uitgeverij Unieboek, Amsterdam, p.134) – therefor we need to live more in the here and now to not become cynical.”

Dorota: Be a piece of the puzzle, no matter how small 

“I believe there are always options, and that we always have a choice, even though problems seem to be unfixable and too big to handle. One thing that I learned is that you cannot solve an entire problem on your own, but you can be a piece of the puzzle, no matter how small. It is important to know where your influence and responsibility starts and also where it ends. Some things are out of your reach, and it is good to be realistic about that, because it can be painful and harsh to discover that along the way. I think that if you do what you’re good at (use your talent!), and if you’re using that for a good cause, you can make an impact. For me personally it is important to have the feeling that I contribute to something constructive and positive, without being naive. In addition to that, I think supporting each other as colleagues or friends is important too, because when you fall back on pessimism and cynicism, you probably have lost the connection with the people around you.”

Geke: Listen to your ‘compass’  

“In recent calls with our Reach partners, the term ‘compass’ came up as a metaphor for how to deal with complexity. This strongly resonated with me. A compass offers you a good sense of direction, while you still need to deal with the fact that you cannot always navigate in a straight line. So you have to be alert and flexible to negotiate progress in the right direction. This is also how I experience our work on complex issues, where we try to contribute to meaningful change. This change is seldom achieved in one go. It requires many, and often small, steps to get ahead in the right direction. But every step counts. As long as you are aware of this, you can stay positive and find the energy to keep going.”

Photo: Joanne Francis

Nina Stegeman