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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

The sweet spot between utopia and cynicism [Wise Wednesdays]

The sweet spot between utopia and cynicism [Wise Wednesdays]

Uncertainty is hard to be with. That’s why resilience is so elusive (it requires more uncertainty tolerance than we’re trained for). Yet, every organisation wants its employees to be more ‘resilient’ without providing the right training and support or modelling the behaviours.

So what to do?

[Read on or get a cup of tea and watch this week’s video musings.]

My journey from utopian ideals to cynicism:

In my 20s, I had a clear goal. I believed the world could be saved, and my contribution was through global health policy - I believed in utopia. My dad used to joke that I wanted to live in ‘The Little House on the Prairie' (the early episodes).

By my mid-30s, I was reaching my career goals, but the goalposts kept moving. I felt that managing the politics required too much energy and that a kind of hypocrisy dominated institutions. I fell into a level of cynicism.

One of my mentors at the time told me, “you’ve got to be hungry.” But I wasn’t hungry for the same things anymore.

Utopia vs. cynicism - two sides of the same coin?

What do utopia and cynicism have in common?

  1. They are both forms of survival response (utopia is a ‘fight-like’ response to conquer uncertainty, and cynicism is a flight/freeze-like response that distrusts and disengages).

  2. They both provide a semblance of certainty or ‘answers’ in the form of a worldview.

(Note: I'm not talking about utopia as a positive vision of possibility, or cynicism as healthy scepticism, which are both valuable.)

The power of inner work:

During my cynical period, I had already embraced meditation and the transformative power of awareness, alongside years of coaching and deep inner work. I knew this was an existential growth point letting of professional delusions but not falling into cynical despair. My coach helped me anchor into inner certainty and shape a new path moment-to-moment. Not only had my path changed but I had changed. Of course, the whole experience was so powerful that I pivoted into a coaching career myself.

Embracing the middle way:

In Buddhism, it’s called the Middle Way. You don’t fall into one extreme or another; you sense-make and do your best moment-to-moment through reflection, wise action, and energy-state regulation (or power, possibility and presence as I call them).

I realised that my imagination tells me of what’s possible. My fear tells me of my limits. Between the two my actions unfold.

One thing I learned from my medical career is that a good question is worth a thousand premature answers.

In fact, it’s the core of coaching: asking powerful questions.

What’s your third option?

One particular question has helped clients trapped between difficult choices. If someone asks you, “Should I do X or Y?”, don’t rush in. Ask them: “What’s your third option?” So far, there has always been one, leading to relief, new opportunities, and renewed action. 

I believe organisations would do a lot better by moving beyond binary thinking and adopting a “third option” approach, or what some futurists call “the third attractor”.

Embracing the middle way means recognising that life's journey isn't always straightforward, and you don’t have to choose between an idealistic utopia and hardened cynicism. Life is all of complex, simple, scary, and beautiful. Hold your experience with curiosity and watch your next steps reveal themselves.

If you’re caught in a dilemma right now, let me ask you: What’s your third option? Mull it over during a walk and savour the unexpected magic of your mind.

Have a great week, 


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