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Optimism and invention

It’s far easier to think of problems than solutions.

When I was founding my first startup - accidentally - in Scotland almost twenty years ago, the reaction I got more than anything else was “it’ll never work”. So many people told me to go get a real job that I left Scotland to get away from them. Even when I moved to the US a decade later and was working on the second startup I co-founded, people often told me that I should go do something more useful. “That’s the worst fucking idea I’ve ever heard,” one person - an entrepreneur, even! - once said to me.

While criticism is easy, optimism and invention are hard.

I think cultivating a bias towards forward motion - one that sees problems with clear eyes but nonetheless also sees the possibilities - is a vital skill not just for entrepreneurship, but for life. If you’re constantly concerned about what might go wrong, there’s very little you can effectively do. If you constantly worry that you’re not capable of achieving something, you never will.

Of course, the lists of things that might go wrong are different for different people, and a reasonable definition of privilege is that the list of things that could go wrong for you is shorter. Shortening everyone’s list should be a priority for us as a society. It’s also not a great idea to jump into something blind, because stuff could go wrong. That’s where testing comes in: speaking to experts and trying things out before you commit. The difference is between just refusing to contemplate something, and seeing problems as obstacles to overcome. A fixed mindset vs a growth mindset.

Take the web itself. Back in the early days, it was a handful of unstyled hyperlinks that could barely support images at all. Most users had, at most, a 56K modem that would take the best part of 10 minutes to download a 3 megabyte MP3. At the same time, CD-ROMs were booming, and were comparatively rich experiences. People could also make money from CD-ROMs - they were literally sold in shrink-wrapped boxes in stores - while the web was an unknown. It was easy to dismiss.

Of course, today, most computers don’t have a disc drive, and everyone’s using the web to do just about everything. The possibility was always there, but you had to use your imagination, and it required a lot of hard work from people who ignored the nay-sayers to get us there.

Again: it’s not about ignoring problems. We should absolutely be talking about the inclusion issues inherent to startups, for example, or the environmental issues associated with the blockchain. But that doesn’t mean those things are dead ends; instead, we should find new, more inclusive models for startups, and environmentally friendly algorithms for decentralization. And we should test and verify the assumptions we might have.

Which brings me back to those nay-sayers in Scotland. I hear it’s a better environment for entrepreneurship than it used to be, but it really was soul-destroying at the time. That I felt comfortable starting a company was somehow threatening to their worldview. I didn’t come from wealth; I wasn’t exploiting anyone; it was just an open source educational platform. But a lot of people wanted to tear me down simply for trying something different; for daring to be optimistic. It turned me off ever founding anything in Scotland again.

I’ve learned to seek out the people who “yes and” your ideas, and try to help you make them more robust, rather than trying to knock them down. Collaborators rather than detractors; co-inventors rather than critics. People who want to support you in manifesting a possible future rather than sniping.

I hope to be that co-creator, although I haven’t always been. I hope to find them. Even though it’s harder to invent a positive possible future than criticize the present, the possible outcomes are so much more profoundly good, and it’s so much more fun to get there.