In the rapidly changing world that we live in, one of the biggest dilemmas which people often grapple with is how to skill themselves. With the frontier of technology and automation progressively moving forward, many skills which were relevant 10 years ago are quickly becoming irrelevant — broker-dealers, drivers, secretaries, and so on. Hence, when college students choose the subjects they study in school, they are fundamentally making a bet as to which skills will be relevant in the next 5-50 years. Some students pick Computer Science, observing the sharp rise of the technology industry, whereas others pick subjects such as Economics or Engineering based on other logical bets of how the future will pan out.
On an individual level, this seems like the obvious thing to do. No individual would want the skills they gained during their education to be rendered useless due to technological advances. On a societal level, this makes some sense as well. If individuals bet on the correct skills to pick up, the allocation of human capital in a society will be much more efficient and sudden job losses due to automation could be reduced drastically.
However, I believe that this approach is a form of indefinite optimism and will be detrimental to individuals and societies at large in the long-run. Indefinite optimism is the idea that we believe that the future will be better, but we do not exactly know how. Hence we prepare ourselves for an uncertain future by either gaining a broad set of generally applicable skills or by betting on skills we think will probably be relevant.
I would argue that indefinite optimism hurts the progress of a society in the long run. Fundamentally, technology is the idea that more can be done with the same amount of resources. Assuming a perfect utilization of a society's resources, only technological advancements can create any form of progress. Now imagine this scenario — an agrarian society has successfully maximized its crop yield for the amount of land they have, and hence cannot produce any more food for their community. The only way for them to progress is to create new ways to produce the same amount of food using less resources than before.
However, if the youths in this community have an indefinite mindset, what would they do? Many of them, extrapolating from whatever they observe around them, would likely pick up the skills of farming. Everyone around them are farmers, it seemingly does not make sense to do anything else. Because of this mentality, how can this community ever progress? No one really knows what to do — they just hope that progress will happen on its own.
What will bring progress to this agrarian society is not more farmers but instead a group of radical individuals who believe that technology will fundamentally change the way farming has been done. Instead of making a bet on what they think the future will look like, these individuals educate themselves in engineering so that they can build the necessary machinery to improve the farming capability. They are scoffed at by their friends, who note that the only jobs in their community are farming jobs, and it would be stupid to do something else. However, these engineers are stubborn and steadfast — they see the future as something which can be created, instead of trying to see how they can best fit into it. They possess a definite mindset — they envision a specific outcome of the future, and they actively take steps to make it reality.
Because these individuals are able to build machinery which improves farming drastically, they are rewarded extremely handsomely. They become revered in their society as disruptors, innovators and entrepreneurs. Their society makes progress and it soon becomes the most productive agrarian community in the region. In the short-term, this immense success inspires other youths to study engineering and the society progresses into a more advanced form.
However, although this has caused an overall benefit to the society at large, the original problem of indefinite thinking has not changed the slightest. Most of these youths move into engineering not because they imagine a specific future where an engineering education would be useful, but instead because they make a bet that it would probably be useful in some way or another. In the long run, the society reaches stasis once more until another group of definite thinkers come along.
Without thought leaders to advocate definite thinking, societies like these will forever be stuck in stasis. Unlike many other problems in the world, this is one that cannot simply be solved by setting an example for others to follow. Without the right mindset, our societies will continually plateau and we will, as a species, never be able to reach the glorious and beautiful future that lies ahead.
How do we develop definite thinking?
Understanding this complex and hidden problem is step one in eventually being able to solve it. The second step is to cultivate a culture of definite optimism that spreads organically and builds on itself.
On an individual scale, I believe that it is not so difficult to develop definite thinking. We need to sit down and think hard about what we want to see in the world. What do you actually care about? What causes you to break out in cold sweat from anxiety that something will not change in this world in your lifetime? What would cause you to feel regret on your deathbed? If you do not have an answer to these questions, you need to spend more time to think about what you truly care about.
You clearly do not have enough conviction yet.
Having a general goal such as "solving poverty" or "saving the environment" is not a bad place at all to start from. Once you have that, you can thinking about how someone could, in theory, solve the problem you care about. This eventual goal must shape the way you live your life — from the course of study you choose to the material you read and the people you surround yourself with. The archetype of definite thinking is Elon Musk. In college, he thought of 5 specific areas which he thought would be extremely important:
- Sustainable energy
- Making life multi-planetary
- Artificial Intelligence
- Rewriting genetics
He did not bet on a certain skillset being relevant in the future. He did not choose to ride the waves that were set in motion by others. He set out to transform these industries through his companies — Tesla, SpaceX, Zip2, PayPal, OpenAI, and Neuralink.
If you are currently a college student, think long and hard about what you are studying and why you are studying it. If you are studying Computer Science because you think that programming will probably be a useful skill to have, you are doing it for the completely wrong reasons. Go back to the drawing board and figure out what needs to change in the world. Once you have figured that out and still think that Computer Science will help you advance that specific goal, you have become a definite thinker — and we need more of people like you in this world.
The agrarian society in my earlier example would never have been able to transition into a more productive society without the individuals who envisioned a better world and were convicted enough to create it. The future won't happen on its own.
Stop preparing yourself for the future — build it.