The Art of Being Unreasonable

There is a wonderful quote by G.B. Shaw that goes like this: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in adapting the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Being unreasonable can mean someone who doesn’t listen, someone who is difficult to deal with. Imagine a man out on a ledge and people below shouting, “Bob, be reasonable!”. But it’s also about living into a future that you have invented, versus repeating the past.

Chris on his way to the summit of Cho Oyu (8,201m),  Tibetan Himalaya 2007
Chris on his way to the summit of Cho Oyu (8,201m),
Tibetan Himalaya 2007


The past is our reference for what’s reasonable because there’s tons of available evidence and data on how things work. Whereas when you create a future that is distinct from that past, you’re acting in a way that isn’t supported by proof until you can demonstrate it. Following a well-established pattern because it has been proven successful, is reasonable. Deviating from the pattern is unreasonable because of the deliberate risks and unknowns involved.

When Shaw says “all progress”, I take him to mean all human progress, as in the advancement of civilization, as well as self-actualization. To be unreasonable, we need to envision life as we want it to be, versus how it is, ignoring the evidence of how it has been. We must then practice living that life every day and enrolling others in our vision (think Obama’s candidacy). This is not the same as trying to forget about the past or refusing to learn from it. Failure is nothing more than feedback. It’s the world telling us we need to change something in order to get the results we want. We learn from the past by adaptation. According to Shaw, this does not mean adapting ourselves to current circumstances, but rather creating new circumstances.

Being unreasonable means frequently being outside our comfort zone. That zone is one of resignation and at best complacency, at worst, apathy. Yet this is where we feel the safest, because we know what works, we know our self-defined limits and there is no risk. Yet this is a life lived from the past, where there is little incentive for substantive change.

So what? Some would argue that by being reasonable, we do make progress. By following well-worn patterns and cultural norms, we take fewer risks and are rewarded with praise from teachers, advancement to the next grade, jobs, pay raises, promotions and increased skills that we acquire step-by-step to fit into our roles of greater responsibility. I would not call this progress, but rather an improved past. Progress implies that you are moving toward something. Being reasonable, which is based on the past, may give you achievement, but not direction. Vision creates direction, and vision is the actualization of a dream that is set in the future.

Imagine a rocket that is advancing toward a target. The rocket’s progress is measured by its relationship to the target, not by its relationship to its most recent position. Think of your actions as the rocket and the target as your vision. Your progress is measured by your results in relation to where you want to be.

Mobility is freedom, and conformity is the opposite of mobility. While we talk about being upwardly mobile as a result of following successful patterns of the past, any achievement that comes from the past will always be related to the past. When we live into an affirmative future that is distinct from the past, we liberate ourselves from habitual constraints and adapt the world to ourselves. This is the power and the art of being unreasonable.