Pessimism, Optimism; Definite, Indefinite: Societies According to Peter Thiel

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I just finished Peter Thiel’s new book with Blake Masters, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future and cannot recommend it enough. The book is a quick read, while simultaneously demanding multiple reads to glean the full depth of what Thiel and Masters are addressing. Everything from why social entrepreneurship and “lean startups” are garbage to Girard’s mimetics and the course of society are covered. The book is not just a business book. It is a social commentary. It is a work of philosophy. It is a work of self-help.

Perhaps the most wide-reaching and interesting observation is that on the mindsets of societies and individuals. Thiel identifies four mindsets about the future and relates them to historical and present-day societies.


Untitled drawing (1)The Optimist-Pessimist spectrum is pretty straight-forward and denotes where that society thinks the future is going. Is the world going to get better or worse? Will we colonize Mars, or are we going to be fighting each other just to eat in the coming days?

The Definite-Indefinite spectrum is a bit more interesting, and identifies how that society is going to reach the future. The clearest example, and the one given by Thiel, are the definite optimists of the postwar United States. This is the era of a future sure to hold flying cars, food that materializes in your microwave, and colonies on the moon and Mars. NASA put a man on the moon within twelve years of identifying their goal. Technological progress happened and it happened quickly. The mindset here was, “the future is going to be great, and we are going to build it.” People challenged the dominant way of doing things and created new technologies to bring their challenges into reality. This was the age of innovation. This is the prerequisite mindset for creating new, earth-shattering things.

Then something happened — tech slowed down. Americans stopped thinking of the future as something to be seized and started thinking of it as something to inch towards (aside: perhaps because Americans didn’t have the specter of Communism in the East to push them?). Americans stopped looking at tech as the primary way of moving the world forward and started looking at finance. Wall Street boomed and everybody moved over to investing. Instead of taking real personal risks to build the future, they put their money in “safe” things like investments. Not sure what they’ll do with that money, but they know that it will take them somewhere. To this day, many of those who want to be the movers and shakers of the future first decide they’ll go to Wall Street and make money, then perhaps leave (rarely do they — the money is simply too good). In short, Americans became indefinite optimists. We know the world will get better, we just don’t know how it will.

As much as Americans fear the rise of China, Thiel assures readers it isn’t something to really be feared. The Chinese are simply copying things the West has already done. They’re building cities, copying tech, and raising armies. But rarely does a new innovation come out of China (even Alibaba isn’t anything new…it’s simply new for China). They’re preparing for something, and it isn’t preparing for a bright future. They are the definite pessimists. They know the future is going to be worse than the present, and they are preparing for it.

Perhaps most interesting to me is Thiel’s identification of the indefinite pessimists: modern-day Europeans. “The world is going to hell in a hand basket, so we might as well as drink and be merry,” could be a summary of their perspective.  “Tech slowdown,” doesn’t even begin to describe the lack of major innovations coming out of Europe, because few Europeans view the world as a place to be made one’s own. This is reflected in the importance of constant vacation to Europeans, even those of more productive cultures (i.e., Germany). Consider the observation by John Lewis CEO Andy Street on France, “nothing works and nobody cares.”

Anecdotally, this appears to be the case as well. The number of Europeans I know constantly on vacation is astounding. Even more, this seems reflected in the schools. The idea of not getting a schooled education in much of Western Europe is considered preposterous. Germany made news recently with its decision to forbid tuition charges by higher ed institutions. Though this may be mistaken as a case of indefinite optimism — just like how many Americans will go to college, get a BA, go to grad school, get an MA, and then have no idea what they are doing — it can also be a sign of their indefinite pessimism. Things are getting worse, so let’s spend our time getting even more degrees rather than going out and creating something. Though it may not be the “eat, drink, and be merry” of the romantic cultures, this perpetual-schooling is a form of the same, simply imbued with the work mindset.

If we want to create a Jetson’s world, we need to shift our mindset not only as a society, but also as individuals, to definite optimism. The future can be great and earth-shattering, but only if people are willing to go out and make it that way.



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