Acting with Vision or Acting Pragmatically? (or Both?)

“Do I go for my vision or do I take pragmatic moves?”

This dualistic question has come up for me quite frequently recently, and I seem to always find a voice advocating strongly for one of these options. “Act realistically, and think about you can actually achieve” say some of my pragmatic friends. “Dream big and  the details will fall into place” say some of my visionary friends. Though theoretical to some degree, these organizing “worldviews” shape the way we act for change in our modern world.

Now I look to how to combine the best elements of the pragmatists and the visionaries.




Pragmatism is what I call the “moving without tripping” approach, meaning that one should look at the currently available paths and find the one that seems to be the most feasible given current constraints/opportunities. Pragmatists, at least in the organizing context, focus on current conditions and endeavors to make the most out of them possible. In general, ideology is not as important as achieving realistic accomplishments for pragmatic methodologies.

While being realistic is undoubtedly necessary, we often do not know what is possible (i.e. we can achieve more than we think). Thus, pragmatic steps can miss whole new opportunities that seem far-fetched and play more into the “status quo.”



Photo: getolympus via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: getolympus via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Visioning is what I call the “moving towards the stars” approach, meaning that one should look for the highest potential and aiming for paths that create completely new futures. Visionaries, at least in the organizing context, focus on future conditions and how to make them reality. In general, practicality is not as important as ensuring significant changes occur in peoples’ lives.

While keeping our dreams in our plans must continue to be done, that does not mean that we can act as if that dream can be made swiftly or easily (i.e. change is not impossible, but it can be difficult). Therefore, visionary modes should take care to “sweat the small stuff” and have tangible goals to reach their visions.


Visionary Pragmatists or Pragmatic Visionaries


The reason this spectrum between vision and pragmatism to be so essential is that it strongly influences our plans, goals, strategies, timelines, and underlying beliefs behind what changes can be made. For myself I’m not sure if I would call myself a “Visionary Pragmatist” or a “Pragmatic Visionary;” however, to me the term matters much less than capturing the best spirit of both to accomplish what needs to be done.

By combining the best of both the pragmatic and visionary worlds, we can be effectively “moving towards the stars, without tripping.” Plan visionary until you get to your immediate pragmatic steps (i.e. plan backwards from the vision), but always keep the dream in mind as you go forward. The current context should never be used as an excuse to avoid stretching our beliefs of what is possible.


How Creating Your World Vision Can Inspire Action

I feel like I’ve always had a fuzzy picture of what I’d like to see for the world, but it took me until last year to write out what that world would be like. 

Photo: paul bica via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: paul bica via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I immediately saw how much more aligned my work was with my vision shortly after creating it.

It has been an exhilarating experience!

For example, Organizing Change would have looked very different than it does now. Before my vision made me realize the potential of Organizing Change, I was just going to share my general thoughts on organizing. However, now I conduct detailed investigation in order to find thoughtful organizing and activist experiences, insightful analysis, and hard-hitting data to make the case for strategic changemaking.

I realized that for me to be able to contribute to the creation of my vision, I needed to clearly identify the most impactful organizing lessons of the past century or so, showcase institutional barriers to change, the vital nature of strategic visions, etc.

It’s funny that for the amount of time I spent talking about change, I never explicitly imagined what a completely changed world would be like. Now that I have a clear vision, I am much more confident in the actions I take.


Elements of a clear and actionable vision


While I’d written many mission or vision statements, before last year I’d never made a vision that asked me to make a plan to along with it. Then someone asked me what long-term change would look like so I wrote a plan for them.

Many of the steps below may seem familiar to you, the difference is now we are using them to create a vision! I prefer to write, but your way of expressing your vision may involve stories, art, music, etc.

Articulate your vision for a liberated world – think of how people would live in this world you wish to create.

Here’s an example: “A world in which people regularly exceed their highest visions for themselves and the global community.”

Identify your important values of this future world – remember though that these values do not need to be shared by everyone, but rather serve as some key guiding principles for what you wish to work for.

Here’s an example: “This society would prioritize the personal fulfillment/sovereignty of its members (i.e. as opposed to a focus on wealth/destructive growth and assimilation) and resolve the perpetuation of past, present, and future injustices.”

Define intentional systems that would aid your future vision – whether flexible or more structured, think about what would support healthy societies. 

Here’s an example: “A compassionate, cooperative, and mutual aid-based society that allows people to express their potential through horizontal leadership communities (i.e. non-hierarchical and non-authoritarian).”

Plan out short, medium, and long-term goals – now is where things start to get tricky since it can often be challenging to think 50 or more years ahead. What helped me was to plan backwards to figure out potential ways to achieve my vision.

Here’s an example: “The full sovereignty and capacity for self-sufficiency of all those who seek their own self-reliant communities by [X date].

Description of how you wish to contribute to the creation of this vision – so now that you have this clear vision, it’s time to make it actionable! I spent the most time making sure I really knew how I wanted to contribute to my vision.

Here’s an example: “With Organizing Change I aim to give myself and others the knowledge of what it takes to make change (the toolkit) , how to counter obstructors of change (the analysis), and the vision of where change should lead to fulfill the needs of current and future citizens of a whole and thriving Earth (the vision).”

If you cannot imagine a vision AND actionable steps, then its harder to know if you are on the right track to making the change you seek.

So what if everyone passionate about bringing about positive changes to the world created a vision that propelled them to achieve more than they ever expected? 

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