Resources for definite optimism

What do you mean by ‘definite optimism’?

Creating and maintaining positive and specific visions of the future of humanity. This essay by Dan Wang is a great place to start. As far as I know, the term originates from Peter Thiel’s CS183 class (see here in particular) and the subsequent book, Zero to One, based on it (some notes here).

Why should I care about being definitely optimistic?

  • You’ll be more cheerful – optimism is always more fun than the alternative.

  • You’ll generate better ideas, in larger quantities. I can’t prove this, I don’t even have any evidence. But it’s worth at least considering – if you can approximate a source of independent, identically-distributed ideas, your chances of producing no good ideas decrease exponentially over time.

  • The demand for definiteness acts as an excellent BS filter (talk is cheap)

  • A definite attitude is a prerequisite for executing ambitious, multi-step projects, which are often very cool

  • Zero to one
  • Dan Wang:
  • On definite optimism

    To have a positive vision, people must first expand their imaginations. And I submit that an interest in science fiction, the material world, and proximity to industry all help to refine that optimism. I mean to promote imagination by direct injection.

    And so:

    First, we can all try to engage more actively with the material world, not merely the digital or natural world. Go ahead and pick an industrial phenomenon and learn more about it. Learn more about the history of aviation, and what it took to break the sound barrier; gaze at the container ships as they sail into port, and keep in mind that they carry 90 percent of the goods you see around you; read about what we mold plastics to do; meditate on the importance of steel in civilization; figure out what’s driving the decline in the cost of solar energy production, or how we draw electricity from nuclear fission, or what it takes to extract petroleum or natural gas from the ground.

  • On how technology grows
  • On experimentation in the sixties

    In 1962, James Van Allen announced to the world his discovery of a layer of radiation by the earth’s magnetic field. The military promptly decided to detonate a thermonuclear bomb inside it.

  • Patrick Collison’s list of fast projects
  • Patrick Collison’s list of “successful industrial/applied research labs”

    …does it just seem that their heyday is past, or has something structurally changed?

  • The Three Body Trilogy
  • This excellent biography of Elon Musk
  • Alexey Guzey on what to do with your life

    Cold emails and twitter are a godsend for people who have high potential, but lack the opportunity to realize it … If you can demonstrate that you have high potential and/or can be useful to somebody, you should just email/tweet them and let them know about it.

  • Roots of progress, an excellent blog on progress studies and the history of technology
  • Trevor McKendrick’s newsletter
  • Any biography of the Wright brothers; this is the only one I’ve read
  • Patrick Collison’s list of questions
  • This biography of John Boyd. Contains, among other things, an interesting account of the development of the A-10
  • Iain Banks’s Culture series. You can start here
  • Sam Altman’s blog.
  • Wikipedia’s list of megaprojects
  • Titan: Chernow’s biography of John Rockefeller.
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
  • Conspiracy: on Thiel’s Gawker campaign
  • The Founders Fund manifesto




  • Y Combinator – funding for your startup.
  • How It’s Made – TV show about how stuff is made.
  • Kennedy’s speech at Rice
  • Trade journal cooperative – “a niche trade journal delivered to your door, quarterly”. Note: I’ve never actually read this as it’s print only, but it’s a great idea. If you have, I’d like to hear what you think.

Last update: 2019-11-01