I mean what are we doing? What are we learning? What are we building?
Why does it feel like we’re one stubbed toe or bad conference call away from totally losing it? It feels like every minor inconvenience has the potential to the be the green light to finally go rogue – reformat the laptop, abandon the apartment, and just drive. Does it really matter where to? It’s not here.
You know what also doesn’t help? Often, society. If you look around for just a little too long, you might get the feeling you’re living in Satan’s cut of a Dr. Seuss book: Variants, and NFTs, and Tik Tok Stars – oh my! As Walter Sobchak once asked, “Has the whole world CRAZY?!“.1 Eh, probably. Maybe not. Does it matter?
That sensation of something being off or just plain wrong comes way too often. And when we try to address it, it runs off and drags us on a winding road of emotions. Cackling and slipping through our grasp as we desperately seek that exasperated moment where we get to say “I did it! I got him!” But you never get him. You never catch the dragon.2
But that’s life – figuring out how to balance this mental turmoil with cogent, tangible goals. With reasserting some control in what we can do and realizing some measurable progress.
Even when we feel like we have a good sense of control, direction, some emotional stability, and have an overall decent approach to life..we can just feel out of place. We feel like an orange in meeting with Japanese TV executives.3 It’s not that we aren’t somewhere good, it’s just maybe somewhere we don’t belong. Or that things should be different. But we don’t know how. And we certainly don’t know what we can do about it.
But things should be different. They should be better.
Feeling like things could be better, and being willing to do the work, but having no idea what to do is a temporal purgatory.4 The desire for growth within the infinite optionality and crushing possibility engulfs us like smoke. Our efforts to clear it away from focus simply stir it about.
Indefinite optimism may provide a way to better examine the situation. A narrative police sketch for the suspected culprit.
In Zero to One, Peter Thiel outlines how our outlook on the future can shape our perspective, the level of control we think we have on changing our outcomes, and therefore our actions and disposition today. Thiel provides four distinct outlooks on the future which can be seen in the world today or in relatively recent history: definite optimism, definite pessimism, indefinite optimism, and indefinite pessimism.5
“To an indefinite optimist, the future will be better, but he doesn’t know how exactly, so he won’t make any specific plans. He expects to profit from the future but sees no reason to design it concretely.” Thiel goes on to explain how we see this manifested in a corporate culture of following the beaten path and re-working and re-selling things that have already been done. A generation aspiring to be bankers (rearranging capital structures), lawyers (resolving old disputes and planning other people’s affairs), and consultants (managing and optimizing existing businesses) following the proven path to earn status and economic safety, with no underlying direction or purpose, who then find themselves wondering why they feel burnt out and empty. Wondering what will eventually come next.6
Indefinite optimists suffer pointedly from the inability to see how things get better or what else their (professional) life will bring. When does the grueling overworking crest and reveal paradise? When do the endless client calls reveal their hidden secrets of purpose and wisdom? When does a collection of checklists and reshuffling of mindless emails reveal tangible skills we can actually use to create a life we want to live?
I’m not sure that these things ever happen. Meanwhile, the bank still isn’t taking hopes and dreams as mortgage payments. So then here we sit, working away at our little piece of the age of information, catching glimpses in the window of our would-be Tyler Durden. The person we think we could be, but just can’t quite make out.
The concept of indefinite optimism, of believing things can and will get better but not knowing how, reminds us that there is something wrong. That lingering smoke gliding around us is not an illusion, and it’s not the oat milk in our cold brew that’s off. It’s not the humming in your car. It’s not your fucking Lulu’s. But something is off. Something is wrong.
Do we ever break out of indefinite optimism as a society and have clear visions for how it all ties together and gets better? I have no idea, how would we even know? How would it affect this generation in real-time? Progress, even when accelerated, is gradual.7 It’s easy to look back and say what concretely happened. But as to how it’s actively changing and impacting those well on their way in life? Hard to know. At least I certainly don’t.
It’s like asking when a psychedelic mushroom trip is over. Yeah the giggling slows down, the colors stop inverting, and things go back to…not wiggling…but it’s not as though there’s some green light from your brain to confirm it’s over. You just get up the next day and move on. And if you ask “well how do we know that it’s ever truly over”, it doesn’t matter. Because it can’t.
The Slow Release Antidote of Accountability and Compounding Progress
The answer to indefinite optimism, to that nagging feeling, is you. It’s each of us seeing reality as it is, believing in a cornucopia of possibility, and having the guts to start down a new path. Instead of waiting for the future to get better with pensive curiosity, start creating your personal future.
This is very cliché advice. But at certain point, life makes it easy to stop making challenging choices. The roof doesn’t leak, the AC is at 65, and the Costco runs fill the fridge. Life is good. And if you’re set with how things are? Read no further.
If you do want more, or just want different, to wait around for an answer while feeling the atmospheric pressure of indefinite optimism, is the equivalent of never leaving your house because you’re terrified to miss a phone call that no one ever promised you.
If indefinite optimism is an affliction of indecision, a sickness of doubt about what life will bring into our lives, then the only antidote can be the certainty which comes from forgoing chance in favor of focus and action.
I don’t even feel right saying that this is an opinion! What other options are there? Call it life, God, Fate, the government, mole people, or Kevin Parker – look around – no one is coming to change our lives. No one is coming to change yours. You are not in Helm’s Deep with Gandalf on the way. You are not going to get that thing Peter Potamus sent you. The stonk is not coming back for the $400 bag holders.
Whether you have faith in society and the institutions, or you think the lizard people are weeks away from making their final move, accept that in either scenario, the broader powers that be are, in general, not going to do anything to improve your life. They will have a smaller impact on your daily life than your local coffee shop or a rainbow in the sky.
So, what can we do?
First, stop sweating like a pig the farmer at the bacon factory won’t stop staring it. A concept like indefinite optimism can feel dejecting at first. It can feel isolating and like the world let you down. Immediately following that, should come relief. It’s up to us. It’s up to you. Find true solace in no longer having to wonder how things will go. Nope. You have to decide.
Next, disengage from passive reality. In life there are active realities, and there are passive realities. Active realities are what happen within the unique perspective of your own, actual life. Passive realities are those things that happen in the world which exists between Instagram and the White House – you know, pretty much every standard example of “the world”.
Passive realities often command obsession. We get fixated on things we can’t control and it drives us to madness or fanaticism. Spending precious time doom scrolling headlines of news articles aggregated on a Reddit page, rumbling into a frothing rage wondering why Chicago can’t support a decent BEC (bacon, egg, and cheese) sandwich market, or why your neighbor painted his house that stupid shade of blue – all do nothing to move our individual lives forward. Even people who are so in touch with global politics and local gossip, unless they are themselves working within government or the community. Have you ever spoken to one of these human Alexas? They come in two models: CNN x NPR or NRA x Alex Jones.
What does it get them? Another story at a cocktail party. Another soundbite to effuse at the Deloitte water cooler. Another distraction.
Do things in passive reality matter? Of course they do. Everyone deserves equal rights. Bitcoin to 500k. The local burger shop better have fresh cut fucking fries (we both know you have potatoes back there, Cal). However, knowing we can’t possibly trust passive reality to improve our lives, active reality takes center stage.
In active reality, we have the distinction of our three foot world: what can we affect (control), and from that, what should we focus on?8 The things we can control, choose, decide – all of the good action words which can reshape our existence – can all be found in our three foot world, and therefore, active reality. This is the difference between passive reality and active reality. In general, passive reality acts a time suck and distraction from the things that could reshape our lives, and active reality acts as an arena of opportunity and action.
Indefinite optimism resides within passive reality. The idea that things will be fine, that others are working it, and that life just has to get better…eventually.
And all those things could be true! I sure do hope they are, hell, I think I believe they are. But while we’re waiting, let’s get to work. Let’s not wait around for that phantom phone call. When we get back from building a better life for ourselves and the people we love, maybe we’ll see a notification we have a new voicemail from passive reality, how much sweeter will that be knowing we didn’t wait?
In an increasingly interconnected world which feels progressively emptier, and with a media machine which magnifies and sensationalizes chaos, we have to believe we are on our own. To do anything else, is the equivalent of waiting naked in the wilderness expecting a DoorDash delivery. Is it possible? Surely. But even a magic eight ball would know “all signs point to no”.
You know what else? Fuck ’em. Life is too short to wait and see. Don’t be crazy, don’t drive off the cliff. But start tearing at the corners of your reality. Fuck around with what you’re looking at in front of you for however long you have left, and challenge it. If you claw at the corners of the screen long enough, you might just see something you’re not supposed to see, and do something you never thought possible.
If enough people take this to heart, who knows what’s possible? For you, for your friends, for your hometown. But someone has to fucking do something. As the interstellar android David 8 once said, “Big things have small beginnings”.9 True change happens on a localized scale. The success of larger organizations is the effort of individual people. The greatness of individual people is the result of their own individual focus and consistency.
We can kickstart the process by asking those same questions: what are we doing? What are we learning? What are we building? – and then actually spending time reflecting on these questions, answering them, and creating solutions and next steps which more accurately align to our values to reshape our lives.
Indefinite optimism is easy to fall into. You reach a plateau where things are just..fine. You can get by, you may even be enjoying the way you get by..but then there’s that itch. Could there be more to all this? Could you find something more fulfilling? If you’re asking that questions, the answer is yes.
If we can see ourselves as the answer to the uncertainty of the future (at least as much as possible), then the breadth of what’s possible in our flicker of existence only grows. And if enough of us think that way, approaching the world with open eyes and open hearts, who knows, we might even change the world.
4 – Beer name from 18th Street Brewery in Indiana
5 – Definite optimism is represented by American outlook and progress pre-1970, definite pessimism is represented by present day China, and indefinite pessimism is represented by modern day Europe. For more explanation, pick up a copy of the book. It’s a fascinating, eye opening read which I would highly recommend. It is fantastic for stimulating good questions.
6 – I want to be clear, as an active consultant, I recognize the reality that people have bills to pay and finding a job that pays well then lamenting what the future, your future, looks like is a uniquely first world problem. It also doesn’t apply to everyone. However, I think Thiel expresses an outlook that captures the essence of a wave of Tyler Durden’s: people feeling lost as they look for a better tomorrow and want purpose in their lives. To everyone else, in particular more traditional valued people, you look idealistic, maybe even ungrateful. You look like a petulant child flopping around an empty pool insisting you’re drowning. Meanwhile to you, you are sinking into the Mariana Trench.
7 – Like, for instance, a pandemic
8 – Popularized by Navy SEAL Mark Owen, circle of control is also a key concept discussed by Stephen Covey
9 – From the movie Prometheus. David 8 said that while staring a small black orb of alien goo smaller than his fingernail. He then went on to use that goo do to some…questionable stuff to the human crew.