Being labeled “practical” feels fraught in a world where there are so many people feel passionately and deeply about important issues and expressing values seems to require idealism. Practical people are seen as boring, passionless, and reluctant to change. I’m here to argue that practicality can be your superpower.
First, being practical or pragmatic does not mean a lack of idealism. One can have strongly held values and a vision of how things should be and also be focused on “what works.” Being practical is thinking strategically and finding the pathways to accomplishing change and ideals. For example, if a workplace wants to change work from home policies, a practical person might begin with a rational approach—gathering information about current policies, worker attitudes, and influential stakeholders. Then, they might create a strategy to move the organization towards the desired ends that takes into account the variety of tools available. A good example of idealism and practicality working in tandem is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement. As described in this post about the movie Selma, Dr. King was a charismatic speaker who reached into people’s hearts and consciences—and he was a tactician. Decisions about where to march, when to march, and why to march were made with an eye towards persuasion, towards strategically pressuring those in power, and towards the safety of the participants. Idealism may have lit the fire of social revolution, but practicality helped bring it into fruition—and practicality is needed to sustain it.
Second, practicality is effective in a crisis. People who are practical decide on parameters for decision-making based on prioritizing needs and devote resources based on those priorities. In most situations, resources are constrained. This may be more true in crisis situations. Prioritization requires compromise and understanding that not all needs can be met immediately. It does not necessarily mean that all needs should not be pursued, but it recognizes the practical needs and makes appropriate trade-offs. The goals of safety, security, and certainty should not be the only goals pursued by groups and leaders, but in times of crisis may rise to the top. Practicality allows these initial needs to be met, so that there is time and opportunity to meet other important needs.
Again, practicality and idealism are not diametrically opposed. Those who are practical are not sellouts and those who are idealistic are not impractical. Rather, to accomplish and sustain meaningful change, we need those who spark the change and those who create or change the structures to make the change permanent.