I am currently listening to Peter Thiels book Zero To One, and there are some striking observations about the state of the world.
There are more striking insights than I could possibly write about, however a concept that really caught my attention was his indictment about the state of optimism in the United States. Thiel does not state that Americans are not pessimistic about the future. He does not go on and on about how opportunities do not exist, in fact he characterized the United States as being largely optimistic.
Thiel broke down optimism into two parts: definite optimism and indefinite optimism. For Thiel, definite optimism is when people are optimistic for the future in a definite way. This meaning relates to vision and outlook. He believes that when people are definitely optimistic they are positive about the future and feel some conviction about what the future will look like. Thiel talks about grand visions like the rail roads, building of cities, and airplanes that connect people from across the world. In Thiels mind, the people who built our civilizations over the last few centuries had dreams and goals about where they wanted to take society, and they worked furiously to make those dreams a reality.
In contrast, Thiel believes the modern United States is best characterized by indefinite optimist: the belief the future will be good, but with no clear vision or goals in mind. Thiel interestingly points out that when people are optimistic but lack conviction to a vision of the future, we look to hedge our bets instead of create new innovative ideas.
He points out that people today are highly focused on diversification. Diversification comes in many forms such as resume building, learning various sets of skills for backup plans, etc… Essentially, people are trying to maximize their optionality in a world where the future is uncertain. Thiel notes that people are focused on maximizing options for themselves, they go into fields such as finance and law which allow them to move and work within the already existing frame work.
The key here is when people are focused on maximizing options instead of creating and executing a vision of the future, innovation stalls. In fact, from interviews I have heard from Thiel, he believes civilization is in, or is moving into an innovation crisis. He believes that civilization will fail to innovate if people take the path of maximizing options as opposed to creating new ideas, business, and products.
After listening to the chapter about optimism and pessimism, I was quite struck at the parallels in my own life. While I am always on the look out for new business opportunities, I similarly think about optionality and freedom a lot. I do not believe optionality is inherently bad, but alone it does not lend itself to innovation.
For someone like myself who wants to create business and value for society, I am looking to maximize optionality from a survival standpoint, but not from a life strategy one. It makes sense to diversify your skills and money to ensure your survival, but once you survive, there has be to a next step. A life long strategy of mere survival will not push you to create anything. However, to move from survival to creation is a more fulfilling and promising strategy for living.
To juxtapose these thoughts with advice from Taleb, it seems that societies most noble efforts are in creation. We should strive to create opportunities for ourselves, make new products, make new services, literature, and art. Learning a variety of skills in hopes of adapting to various career opportunities is passive, allows us to be more easily controlled by those who do have vision, and some peoples visions should never be actualized, especially those of socialists and eco-terrorists.