I have been reading Peter Thiel’s book, Zero To One, Notes on Startups, Or How to Build the Future. One of the most recent chapters I was reading about discussed the topic of definite and indefinite optimism (with pessimism thrown in as well, but that’s not incredibly important now). I found myself coming to the conclusion that indefinite optimism is to be avoided while definite optimism is what we should strive for in everything we do. I wanted to take some time this morning to reflect on why I feel this way.
Indefinite Optimism Assumes Things Will Get Better Without A Plan
Being optimistic means that you are hopeful and confident about the future. You believe that overtime things will get better. One industry that is full of optimists is the financial industry, you wouldn’t spend money if you expected to lose money, right? Stock brokers working on Wall Street believe that the money they invest in a company they have no control over will go up in value. While you can do some amount of research and investigation into why a company is worth investing in, you typically have an indefinite idea of how the stock will increase in value. This is the indefinite optimist.
You can look at entire swaths of people and say they are all indefinite optimists as well. 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. I tend to associate indefinite optimism with the way our government is ran today; we assume things will get better with little idea about how it will get better.
Indefinite optimism in my eyes is a terrifying thing. 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.
Definite Optimism Assumes Things Will Get Better With A Plan
On the other-hand you have definite optimism. This is where you are hopeful and confident about the future, and you have a plan that leads you to think that way. You can look at a company like Apple when it was ran by Steve Jobs. The company had a vision to create computers in your pocket that people would actually use. You couldn’t just put the product out there and hope it would stick, hardware doesn’t work that way; if it did we would all be reading this on our Palm Pilot 21. Steve started off with the iPod, something fairly minimal that could start building the foundation for the likes of an iPhone some years later. With that kind of knowledge it’s fairly easy to feel optimistic about your future.
I believe the definite optimist is something we should all strive to be. It’s important to be optimistic about the future, pessimists often do little to move things forward. It’s also important to have a plan though. In my fairly relatively small sample size of employers I’ve noticed that as a company grows larger the number of indefinite optimists inside does as well. I think Allstate is a good example that comes to mind (nothing against the company, it truly is a great place). It’s a major corporation where most people can only have a small impact within the confines of their current team. You know the company isn’t going anywhere because of the massive financial reserves that insurance companies tend to have; yet at the same time you can’t really have much of an impact either.
On the other hand you can work for an incredibly tiny an nimble startup where you have the freedom to make major decisions and actually plan out the future of your company. My general experience in that space was bad; I came out of Allstate as an indefinite optimist and the founders I worked with were also indefinite optimists, it’s no surprise this startup is not in business today.
I think I’ve always been aware of the struggles between definite and indefinite thinking, however I never put a label on it. Armed with this new way of thinking I’m kind of excited to start using it in my day to day activities. Is someone showing qualities of an indefinite pessimist? Well how can I move them over to be more optimistic, or at the very least how do I make them see the world as a definite pessimist where they know things suck but at least know why the outlook is that way. I can see how this information can help with building teams or even in hiring new team members. If you have a group of indefinite optimists then maybe you drop a definite optimist into the mix and give them the confidence to start changing minds.
At This Point I’m Rambling
I find myself starting to ramble and looking for tangents to explore, it’s probably a good time to summarize this article. When it comes to building companies or even teams in general I think it’s important to find definite optimists. If you find yourself working with indefinite optimists then it’s important to show them they can change things in a positive way. On the other side of the fence, a definite pessimist is better than an indefinite one however I still think it’s a good idea to move them to the definite optimist quadrant to have the most impact.