Where are the flying cars we were promised? Are we really supposed to think that the creation of Twitter was a landmark human achievement? Will the future that Star Trek prophesied ever happen?
These are the questions that Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist and co-founder of PayPal, is asking a lot these days. He’s disappointed with the deceleration of technological and human advancement and he suspects that at its core, this stagnation is being caused by leaders who are ensnared by a very harmful worldview.
From the end of World War II through the late 60’s, leaders in America were a pretty optimistic bunch. They believed that the world and the future were largely determinate (not to be confused with deterministic). According to their view of the world, if humanity could more fully understand the laws that governed the universe and apply imagination to these findings, it could turn the dream of an equitable and prosperous future into a reality.
These were the decades of the Marshall Plan and the Moonshot–long-term planning, novel ideas, and immense levels of investment. Thiel is nostalgic for an America that was led by artists who envisioned the future and engineers who made it happen.
This way of looking at the world changed in the 1980’s when, according to Thiel, Americans began to believe that success had more to do with luck than with imagination and hard work. America’s leaders became convinced that the future was indeterminate, unknowable, and random.
When this happened, true innovation and breakthrough ideas dried up. Instead of calculus being the dominate form of mathematics, America became obsessed with statistics and the bell curve’s ability to shield those who understood it from risk. Another cultural symptom of this indeterminate worldview was the outsized role that finance, law, and insurance began to play in the economy.
Leaders in America no longer created the future, but instead tended the country’s legal and financial systems while everyone waited and hoped for the future to arrive. Long-term planning and massive, focused investments were exchanged for incremental change and safe diversified portfolios. America’s leaders became observers and managers rather than doers.
Beliefs, these invisible things we hold in our heads, shape our minds and, ultimately, our world. So, we should carefully consider what we believe. While it’s easy to let our culture and upbringing hand us all our beliefs about how the world works, critical thinkers like Thiel remind me that the best leaders think for themselves and have the ability to challenge the dominate narrative of society.
Ask yourself the following question: Which of the following quotes do I most resonate with?:
“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” –Thomas Jefferson
“Success seems to stem as much from context as from personal attributes.” –Malcolm Gladwell
Which is it? Is luck or hard work more important? That is for you to decide. But consider this: how you answer the question will impact your behavior and change the world.
Image credit: “Dry Land” by worradmu at FreeDigitalPhotos.net