On Being Impractical

“Every civilizing step in history has been ridiculed as ‘sentimental’, ‘impractical’, or ‘womanish’, etc., by those whose fun, profit or convenience was at stake.”

—Joan Gilbert

I think it was my (wonderful) friendboss Ry4an who first used the phrase “impractical zealot” to describe me. He wasn’t, if memory serves, espousing his own opinion; I believe he was trying to describe the impression I left on others. But it was definitely in the context of my propensity for making things harder than strictly necessary. The phrase stuck with me as a semi-accurate description, and I’ve been thinking about it for the last year or two.

Lately, especially in conversations with my friend Ty, I’ve started to be able to solidify my ideas around it into a semi-coherent worldview. So I figured it’s probably past due that I try to write about it.

My favourite understanding of people trying to do impractical things (which, sadly, I can’t seem to find a source for; if anyone knows, I’d love a link so I can credit them properly) is that the people aren’t being difficult for the sake of being difficult, but are instead trying to move the goal posts. What separates the practical from the impractical, in this case, is that the practical is what is seen as necessary or prudent, and the impractical requires more than that. People trying to do impractical things is the result of people saying “we can do better”, then insisting that what is practical is not acceptable. Implicit in the designation of something as impractical is the assertion that what is deemed practical is an acceptable solution.

People arguing for the impractical are saying “I reject the practical as an acceptable solution”. If they win, and win enough, the impractical is suddenly practical, and the bar for “acceptable” gets raised.

I’m routinely horrified by what is deemed “acceptable”, so this understanding resonates with me. It doesn’t hurt that this is also a flattering understanding: strategic progress, usually at the expense of tactical progress, happens because of people doing impractical things. It’s the difference between trying to win the game (making all the money!) or trying to change the rules it’s played by (demanding more of our technology).

It’s probably worth noting that you’re unlikely to win at a game if you’re simultaneously trying to change the rules it’s played by.

But that’s what my interest in technology has always centered on: the tension between “this is hard/confusing/annoying” and my response of “but it doesn’t need to be”. And then proving that. That’s why, when I decided to take the opportunity of relocating a company to change its name (more on that at some undetermined point in the future), I decided to call it Impractical Labs. Because the point of the company isn’t to be the biggest or the best or grow or make money, it’s to facilitate me doing impractical things and trying to make that sustainable.

The state of the company probably doesn’t say flattering things about this impractical approach, but I remain hopeful for it.

Impracticality is hard, and is not for everyone or every company. And I get that. And it needs to be moderated to different degrees in different situations, and I get that, too. And it is absolutely a privileged position to be in, though I would argue it can be a responsible and beneficial use of privilege.

But for my part, there are a great many hills I am happy to die on. And on the off chance I don’t die… maybe I can make it so nobody needs to die on that hill anymore.

“To die will be an awfully big adventure.”