The Roots of Progress

“Definite” vs. “indefinite” optimism as a false dichotomy

I have started another conversation on Letter, this time with Ben Reinhardt, who interviewed me for his podcast Idea Machines. This one is about Peter Thiel’s concept of “definite” vs. “indefinite” optimism:

The paradox is: we can achieve big visions, we can master fate, we can control our destiny—but our knowledge is always incomplete, risk and uncertainty are always present, and we can never predict the future except in broad outline.

Even a big vision needs iterative development. When we began the Apollo program, we didn’t know how we were going to get to the Moon. Even the basic strategy of lunar orbit rendezvous was not obvious and almost didn’t happen. Nor did we try to get to the Moon on our first launch. There was a series of experimental steps to prove concepts and technology before we even made the attempt.

Further, although I can agree that big visions are underrated these days, not every great development in history has started with a big vision. When James Watt began tinkering to improve the efficiency of the steam engine, I don’t think he was setting out to revolutionize the entire economy. William Henry Perkin tried to synthesize the anti-malarial drug quinine, and failed—but succeeded in creating the first synthetic dye, thus kicking off the dye industry, which paved the way for the wider chemical industry. When Pasteur did his work to improve fermentation for French wine and beer makers, he couldn’t have known that his would ultimately lead to the germ theory and a revolution in medicine; nor did he begin his work on chicken cholera thinking it would lead to the first vaccine in over a hundred years. Columbus, of course, did not set out to discover a new continent. …

We should absolutely identify big goals, and go directly after them. But we should also realize that we don’t know what all the valuable goals are, and so we need to leave room for tinkering and experimentation, even if it seems at the time to be on toy problems or niche interests. I fear that Thiel’s emphasis on “definite optimism”, and his disparaging comments about “not knowing what you’re going to do”, fail to strike the right balance.

Ultimately I see “definite” vs. “indefinite” as a false alternative. There are always some things that are known and some that are not. We should identify what we know and what we don’t, and act accordingly, rather than choosing full allegiance to certainty or uncertainty, as if we had to pick sides. It’s no more a virtue to over-invest or to fail to diversify when appropriate, than it is to fail to recognize and act on clear truths or big opportunities. The right approach was articulated by Jeff Bezos: stubborn on vision, flexible on details.

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