Definite Optimism And Building The Future

In post-World War II America, optimism prevailed. New technologies were introduced on a daily basis and the standard of life was going up with every passing day. Scientists had cracked the atom and made enormous leaps and bounds in creating a better life for most Americans.

It was thought that life would continue to get better. In the 1950s, a lot of Americans imagined a future where power was too cheap to meter, commuting would be done by helicopter or vacuum train, and smart appliances would do our work for us. It was thought that Americans would work shorter hours, leaving more time for leisure, arts, and science. The Jetsons showed a future of gleaming spires, flying cars, and personal robots. Meanwhile, advertising showed of futuristic rocketships and chromed-out nuclear-powered cars.

The future looked bright. And thousands were working tirelessly to make it so. Interest in the sciences skyrocketed, leading to more and more discoveries and new technologies.

This wonderful future failed to materialize though. The Apollo Moon landings were the zenith of technological excitement. One last hurrah showcasing the promise of the future, after which America and the West quickly went down a different path: one of indifference. In the 70s, rising global tensions and the American entanglement in Vietnam led to disillusionment. All of a sudden, the future wasn't guaranteed to be as great as everyone thought. Pushback reared its head, which was best summarized by the mantra of “Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.”

Even now, 50 years later, most aspects of this exciting future have yet to come to fruition. Energy's more expensive than ever, with the promise of abundant nuclear energy dying in childbirth and global wars raging over the control of oil. Our cities are backed-up with traffic, with the only proposed solution being to add more lanes to our overcrowded highways. We've not gone back to the Moon since the 70s, humans once again being constrained to this pale blue dot. And finally, we're working more hours per week than our parents and grandparents, despite an enormous rise in productivity. What's more, pay has practically stagnated over the past 20 years.

We're not nearly as optimistic as the West once was. Facing a mounting climate crisis, rising inequality, and rising global tensions, the average Joe is a lot less certain and optimistic about the future. All it takes is a single look at the massive success of dystopian fiction and post-apocalyptic video games to understand that we're skeptical about the future.

We need to be cautious though.

After all, our mental model of the world shapes our behavior. It defines what goals to chase, what to study, and what to prioritize as a society. It's optimism that decides whether we decide to invest in technological growth, better education, and improved infrastructure. Having a positive mental model ensures you have a concrete plan for a better future. It's what makes a talented programmer decide to optimize ads for Google versus trying to build true Artificial Intelligence.

The West has moved away from being radically optimistic about the future.

And it's our job to reverse that trend.

A 1959 illustration from Life Magazine that shows the innovations that would change the world by 1975.  (Source: Life Magazine)
A 1959 illustration from Life Magazine that shows the innovations that would change the world by 1975.
(Source: Life Magazine)

Optimism Makes The World Go Round

Peter Thiel believes in the power of optimism.

He's not some self-help guru, promising you riches and guaranteed success. He doesn't make you do self-affirming mantras in the mirror. Nor is he necessarily the most positive person around. That's not the type of optimism he's concerned with.

To Thiel, being optimistic is all about your opinion on the future. It means that you are hopeful and confident about the future. You believe that overtime things will get better. Pessimism on the other hand means that you're convinced that the future will be worse than today. According to him, pessimism is one of the worst curses in existence.

Thiel, a famous investor and entrepreneur, believes that one of the most important distinctions for a society is its perspective on the future, whether it'll be better or worse. In short, whether a society is optimistic or pessimistic. Above all, Thiel believes this to be applicable to the role changing technology will have in bringing out that future, be it better or worse.

The founder of Paypal and Palantir, Peter Thiel has transitioned to investing, with one of his more well-known exploits being an early investment in a small, unassuming social media platform called Facebook. Since then, he started Founder's Fund which tries to invest in companies and technologies that are radically changing the world. Even if they're not necessarily the most profitable or fashionable. It takes a certain brand of investor to fund nuclear fusion startups yet pass on the hot new ride-sharing app. And that's exactly what Thiel is doing.

Thiel believes that we're not prioritizing the right things. Talent and capital is not going to the companies that stand to change the world the most, but rather the ones that will give the biggest returns to investors. As data scientist Jeffrey Hammerbacher said, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” In his Yale commencement speech, Thiel brought it a bit closer to home and said:

We Wanted Flying Cars, But We Got 140 Characters

In his book ‘Zero To One’, Thiel covers what the effects are of optimism and pessimism on someone's career, their community, and countries as a whole. He believes that there are different types of optimists and pessimists. There are those who simply wait and see, while others work towards the future.

He believes that there are optimists who plan and actively work towards a better future, and those who simply rest on their laurels without any real plan, hoping to make use of opportunities as they come along. The same goes for pessimists.

Thiel categorizes the four different types as follows:

1) - Indefinite Pessimism

Pessimism is commonplace in large regions of the world. Indefinite pessimism holds that the future is bleak, but there's no plan or idea on how to turn things around or prepare. Therefore, it is best to be merry in the short-term while we still can. Thiel says that this is exemplified by Europe since the early 1970s, known for its labyrinthine bureaucracy and chronic desire for vacations.

2) - Definite Pessimism

A definite pessimist believes that the future will be bleak and imperfect. He believes there's potential disaster on the horizon, so he prepares for it. According to Thiel, this is exemplified by modern-day China, where overpopulation, ecological collapse, and potential economic downturn are at the forefront of a lot of peoples’ thoughts. In short, the definite pessimist has a specific vision for the future but believes that future to be bleak. Doomsday preppers and gold-hoarders are good examples as well.

3) - Indefinite Optimism

The dominant form of thinking in America for the past 40/50 years, indefinite optimism has reigned supreme lately. America profited from a handful of long, back-to-back bull markets and America becoming the sole superpower after the USSR collapsed. Financial institutions and other ‘paper-pushing’ industries became exceedingly wealthy thanks to these trends and they've held the majority of mindshare ever since.

To an indefinite optimist, it's certain that the future will be better and markets will go up. But how or why, he doesn't know exactly. He doesn't make any plans for future growth. Rather, he expects to spot opportunities as they come along and to profit off of them. Therefore, he doesn't any reason to go out and create the opportunities himself.

4) - Definite Optimism

To a definite optimist, the future will be better than the present if he plans and works to make it better. From the 17th century through the 1950s and ’60s, definite optimists led the Western world. Scientists, engineers, doctors, and businessmen made the world richer, healthier, and more long-lived than previously imaginable. Definite optimism is what drove the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution.

Thiel believes that definite optimism is preferable to all other types. Humanity has thrived precisely because of our ability to plan and dream of better futures. If we hadn't, we would've never progressed into the age of agriculture. Humanity would've been stillborn. Human civilization is inherently dependent on definite optimism and goals. To Thiel, a goal is a definite view of the future. That is, you have an exact idea of what the future should be, and set about making it happen.

Indefinite optimism terrifies Thiel. According to him, it creates a sense of security without any actual security because you essentially give up control over planning and freewill and put control into someone else’s hands. You trust Mr. Market (fickle bastard that he is) and simply hope for the best.

Look at the Baby Boomers for example, they grew up when everything was on the rise. If you look at the S&P 500 between 1946 and 1964 it had a continuous upward trend with fairly little downturn. This generation grew up in an era that was highly optimistic with fairly little influence over the actual success as they were still growing up. In short, they never learned that progress is inherently tied to setting goals for the future.

The Need For Optimism

More than anything, we could do with more definite optimists.

The 21st century promises to be a defining time for humanity. The decisions that are made in the next 100 years will reverberate in the centuries to come. We're facing a number of crises, each of which requires many thousands of ambitious entrepreneurs, researchers, tinkerers, and dreamers. Simply put, we need more optimists who are willing to go out there and put the work in.

Success is not guaranteed. It never is, especially when you're chasing grand, hyper-ambitious visions. As Elon Musk puts it, “When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.” And who would know better? He's gone up against some of the most hide-bound and entrenched industries in the world, automotive engineering and the aerospace industry, and single-handedly changed them around.

Elon Musk is a personification of definite optimism. He has grand visions for the world, one wherein we live in Mars, access to space is cheap, and we all drive electric cars through millions of underground tunnels. His vision is staggering, often to the ridicule of many.

Once, we were more willing to entertain grand visions, regardless of where they came from. In the late 1940s, a Californian named John Reber proposed a plan to dam off the San Francisco bay with massive dams, generating massive amounts of power and reclaiming over 20,000 acres of land. Even though he had no credentials (he was a schoolteacher and self-taught engineer), his plans were taken seriously and the US Army conducted feasibility studies. It turned out that the proposal was infeasible and the plan was shelved.

The important thing to note is that the plan was never ridiculed though. There were very few naysayers. Grand visions were welcomed and encouraged. Now, the proposal would be derided and dragged through the mud before the first test had ever been done.

An illustration of the proposed Weber Plan, which would see two massive dams constructed to close off the San Francisco Bay
An illustration of the proposed Weber Plan, which would see two massive dams constructed to close off the San Francisco Bay

More than any other industry, startups stand to benefit the most from definite optimism. To start a startup, you inherently need to be optimistic. You need to believe that your company can make a difference and somehow fulfill someone's need.

Although to be fair, most startups are far from removed from their ideals of making a change in the world. As Thiel puts it:

“Incrementalism is rife in start up land and that people are guilty of indefinite optimism - while lacking a specific design and vision for the world, they are highly confident in the process for arriving at a positive outcome. Trust in the process, take little bets to learn, leverage optionality, and arrive at a place of market-fit. The definite optimist on the other hand has a specific vision for the future, i.e. Steve Jobs, that does not rely on customer feedback but rather on a radical, new design for a better world.”

If Peter Thiel had his way, we'd all be more like Elon Musk. We'd be brave enough to create a new world.

Now, it's important to note that when we're talking about optimism and a ‘positive’ vision for the future, we're not necessarily talking about something that's inherently cheerful. Rather, it refers to having faith in the world getting better, with a great enough vision and plenty of elbow grease.

Most of all, it's important to have a vision. An idea of how the world can be better than it is today. New technologies that might change the way we live, societal influences that will affect us going forward, etc. For many, science-fiction and fantasy have the single biggest contributors to this vision. Elon Musk, for instance, has publicly said that he's taken a lot of cues from ‘Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy’ and ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’.

Immersing yourself in these make-believe world helps you expand what you consider plausible. It makes it possible to consider what civilization could look like in the 2100 and beyond. Figure out what kinds of breakthroughs we'll need in order to get there.

And then it's time to build.

Building A Better Future

The future belongs to the builders. The tinkerers, and the hackers. They're the lifeblood of our civilization and technological progress.

Much of the growth of the internet over the past 20 years is solely due to a small group of enthusiasts building away at their vision for the future. Silicon Valley has blown up as a result and many thousands are flocking towards the SF Bay Area to chase their dreams. Whether those dreams are fueled by vision or greed is a different story, but they're building nonetheless.

And building is what it's all about, according to Marc Andreessen. A prominent Venture Capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz, Andreessen recently published an essay called ‘It's Time To Build.’ Tt took Twitter by storm. People loved it, hated it, and debated it till they were blue in the face.

The entire essay will take you less than ten minutes to read, yet in it, Andreessen gives some very compelling thoughts on the state of innovation and how we should be doing better. Mirroring Peter Thiel, he makes it clear why it's important to be optimistic about the future and to work towards that better tomorrow. He also thinks that we've lost our way, becoming too caught up in bureaucracy, naysaying, and chasing low-effort ideas that will not truly impact the way we live.

More than anything, the essay was meant as a call to action. One to disregard the incremental and to focus on the big issues that trouble us. It's a statement against our modern smug complacency, this satisfaction with the status quo and the unwillingness to build. He specifically singled out the healthcare sector for its general unpreparedness for the Corona outbreak, but it applied to many more aspects of Western life, and especially throughout America.

Andreessen asks some very pointed questions. What might society look like if we had energy too cheap to meter? If artificial intelligences became ubiquitous and our daily companions? If we could zoom across the solar system in weeks? If every man, woman, and child on Earth was guaranteed access to water, food, shelter, and a world-class education?

Wouldn't that be a future worth living in?

Most of the issues we have nowadays stem from not having enough people working on solutions. The housing shortage is due to a lack of new construction. The energy crisis could conceivably be solved through investment in small nuclear reactors and solar energy. Yet very few people are building. To have faster and more efficient ways of travel, we'll need to chase and build them. And in order to revolutionize education, thousands will be needed to build the solutions.

To quote Andreessen, it's time for full-throated, unapologetic, support for building new technologies to solve the problems that plague us. It's the only way he thinks we can reboot the American dream. He says the problem is desire. As a society, we need to want these things. We need to be excited about solving our problems and encouraging those who are actively pursuing them.

Of course, building isn’t easy, or we’d already be doing all this. We need to demand more of our political leaders, of our CEOs, our entrepreneurs, our investors. We need to demand more of our culture, of our society. And we need to demand more from one another. We’re all necessary, and we can all contribute, to building.

We need to keep the tradition of building alive. It's the only we'll progress as a civilization. As he puts it:

Our nation and our civilization were built on production, on building. Our forefathers and foremothers built roads and trains, farms and factories, then the computer, the microchip, the smartphone, and uncounted thousands of other things that we now take for granted, that are all around us, that define our lives and provide for our well-being. There is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our own children and grandchildren, and that’s to build.”

Chasing A Better Tomorrow

We live in one of the most exciting and turbulent times in history. We're at the precipice of a number of major crises that will massively impact the way we live our lives. We need to prepare for them. Most of all, we need to build. We need to figure out plans for a better future and chase them down relentlessly.

Having a vision for the future and working towards it is more important than ever before.

We should all strive to be definite optimists. Pessimists only rarely do things that push the human race forward. Furthermore, we should train ourselves to be definite optimists, to have a clear vision and — as Andreessen put it — start to build.

The future can be an incredible place to live. If we make it so.

Best to build that future ourselves.

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