rebelling against low expectations

Grow Up, Don’t Grow Cynical


Every college campus has its sub-groups: the jocks, the nerds, the cool kids, etc. When we attended college our campus sported two additional, very distinct, sub-cultures: idealistic freshmen and cynical seniors.

Idealistic freshmen are just what you would imagine. They are the new kids, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and stoked to be attending the greatest school on earth, learning from the greatest professors on earth, while living in the greatest country on earth. For this species everything is awesome.

Cynical seniors are an older species who (to hear them tell it) have been chewed up and spat out by “the system.” They’ve been around the block a few more times than you and seen more of how the world really works. Their seniority is their trump card.

If you don’t agree with their bleak assessment of reality it is because you just haven’t lived long enough to be adequately disillusioned.

While both these species thrive on college campuses, they also exist in large numbers in the world beyond. Young people in our generation tend to align themselves with one of these groups and to look disdainfully on the other. See if you recognize our generation in these descriptions:

  • We either buy the t-shirt and brand our life with cause-related memorabilia; or we steer clear of all allegiances, saying we care about issues but not for movements.
  • We either act like popular authors and leaders are infallible and live perfect lives; or we treat popularity as sure-fire proof of compromise and look for evidence of corruption.
  • We either wear our hearts on our sleeves, keeping everyone constantly abreast of how we feel; or we become adept at guarding our hearts and hiding what’s really going on.
  • We either kow-tow to authority figures as if they can do no wrong; or we view their every action with suspicion and imagine them sitting in their offices plotting our demise.

Conventional wisdom says each of us, over the course of our lives, will gradually move from idealism to cynicism.

Major crises, breakups, rejections, and disappointments will serve as mile-markers along the descent.

Cynicism, some people will tell you, is the inevitable result of living. Growing up means staying disengaged and distrustful of authority figures, institutions, and organized movements of any kind.

But are they right? Is life just a slow process of disillusionment? Is youthful enthusiasm doomed to die a gradual death at the hands of disappointment and heartbreak? Does growing up mean growing cynical?


The way we answer these questions matters. Our answers will dictate our life path — whether one that leads to contentment or one that leads to bitterness. Our answers will determine how we handle disappointments (e.g. Is this setback an opportunity to grow or proof that the world stinks?).

The longer we live the more important it is to talk about how to grow up without growing cynical.

3 Ways to Grow Up Without Growing Cynical

  1. Stop complaining. Complaining has become a cultural sport, where opponents attempt to top each other in how much work they have to do and how hard their lives are. Besides being gold mines for the First World Problems meme, these conversations are a fast-track towards cynicism. Looking for the bad in your life can easily change from amusing past-time to permanent perspective.
    “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:14-15).
  2. Expect disappointments. The first step towards not getting disillusioned is to avoid the illusion. Life isn’t easy! Don’t be surprised if colleges, employers, and girlfriends reject you. This has happened to millions of people throughout history and almost all of them went on to live meaningful lives. Many of them even grew through the experience. They got wiser without getting whinier.
    “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13).
  3. Raise your expectations of God. When our expectations of God are high we can lower our expectations of people without growing cynical. To quote our dad, “Let God be God and let everyone else be human.” We’ve found that human beings make pretty awesome creatures, but lousy gods. If you are repeatedly disappointed by others you may have set your hope in the wrong places.
    “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation” (Psalm 146:3).

Growing up is necessary, cynicism is not.

Cynicism is a big problem, but remaining blissfully naive isn’t the solution.

As our dad likes to say, “There’s a ditch on both sides of the road.” Avoiding one ditch by swerving into the other is no improvement.

Our goal is to stay on the road and out of both ditches.

Growing up means grappling with disappointment and heartbreak without being broken by them. Growing up means knowing there are risks to loving people, supporting causes, and aligning yourself with institutions — but doing so anyway because that’s the way things get better.

The problem with idealistic freshmen is that they risk carelessly. The problem with cynical seniors is that they risk nothing. The solution is to risk purposefully. Both species must grow up.

Question: Have you had to struggle with cynicism as you’ve grown older? You can join the discussion below. There are currently __ Comments.

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About the author

Alex and Brett Harris

are the co-founders of and co-authors of Do Hard Things and Start Here. They have a passion for God and for their generation. Their personal interests include politics, filmmaking, music, and basketball. They are both graduates of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia.

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rebelling against low expectations

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