Toastmasters: Cynic vs. Skeptic

This speech was for the Focus on the Postive project in the Team Collaboration pathway for Toastmasters

Ms. Weiss was my first grade teacher. As part of the reading curriculum, she taught myself and the rest of the class what a synonym was: “a word or phrase that means exactly or nearly the same as another word or phrase in the same language”. Big and large. Delicious and yummy. Sad and unhappy. All examples of synonyms that first graders can understand.

In high school, when it came time to write an essay on classic English class fodder such as Hamlet or To Kill A Mockingbird, I thought back to the simple first grade lesson and reached for my handy Thesaurus. No better way to sound smart and beef up a writing assignment than replacing one- or two-syllable words with some bigger terms. “Everywhere” became “ubiquitous”. “Aware” became “cognizant”. “Peak” became “Apex”. “Weird” became “Idiosyncratic”. I clearly had not paid enough attention to Hamlet - by stuffing my essay with superfluous, complex synonyms, I was in clear violation of Polonius’ line from the play, “brevity is the soul of wit.”

Having, of course, wowed my teachers with my ability to swap out simple phrases for SAT vocabulary, I felt that I had a pretty strong grasp on the concept of a synonym. However, recently I realized that I might have overestimated my ability to discern synonyms. For as long as I could remember, it turns out that I had been making a mistake with a particular pair of words. I had always thought that the words “cynic” and “skeptic” were synonyms to describe a certain pessimistic perspective on life; however, there is a subtle but powerful difference between those two that I recently became aware of, and it shifted my way of thinking about my own outlook on life.

I have always considered myself a cynic. I immediately assume that anything good must come with a catch. By default, I distrust almost everything. My overall attitude is one of jaded negativity. I think my cynical knee-jerk reaction is the simplest factor of a defense mechanism: if I don’t believe anything, I can never be tricked.

Being a cynic by default, over the long-term, can really warp your understanding of the world around you. With every new encounter, the premise that you start with is that of the worst possible outcome or motive. It is tough to meet new people and grow new relationships if you assume that anyone that wants to engage with you has an ulterior motive. Any possible motivation for a new project, whether at work or in personal life, is automatically stamped out if the assumption is that somehow it will fail. The easiest way to put it is that: the cynic believes that nothing good comes out of anything.

A skeptic, on the other hand, employs cautiousness but does not assume negative intent. The skeptic does not believe that something is impossible, or that inevitably it is ill-intentioned or bad. Rather, the skeptic attempts to be discerning in discovery, to approach things with a rational mindset, knowing that things can be both good and bad.

To the observer, both the cynic and the skeptic may appear to be the same on the surface. Both approach with the same outward pessimism, looking for the negatives in a situation, poking holes in the rationale, and being generally disagreeable. However, there is a critical difference between the two: what is the eventual end goal of the behavior. For the cynic, it is to prove the theory that nothing is truly good in this world. For the skeptic, it is to seek to understand by not taking things at their face value.

It’s easy to be a cynic. The reasoning of the cynic, the view I myself have long held, reminds me of a little bit of that oft-repeated Teddy Roosevelt quote about “the man in the arena.” It’s very easy to point at failures and use that as rationale for cynicism. Schadenfreude is the easiest form of satisfaction as all it requires is one to sit back, do nothing, and point and laugh at those who have tried and failed.

In becoming aware of the difference between the two terms, I began to reflect on my own approach to life. Considering myself a cynic was not a conscious choice, not a badge I wore proudly on my sleeve, but I was aware that it was my general disposition. By applying the sentiment of cynicism to all facets of life, I realized that by adopting a mantra of habitual negativity, I was poisoning my interpretation of life. I certainly did not have rose colored glasses; my glasses were greyscale, sapping all color out of life.

There was no eureka moment, no moment of clarity where I instantly realized the failures of my mindset. Rather, it was a slow burn, my mind making small iterations towards an understanding of what my cynicism had done for me. It had succeeded in its job - I was not easily fooled, I was not distracted by the latest and greatest technology, or consumer fad, or political idea - but at the same time it limited any progress I might partake in. My cynicism led me to construct a ceiling in which I could not move above. In guarding myself too closely, I was missing opportunities to create and foister new relationships, to expand my mind with new ideas, and face the day with a positive countenance.

So, becoming aware of the subtle differences between the two former synonyms, I strive to approach each day not as a cynic but as a skeptic. By doing so, I hope to avoid a mindset that limits my own potential, limits my ability to enjoy waves of enthusiasm around new ideas and trends, and limits my ability to see the world in a positive light, while not completely detaching from an approach I’m comfortable with. The subtle difference, in that the end goal is not to validate the negativity but rather to approach with cautiousness and seek to understand, makes a world of difference.