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The Power of Optimism
"This time it's different." Investors and founders live and die by this cliché, and cynics mock them when things go wrong.
I think about this concept frequently because to be focused on cleantech today inherently means I believe this time is different.
Cynicism provides a safety blanket to protect ourselves from disappointment and pain. But, an optimal amount of pain is required for success.1
Optimism compounds2, leads to breakthroughs and helps spot opportunities. While optimism paired with low agency isn't valuable, optimism combined with high agency is powerful. We can't believe this time is different without being optimistic; we can't create change without agency.
Optimism can change perspectives and shift outcomes. Bear with me as I demonstrate with a rudimentary example from my childhood.
When I was a kid, we went on road trips for vacations. We played a version of a game where you spot as many cars of a certain color as possible in a set amount of time. For our sake, let's say blue.
Now, the number of blue cars on the road didn't change, but our intentions shifted. The intention shift created the feeling that the share of blue cars suddenly increased.
Intentions affect perception and behaviors, which affect results. Similarly, if our beliefs - (optimism in this case) focuses on what we want (climate solutions), the goal gets closer to reality.
We can call this placebo or conditioning, but it works. Beliefs filter what we deem significant and are the first step in selecting where to focus our attention.
While we're focused on optimism, we can use the inverse to see the same dynamic. Look no further than the recession that came and went with a whisper instead of a bang (fingers crossed).
The data we historically leverage to analyze the economy never felt catastrophic. But, people were feeling the pain largely due to inflation and rising interest rates. The gap between this belief and the truth generates a "vibe" that determines how we feel.3 How we feel determines how we act.
When we believe that the world can shift, we act upon it. When we act upon it, someone else witnesses that, and they act upon it. This brings me to another important point - optimism compounds.
Steel is special, electronics are incredible, and harnessing power from the sun is magic. I wonder, however, if Bessemer, Edison, and Fritts (inventor of the solar panel) expected derivatives of their three inventions to combine to meet 5% (and rapidly growing) of the world's power demand.
Mixing and compounding ideas into big ones drives the world, and optimism is the foundation of those ideas. In this sense, optimism has a marketing problem. Optimists generally sell a vision of the ideal state of the world and the speed at which it can happen. Ideas, however, are like money. The magic is in the long-term compounding. This makes the job of a cynic easier because progress often hides in plain sight.
The loud voices of cynics can paralyze even the most aggressive actor. It can take the high agency person and turn them passive instantly. Optimism, however, is nothing without action. We can believe in our ideas, thesis, and abilities, but they are only real once we act on them.
Pushing optimism can be challenging, but it is essential for collaboration, idea generation, and playing positive-sum games. I've seen more of this in clean tech in the last four years than in the previous ten combined.
This time won't always be different, but this time it is.
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