Optimism, vision, and the death of a Disney dream

You might not have heard of Peter Thiel, but he’s kind of a big deal in Silicon Valley. He co-founded PayPal with Elon Musk, was an early investor in Facebook, and currently manages an impressive investment portfolio that includes companies like SpaceX, Airbnb, Spotify, Asana, and Oculus.

In short, Peter Thiel knows what it takes to start a business from scratch and grow it into an international powerhouse. He’s done this himself with PayPal and other successful companies, and has also mentored and advised many leadership teams going through the same process.

What’s his secret?

Luckily for us, Thiel is fairly generous when it comes to sharing his knowledge. In 2012, he taught a course about startups at Stanford University, and later worked with one of those students to condense his thoughts into a handy book for founders and change-makers around the world. It’s called “Zero to One”, and is a must-read in my opinion.

In this book, Thiel discusses many topics related to startups: innovation, competition, disruption, scaling up, and so on. However, one of the most interesting things that he discusses is the mindset that entrepreneurs need to have.

One of the observations he makes has to do with what the Germans might call the zeitgeist, or the “spirit of the times”. Thiel notes that in the early and mid-1900’s, particularly in America, there was a sense of optimism or collective agency. Essentially, “the future is going to be great, and we are going to build it”. However, in the latter half of the century, this sense of optimism dissipated and the attitude became “we think the future is going to be better, but we don’t exactly know how”.

From the book:

Bold plans were not reserved just for political leaders or government scientists. In the late 1940s, a Californian named John Reber set out to reinvent the physical geography of the whole San Fransisco Bay Area. Reber was a schoolteacher, an amateur theatre producer, and a self-taught engineer. Undaunted by his lack of credentials, he publicly proposed to build two huge dams in the Bay, construct massive freshwater lakes for drinking water and irrigation, and reclaim 20,000 acres of land for development.

Even though he had no personal authority, people took the Reber Plan seriously. It was endorsed by newspaper editorial boards across California. The U.S Congress held hearings on its feasibility. The Army Corps of Engineers even constructed a 1.5 acre scale model of the Bay in a warehouse to simulate it…

But would anybody today take such a vision seriously in the first place?

– From “Zero to One”, Peter Thiel w/ Blake Masters

Today, it seems that the only people who have big plans, aside from politicians and Bill Gates, are startup founders. Why might that be the case?

Optimism & pessimism, definite & indefinite

Peter Thiel distinguishes between four types of thought (or what I have termed zeitgeists henceforth). The first zeitgeist is “definite optimism”, the can-do attitude of the American Dream and Star Trek. The second is “indefinite optimism”, which you might associate with an obsession over “the markets” and “growth”.

“Definite pessimism” is a winner-take-all, opportunistic attitude. Things are definitely going to be worse in the future, so one better have a plan to survive! The fourth zeitgeist, and perhaps the worst one, is “indefinite optimism”, a vague sense of foreboding that doesn’t translate into a vision or plan of any kind.

“Definite Optimism”

Having a clear vision of the future and working towards it is the essence of definite optimism. Although we typically associate this with entrepreneurs nowadays, artists, architects and city planners, science fiction or comic book writers, etc. all can convey a vision of the future through their work, and actually help achieve it too!

Some examples of definite optimism include:

“The American Dream”, or (theoretically) being able to arrive in the country with $5 in your pocket and (theoretically) achieve great things within one or two generations has long been one of the hallmarks of America, and still is to many people around the world seeking better lives for them and their children. Additionally, the first half of the 1900s (or so) saw a frenzy of industrial and infrastructural activity and innovation, partially driven by wartime needs, but also the post-WW2 boom. Things like the Reber Plan were happening all over the country, and many great buildings were built between the period of 1850-1970, too.

Star Trek’s famous tagline, “To go where no man has gone before”, suggests a benevolent-yet-challenging universe – one that ultimately rewards human exploration. And the general theme of the show reflected this as well. New alien races were discovered and interacted with, new worlds were explored, and high technology provided a range of solutions to once-difficult human problems.

“Indefinite Optimism”

From Zero to One:

… indefinite optimism seems inherently unsustainable: how can the future get better if no one plans for it? Actually, most everybody in the modern world has already heard an answer to this question: progress without planning is what we call “evolution”. Darwin himself wrote that life tends to “progress” without anybody intending it. Every living thing is just a random iteration on some other organism, and the best iterations win…

Even in engineering-driven Silicon Valley, the buzzwords of the moment call for building a “lean startup” that can “adapt” and “evolve” to an ever-changing environment. Would-be entrepreneurs are told that nothing can be known in advance: we’re supposed to listen to what customers say they want, make nothing more than a “minimum viable product”, and iterate our way to success.

– From “Zero to One”, Peter Thiel w/ Blake Masters

We also see this kind of thinking in articles about how 88% of the top companies in 1955 have been replaced today, the cause-of-death another buzzword: “creative destruction”.

In the workplace, indefinite optimists are the people who focus on rules and processes rather than outputs and innovations. Private firms that acquire companies, enact massive layoffs, and then maximize efficiency are indefinite optimists, as they lack vision for where to take the company other than making it a “cash cow” to maximize short/mid-term return. People with ideas and innovations are sent away without being fully considered, and the organization stagnates.

“Definite & Indefinite Pessimism”

There’s plenty that could be said about pessimism, but I suspect the reader will agree that it is not a productive perspective to hold. That said, having a plan for bad times is very different than having a vague sense of foreboding. One person is building their ark (or their castle), and the other is bickering about whose fault it is and what ought to be done someday.

Walt Disney: the quintessential definite optimist

December 5, 1901 – December 15, 1966

Walt Disney was a man who saw opportunities, and realized them. He was the first person to synchronize cartoons with sound, and the first person to release a full-length animated film.

Some of his early creations, including Snow White and The Seven Dwarves and Cinderella, are considered classics in the Western film tradition, and the company that bears his name is responsible for “modern classics” like The Lion King, Mulan, Moana, and Brave. Thanks to Walt’s vision, hard work, and the dedication of thousands of employees over the years, Disney enjoys a coveted status as one of the most powerful giants in the entertainment industry.

Perhaps one of the most enduring aspects of Walt’s legacy, aside from his movies and characters, are his theme parks. Through his corps of “Imagineers”, the engineers, artists, and craftspeople responsible for the attractions at said parks, Walt designed, built, and opened Disneyland in 1955.

In order to perfect every detail of Disneyland, Walt and the Imagineers conducted an extensive analysis of other theme parks, and put their very best effort and inspiration into the venture. Of course, we all know that it was a wild success.

This is definite optimism in action: Disneyland was unlike anything the world had ever seen, and it was created by a team of visionaries with bold ideas and the resources to build what they wanted.

It’s important to note that this approach doesn’t always in a success story: most startups fail, but insightful founders will eventually find a viable-enough idea to build a happy little business provided they can secure the funding. In this case, Walt was a genius who was surrounded by a bunch of other geniuses, and their notions about theme park construction were accurate and resonated with the public.

“Project X”, also known as “The Florida Project”

In the early 1960s, Walt Disney was a huge success in the entertainment industry, as well as having a family with many grandchildren. In watching his grandchildren grow up, Walt began to worry about the world of the future they would inhabit. He began to notice that the modern cities were hectic, disorganized, dirty, and riddled with crime. This was a far cry from Disney’s clean and controlled Disneyland Park in California.

Walt began to realize that all that he and his Imagineers had learned about buildings and space in relation to people in the development of Disneyland could be put to use in planning communities, even whole cities. This got Walt thinking, and he began to engross himself in books about city planning and all that was needed to pull something of that magnitude off.

– From www.the-original-epcot.com

In the 1960’s, Walt purchased 27,800 acres of land in Florida in anticipation of a future planned city project. Known as “Project X”, “The Florida Project”, and so on by the Imagineers, this future city of approximately 20,000 people was to be a state-of-the-art experiment in city design. To be eventually known as the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow, or E.P.C.O.T, this city would have boasted:

  • A circular design, with commercial buildings in the middle and residential buildings around the periphery.
  • Transportation provided by monorails and Disney’s “Peoplemovers”, with automobile traffic sequestered underground to protect pedestrians.
  • No land ownership, with modest rents for all.
From www.the-original-epcot.com (check it out!)

This sounds very bold, and his vision for underground transportation sounds a lot like Elon Musk’s Boring Company, which is famous for tunnels, flamethrowers, and other things today.

But these ideas didn’t come from out of nowhere – Walt’s vision, particularly the circular city design, was inspired by an 1898 book called “Garden Cities of To-Morrow”, and his insights on zoning and transportation were informed by his personal experience building resorts and theme parks.

The Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow would have been marked a shift in Walt’s focus from entertainment to whole-person living. It would have been totally unique back then, and if it were built today it would still be unlike anything the world has ever seen. Although the vision may not be “perfect” by today’s standards, it would have been a step in a very new direction and perhaps a worthy experiment.

Disney’s shift to “indefinite optimism”

Although people might not know this, Walt was an ambulance driver in Europe shortly after the armistice that ended World War 1. Sometime during that job, he picked up smoking, and was a heavy smoker throughout the rest of his life. In late 1966, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and quickly died one month later.

The loss of a founder or key leader always shakes a company. I was part of a tech startup where the CTO died suddenly and unexpectedly, and it threw the entire operation into disarray.

This is what happened with Walt Disney and his company, as far as I can tell. After Walt died, his brother Roy came out of retirement to lead The Walt Disney Company. Roy abandoned the E.P.C.O.T idea, instead building Walt Disney World – a much easier project to pull off without Walt’s leadership, and a much safer bet economically.

Since then, if one observes how Disney has behaved since the death of its founder, one sees a great deal of “indefinitely optimistic” behaviour:

  • A period of lacklustre movies as it searched for meaning following Walt’s death;
  • Returning to its core (animated movies) with The Little Mermaid and finding success, but not venturing far beyond its spheres of competence;
  • The acquisition of other, more innovative companies that brought something entirely new to the table, and milking those brands for everything they’re worth;

Overall, Disney’s approach to creation seems formulaic since Walt passed away, despite the fantastic entertainment it still releases. What I’m trying to get at here is that they’re just doing what they know, and buying out anyone else who does something different that works, then milking it. That’s not a “vision”.

Building something like E.P.C.O.T in middle America, in order to realize Walt’s final dream, would be head-turning. Quite frankly, it would give almost every futurist on Earth lateral whiplash, if such a thing exists. Why not? The money is there, the talent could be found… so perhaps the will is too weak.

On the value of bold experiments

Although we have made many technological advancements over the last two decades or so, our societies as a whole – particularly in North America – are stagnated or struggling. I could list them, but you’re aware of them already. It seems like the time for regaining a sense of definite optimism is now.

Furthermore, part of the problem – at least as I see it – is that we haven’t been trying new things, therefore we haven’t been getting new results. Perhaps the current K-12 curriculum needs to be completely abandoned. Perhaps we need to start building experimental cities or communities to observe new innovations in architecture and city design. The problem is that nobody is thinking long-term enough to tackle projects like this, aside from people like Bill Gates and Elon Musk.

For example, one pertinent issue is the seeming inevitability of sea level rise: this threatens many coastal communities, who will have to move inland. Perhaps a “garden city” design may serve them even better, and give us an opportunity to start fresh:

From “Garden Cities of To-Morrow” (1898)

Another major issue is the education system, which is outdated, ineffective, and based on a factory-system model. We have better knowledge about how children, youth, and adults learn, and could rebuild the system from the ground up if we so wish.

As it turns out, there may be an opportunity coming up, at least in the United States. Teachers’ unions refusing to go back to work, even with vaccinations in place, have frustrated many parents and prompted several calls to fund students instead of schools.

Given this factor, as well as the increased competition amongst upper-class and elite parents to provide “the best opportunities” for their children, we might expect to see more educational institutions that depart radically from the traditional model. The real challenge, however, lies at the curriculum level.

Immigration is also a pertinent issue, as countries barely have enough to provide for their own, let alone large numbers of immigrants fleeing desperate circumstances in their home countries. Paradoxically, many countries (particularly Canada) do a poor job of both helping skilled immigrants get into the country and find gainful employment in their field. It’s a lose-lose for everyone.

One possible solution that has been proposed is “seasteading”, or the creation of permanent or semi-permanent dwellings in international waters, close to major cities. One company named Blueseed even began working towards anchoring a cruise ship offshore of San Francisco, but the project ended up being a non-starter.

Bold visions for me, but not for thee

Politicians are notorious for having big ideas, and as the saying goes, “it’s easy to spend someone else’s money”. Donald Trump’s infamous wall, the Hoover Dam, and every Olympic undertaking is a heavily political affair at the taxpayer’s expense.

It is curious that politicians are so ready to support each other’s ideas, but rarely will express interest in a private citizen’s proposal. Perhaps this is the nature of human nature, or at least as far as politicians are concerned.

Conclusion: towards Tomorrowland

Astute fans of Disney will know that a park in Disneyland bears the name “Tomorrowland”. Its plaque reads:

A vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying man’s achievements … a step into the future, with predictions of constructive things to come. Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure and ideals: the Atomic Age … the challenge of outer space … and the hope for a peaceful and unified world.

As of yet, these frontiers have not been conquered: nuclear energy still lacks the public and governmental support that less efficient and costlier “green” alternatives have. We’re only making a beachhead in space thanks to the efforts of a few entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos. And, we have many other problems to deal with – education, world peace, water and sanitation… the list goes on.

However, in 2015, Disney released a quirky film called “Tomorrowland”, starring George Clooney bearing the same name as the park. It was, perhaps, one of the most visionary things the corporation has done in a while: in a world of indefinite optimism (perhaps even pessimism in a post-2008 crash world), they released something futuristic, different, definite, and explicitly optimistic. Watch it, and you’ll see.

Onwards to better days… and may we know (generally) where we’re headed!