Where Progress Comes From

By Morgan HouselFool.com

To be an investor, you have to be an optimist. And to be an optimist, you have to know where progress comes from and what causes it.

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So, let's look at the basics.

The idea of growth is pretty new. For thousands of years, humans went nowhere.

World GDP per capita was barely higher in the year 1400 than it was in the year 1 AD. Europe's standard of living actually declined for half a millennia after the fall of Rome as previous innovations were lost and forgotten. Progress just wasn't part of the equation.

Then, around the middle of the 19thcentury, things changed. Growth exploded, exponentially and nearly everywhere. After stagnating for a thousand years GDP per person has increased tenfold in the last 150 years.

Why? A combination of the steam engine, the telegraph, and electricity is the common (and right) answer.

But it leaves the question: Whythen?

People were capable of innovating for thousands of years, as the Romans proved. What happened in the 19thcentury that unleashed a wave of powerful inventions?

Photo from Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist

Investor William Bernstein writes in his bookThe Birth of Plentythat people are predisposed for progress as long as their environment provides four things:

Bernstein writes that it wasn't until the 1820s that all four factors coalesced in the English-speaking world, and not until the mid-20thcentury for much of Asia and Latin America. Africa is still stitching the four together, slowly.

There's more to growth than those four factors. Demographics, natural resources, and more play into the equation.But nothing moves without those four factors in place.And the good news is that more of the world has those four factors in place now than at any time in history.

The economy always oscillates, boom to bust. Bad policy and dumb decisions slows us down and keeps us from achieving our potential. But almost all examples ofpermanentdecline are caused by one of these four factors missing. It's hard to slow people down once all four are in place. They get creative, invent new things, and figure out better ways to do old things, which pushes the whole ship forward.

The existence of these four factors is the backbone of economic optimism. The rest of the equation is waiting for businesses to create value.

How do they do that?

Again, here are some basicsprerequisites for individual business success.

Companies succeed and fail for all kinds of reasons. But you'll find a few common denominators among the clear winners.

In the bookThe Everything Store, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was asked whyAmazonsucceeded where others failed. He gave three reasons, which I'd consider the backbone of lasting individual business success:

Bezos explained:

Businesses can prosper for some time without these factors. Yet wherever you findlastingsuccess, you'll likely find these three traits. Most competitors are just as smart as you are, so to stay ahead you have to be doing things they aren't willing to do. Those three traits are the bedrock principles of what most businesses aren't willing to do, but create lasting value for those that are.

This is way oversimplified. But it's the foundation of success, and therefore the foundation of what we should pay attention to. And the more you see it, the more optimistic you get about the future.

For more:

Things I'm pretty sure about

Why we're terrified of typical

Is today's market more volatile than the past?

The evolution of good investing ideas

The article Where Progress Comes From originally appeared on Fool.com.

Contact Morgan Housel at mhousel@fool.com. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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