The Case for Realistic Optimism

In Zero to One, Peter Thiel outlines four ways one can look at the future. Based on your time horizon and personal disposition, you could be a definite or indefinite pessimist, or a definite or indefinite optimist.

An indefinite pessimist expects a bleak future but feels helpless in doing anything about it, Thiel explains. So he just sits around, waits, and enjoys his time. That’s all of Europe, by the way, according to Thiel.

A definite pessimist has a very specific idea of how and why the future will be bad, and so she works like hell to avoid it. Enter China, a country that has grown like mad in the last 20 years by copying what worked in the West, but where now many are trying to save, protect, and export what they have built — including themselves and their fortunes.

An indefinite optimist is certain the future will be great — he just doesn’t know what shape it might take, and so he doesn’t plan for any scenario in particular. In fact, he doesn’t make plans at all. He just moves around money, administrative procedures, senate seats, and existing products, often turning A into B only to revert it to A three months later. Welcome to the world of “lean,” “agile,” “iteration,” and “minimum viable product” — and the United States after 1982, Thiel claims.

“But how can the future get better if no one plans for it?” he asks. It can’t — and that’s why the last of his four options is the only one that truly works: A definite optimist believes in a better future, but she knows that future will only arrive if she plans for it and makes it happen. Hope and hard work, that’s all. What else is there? What else need there be? Not much, if you ask Thiel. And without those two things, everything else won’t matter much either.

People sometimes ask me how I can be so positive. Why I’m chirpy and upbeat most of the time. Definite optimism, or “realistic optimism,” as I usually call it is the best answer I can give. With regards to the outcome, the two terms are synonymous: If you always believe there’s a better future to be had if only you work hard for it, there’s always one of two things you can do in any situation: You can hope or you can work. On most days, you’ll choose both — and that’s why you’ll be happy.

When times are good, you know that this is the future you’ve labored to build. You’re not entirely sure whether, this time, it’s luck or a deserved reward, but you enjoy it because you know you’ve done your part regardless.

When times are bad, you might not know what to do or where your next breakthrough will come from — you might not be able to do much work right now at all — but you can take comfort in the fact that a good future is always waiting. Ready. Biding it’s time until you figure it out, catch a lucky break, or can get back to work. You might fret for a bit, but the fretting will never last long.

Realistic optimism eradicates both daydreams and despair. It keeps you calm. Centered. Aligned in the healthy, happy, smooth-sailing middle. It is forward-looking yet not past-forgetting, and it feels compelled to both justify its claims and back up its words with actions. It’s an empowering personal philosophy and a wonderful way to look at the world, for you’ll see the future not just for what it can be but for the essential part you’ll play in bringing about that vision.

Try realistic optimism. Something tells me you won’t regret it.