Dave Snowden

The art & science of being a Curmudgeon

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So in this final post on the 3Cs of research in organisations I’m returning to the Cynics. I might have been better starting with this image and saving Cynical Dreamer for the end but it is too difficult to unstitch that now. Remember I am using cynic more in the philosophical sense of the word that the modern pejorative label. Remember in that first post I pointed out that for the cynics the purpose of live was to live in virtue in agreement with nature, rejecting conventional desire. It is that theme I take forward in this final post, although it will not be my final word on the subject.

I’m also going to try and rehabilitate the idea of the curmudgeon, shifting it from the negative connotation of a crusty ill-tempered and surely old man eager to “shake his fist and spout disagreeable opinions” to a valuable asset and a label to be treasured if you have earned it. Yes, like Socrates there is always the danger of hemlock on the horizon but that is a price worth paying for at least some members of the community. And society needs its cynics as do organisations.

I found a rather nice web site on How to Become a Curmudgeon which takes a more positive view and is full of good advice as well as some warnings. I’m using that site as the basis of this first draft of the curmudgeon’s manifesto.

  1. Think independently, be a contrarian, go against the grain and don’t be afraid of making enemies; to reference Winston Churchill having enemies means you have stood up for something.
  2. Set new trends, create (or rather enable the creation of) new tropes; don’t follow the herd, in the choice between a wolf and a sheep take the former path, there will always be plenty of volunteers for the latter.
  3. Always remember the reason for being a curmudgeon is that you care about people and things; you want things to be better, you don’t want people to be subordinated to tyrannical process or well meaning therapists.
  4. Humour is a tool and a weapon, you need a stock of self-deprecating stories to balance up the contrarian message that will lead to accusations of arrogance in those who don’t want to be challenged.  Irony is a delight, sarcasm is a weapon of last resort but you will have to use it more than most if only to keep yourself sane.  The real joy is when those who are the subject of either don’t notice it but enough in the audience do.
  5. Lead with new ideas and thinking, but don’t abandon the values and capabilities of the past.  Just because young people want to do something, or choose to work in a certain way does not make that practice right.  Neither does it make it wrong, the life unexamined as Socrates (probably the first cynic) said, is not worth living and that can include the learning of the past as much as dreams of the future.
  6. Don’t be afraid to ruffle a group in a workshop or meeting and always stand up to facilitators who try and play the guilt card (that can include reverse sexism and racism by the way which can be pretty nasty) to try and silence dissent or challenge.  For most of them its a power game anyway.
  7. Play the long game, if you are sure of your ground be prepared to loose in the short term but keep plugging the line.  When (well if) you are proved right avoid the I told you so line in favour of the that is a really good idea.  The fact you said it three years ago and were ignored really doesn’t matter.  Revenge is always best served cold anyway.

The seventh is all my own, the other six developed from the referenced site. If anyone knows who wrote that by the way I want to meet them! Interestingly while I was writing this series I picked up on an interesting post about the potential failure of string theory as a scientific theory. Lovers of the Big Bang Theory will now realise that Sheldon’s move may have been prescient in Series 7. Now I am not competent to make a judgement on that, but the post the split between rationalism and empiricism which has overtones of that between idealism and realism in the humanities. I’ve never either of the two sets of alternatives as incompatible by the way, it is a matter of context. Human systems in particular are not susceptible to the research methods of Newtonian Physics or the nonsense of double blind trials and the like. But the empirical findings of science act as constraints and provide guidance within those systems.

That has been the theme of this series of posts and a lot of the twelve days of Christmas ones. I’ve got a lot more work to do on this and I’ve just accepted an invitation from John Seeley-Brown and Ann Pendleton-Jullian to present on this at the New York Library in April so I have a deadline! Given the previous three weeks will see me trekking in Nepal with daughter I should be refreshed by the time I get there. I’ll also run it out at the forthcoming training programmes in the Yukon and New York.


Picture: “Waterhouse-Diogenes” by John William Waterhouse
Licensed under Public Domain via Commons