Most people know the word “ruthless.” It’s fairly commonly used. It means “having or showing no pity for others.”
And “pragmatic” means “practical.”
So a ruthless pragmatist is a person who is so practical that they go for what they want, screw the cost. They care about results before everything else, even if it means that in doing so that they hurt the emotions of others. And will ignore everything else to get what they want.
You can see why it’s not considered a compliment to call someone a a ruthless pragmatist.
I’m Not a Ruthless Pragmatist, I’m a Ruthful Pragmatist
While not ruthless, I’m definitely a pragmatist. I’ve long been a practical person. Concerned with not only whether something is pleasurable or fun — but if it actually works.
But there have always been limits to that practicality. Places where it’s just too far to reach. Where there are too many sacrifices to make.
For the longest time, I felt like a mess of contradictions (and honestly, some days I still do).
But one day, I found out something that was really helpful to me. Ruthless isn’t the only show in town when it comes to pragmatism.
Because ruthless as a word has an opposite. A nifty sister antonym that has fallen into obsolescence. That no one really uses but maybe should.
The opposite of ruthless is ruthful. It means “gentle” or “tender.”
So I’m a person who is concerned with whether things work but still cares about other people.
I am a ruthful pragmatist.
Everyone Makes Trade-Offs, You Can’t Read Every Book
Relationships are a lot like anything else. There are limits to everything. You will never explore every emotional connection. Not everyone is a suitable partner (they don’t reciprocate, they’re monogamous, wrong sexual orientation, too far away, busy for you, etc), and even if all you did was have relationships (inadvisable because you gotta do things like pay your bills and clean your house), you would run out of time.
It’s much the same way that you’ll never read every book.
I remember the moment I realized that. The number of books in the world had seemed manageable before then.
My parents didn’t have so many at home (neither of them read for pleasure). Getting new books was an event, whether offloaded from my aunt or scooped up at yard sales. I had cobbled together a meager collection at home that I was rather proud of and working my way through, day by day. I wanted to read everything, and up until then, it seemed like I could.
But standing in my elementary school library surrounded by more books than I had ever seen in my life, it occurred to me then that even if I were to do nothing else that it would be quite a long time before I’d finish this one room.
And by that time, surely more books would come out.
It was the first time I was confronted with the notion of trade-offs. You picked which books you read and which ones you ignored.
You decided how much time you read and how much time you wrote.
How much you read and how much you played video games.
How much you read and how much you practiced a musical instrument.
And how much time you spent on your homework and how much time you spent with your boyfriend or girlfriend.
Sometimes You Clip Coupons, Sometimes You Sew
It was a heartbreaking discovery but one that I would encounter over and over again. There were limits to things. There was only so much time and attention.
The people I knew growing up in the Maine woods only had so much money.
And there was only so much energy in the universe. Energy could neither be created nor destroyed. But it could be transformed into something else.
I learned from my grandmother that sometimes you clipped coupons on packaged goods to afford better meat. Sometimes you went to the woods and hunted, using every scrap you could in the moment, preserving or giving away the rest to someone who needed it more than you.
You bought the scratch-and-dent appliances that fancy people shunned and positioned them in your house so that no one noticed the scuffs. You learned to sew and transformed other people’s cast-off clothes into wearable art.
You chose your friends very carefully, knowing that sometimes loyalty to one person would drive others away. If you were clever, you could sometimes find a way to have it both ways. If you wanted to spend time with two friends and they happened to get along, you didn’t have to pick one or the other; you could arrange a play date together. But that wasn’t always the case; sometimes you had to choose because a friend would say “it’s them or me.”
You Can Tell A Lot About a Person From the Trade-Offs They Choose
Some people were more territorial when it came to friendships and resources. They didn’t know how to share. Zero sum thinkers, they forced you into additional, unnecessary trade-offs. I learned to avoid them. Because they were sweet friends in summer but bitter and useless in winter. The first ones to leave you for sunnier places the moment your reserves ran out.
But one thing was for sure: Everyone around me was making trade-offs. You could have everything you wanted but not all at once — and maybe not without suffering or going without something else for a long time. Or doing something you weren’t proud of.
And you could tell a lot about a person from the trade-offs that they chose.
Some didn’t understand the notion of making trade-offs, of setting priorities. They considered themselves the most unlimited and egalitarian of all. But they seemed to make just as many trade-offs as anyone else, only they were unaware that they were doing it (or really what the choices they were making even were and how those choices realistically fit into their lives). And this lack of awareness caused a lot of problems. Because not choosing has its own cost.
I chose to be a person who was very practical but still cared deeply about other people. This meant I didn’t always get everything I wanted (at least not right away). But it was the only way I could live with myself.
You Can Have It Both Ways
That said, there are times when you really can have it both ways. For example, most people don’t know this, but you can be focused and relaxed. Practical and caring.
As Richard Carlson writes:
Let Go of the Idea that Gentle, Relaxed People Can’t Be Superachievers
One of the major reasons so many of us remain hurried, frightened, and competitive, and continue to live life as it were one giant emergency, is our fear that if we were more peaceful and loving, we would suddenly stop achieving our goals. We would become lazy and apathetic.
You can put this fear to rest by realizing that the opposite is actually true. Fearful, frantic thinking takes an enormous amount of energy and drains the creativity and motivation from our lives. When you are fearful or frantic, you literally immoblize yourself from your greatest potential, not to mention enjoyment. Any success that you have is despite your fear, not because of it.
Relationships Aren’t for Perfectionists, But Neither Is Happiness
As a relationship writer, I try to give the best advice I can. But I’m not going to blow smoke up your skirt (if I can help it). Perfection isn’t really on the table. Relationships are imperfect because life is imperfect. So of course polyamory is imperfect. Love is imperfect. Humans are imperfect.
As a pragmatist, I try to focus not on ideological purity but on what I’ve seen work. And whenever possible, I will give you the most actionable steps I know to get you a little closer to what you’re looking to do.
I’m always on the hunt for what works — even if it sounds a little crazy to other people.
What I come up with is never going to be perfect. But I can honestly say that giving up the need to be perfect was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
It was terrifying at first. It felt like the fast track to Slacker City. How could I possibly achieve if I didn’t demand the absolute best from myself?
How could I stay ambitious and hungry if I was satisfied with less than perfection? Simple. I put the emphasis on the effort instead of the result. And made the goal showing up consistently and focusing on continual improvement. And I reminded myself that gentle, relaxed people can be superachievers, despite what I’d been raised to believe.
Shockingly, I didn’t instantly turn into a slacker. Instead, I learned to be an optimizer, instead of a perfectionist. I paid careful attention to the trade-offs that I was making and what they said about me. And how those trade-offs affected others around me.
My head noticeably cleared. It felt like a fog had been lifted. Being patient with myself and looking at the world in realistic terms actually made me more productive.
I went from being a disappointed idealist to being a ruthful pragmatist. And I’ve never been happier.