In his new book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, Paypal founder and techno-intellectual Peter Thiel shows himself to be a believer. He believes that the future can be planned and that mankind can master the miracles of technology. Thiel has possessed this assuredness since childhood, indicative of his membership in a generation that David Brooks once labeled as ‘Organization Kids,’ securely tracked for a membership in the American elite from an early age. During middle school, one of his best friends predicted (accurately) in Thiel’s yearbook that he would enter Stanford a year ahead of his peers. A conventionally successful Stanford undergraduate career lead to a conventionally successful Stanford Law career, culminating in a conventionally impressive federal clerkship and interviews to clerk for the Supreme Court of the United States.
Ultimately, he failed to attain a coveted Supreme Court clerkship, which devastated him at the time. Yet things worked out, and Thiel broke the mold of the Organization Kid. He soon became a wildly successful serial entrepreneur and investor, starting and leading Paypal beginning in 1998. This company defined a new era of fast and secure online commerce. He followed Paypal with Palantir Technologies, a company that has empowered human analysts in fields as disparate as national security and global finance. He has profited as a venture capitalist, investing as a partner with Founders Fund in Facebook, LinkedIn, Yelp, SpaceX, and Airbnb among others. Thiel is also a notable philanthropist. He has ignited national debate with one of his most important philanthropic projects, the Thiel Fellowship. This fellowship pays young people to leave college to pursue a passion or ambition. Another project, the Thiel Foundation, works to advance technological progress and long-term thinking about the future.
He has also ventured further afield. I discovered Thiel by accident when I followed a link to a Veritas Forum discussion between him and Christian theologian N.T. Wright (moderated by Ross Douthat). They discussed the intersections between faith, technology, and modernity. Not many billionaires can speak so humbly and intelligently about such a wide range of topics. In short, Thiel is a very interesting man. Buying his book is a no-brainer.
Zero to One is ostensibly about how to build companies that change the course of humanity by creating new things. Its publisher is promoting it as a guide to building companies, targeting those who aspire to found successful startups. There are many great lessons here for any manager or startup founder. But the relevant audience for this book is much larger, as wide as anyone who cares about the power of ideas to shape history. In the book, Thiel writes about an interview question he likes to ask of job applicants:
“What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” This question sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.”
Think of this as Thiel interviewing prospective readers. If this question makes you uncomfortable, you are probably human. If your discomfort makes you even more interested in Thiel’s thought, then this book is for you. Zero to One’s fourteen chapters, written in prose that is clear, accessible, and wickedly entertaining, function as standalone essays that exhibit his ideas on innovation, entrepreneurship, competition, society, and humanity. The fact that these disparate topics can be condensed into a cohesive book on building the future is a testament to Thiel’s intellect and depth as a writer, thinker, and businessman.
Each chapter could merit its own review, but two themes stand out powerfully throughout Zero to One: the peril of indefinite optimism and the power of what Thiel calls “secrets.” First, Thiel argues that an attitude of “indefinite optimism” has dominated and enervated post-war American culture. Here’s what he means:
Recent graduates’ parents often cheer them on the established path. The strange history of the Baby Boom produced a generation of indefinite optimists so used to effortless progress that they feel entitled to it. Whether you were born in 1945 or 1950 or 1955, things got better every year for the first 18 years of your life, and it had nothing to do with you. Technological advance seemed to accelerate automatically, so the Boomers grew up with great expectations but few specific plans for how to fulfill them. Then, when technological progress stalled in the 1970s, increasing income inequality came to the rescue of the most elite Boomers. Every year of adulthood continued to get automatically better and better for the rich and successful. The rest of their generation was left behind, but the wealthy Boomers who shape public opinion today see little reason to question their naïve optimism. Since tracked careers worked for them, they can’t imagine that they won’t work for their kids, too.
Here’s the result of this historical moment:
Indefinite attitudes to the future explain what’s most dysfunctional in our world today. Process trumps substance: when people lack concrete plans to carry out, they use formal rules to assemble a portfolio of various options. This describes Americans today. In middle school, we’re encouraged to start hoarding “extracurricular activities.” In high school, ambitious students compete even harder to appear omnicompetent. By the time a student gets to college, he’s spent a decade curating a bewilderingly diverse résumé to prepare for a completely unknowable future. Come what may, he’s ready— for nothing in particular […]
Instead of working for years to build a new product, indefinite optimists rearrange already-invented ones. Bankers make money by rearranging the capital structures of already existing companies. Lawyers resolve disputes over old things or help other people structure their affairs. And private equity investors and management consultants don’t start new businesses; they squeeze extra efficiency from old ones with incessant procedural optimizations. It’s no surprise that these fields all attract disproportionate numbers of high-achieving Ivy League optionality chasers; what could be a more appropriate reward for two decades of résumé-building than a seemingly elite, process-oriented career that promises to “keep options open”?
Progress is not automatic. Institutions crumble without constant stewardship. The reign of indefinite optimism is at the heart of the modern stagnation in our economy, our politics, our philosophy, and the increasing atomization of our society. What our world needs, Thiel argues, is definite optimism that knows the kind of future it wants to build and strives purposely for it. Definite optimism in business means that money is not itself an end, but a means for future change. Definite optimism in community means that your choices can shape your character, the form of your relationships, and those that you love and serve. Definite optimism in politics means that we believe in bold plans that balance costs, tradeoffs, and our principles.
In short, building the future requires a coherent, compelling, encompassing vision of it and a plan to reach for it. We cannot do that with a life that “looks like a portfolio,” with dozens of equal options kept in reserve. To build the future, Thiel argues, means focusing on executing a specific plan and its specific demands. Unfortunately, much of our modern educational system works against these goals. Thiel writes:
Our schools teach the opposite: institutionalized education traffics in a kind of homogenized, generic knowledge. Everybody who passes through the American school system learns not to think in power law terms. Every high school course period lasts 45 minutes whatever the subject. Every student proceeds at a similar pace. At college, model students obsessively hedge their futures by assembling a suite of exotic and minor skills. Every university believes in “excellence,” and hundred-page course catalogs arranged alphabetically according to arbitrary departments of knowledge seem designed to reassure you that “it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it well.” That is completely false. It does matter what you do. You should focus relentlessly on something you’re good at doing, but before that you must think hard about whether it will be valuable in the future.
He is not arguing for narrow specialization per se, nor is he dismissing the value of a broad education in other spheres.What he is arguing, rather, is that, if the goal of America’s primary schooling is to prepare students for the workforce, successful workers will need to have a valuable skill that the student pursues to a level of excellence, or a compelling problem they are working directly towards solving.
Imagination is a critical component to this definite optimism. Thiel finds imagination lacking in America for a reason: the death of “secrets,” or undiscovered knowledge, uninvented tools. He writes, “Contrarian thinking doesn’t make any sense unless the world still has secrets left to give up.” But for Thiel, that belief in undiscovered knowledge has waned. Two hundred years ago, there were still unmapped places to go and this oriented our thoughts about the unknown. But the concept of adventure slowly died as those blank spaces on the world map were filled in. There is a sense that there is nothing left to learn. The illusion of perfect flatness and globalization has convinced rising generations that all the low hanging fruit have been plucked, and that smart and hungry kids from elsewhere are vacuuming up all of the good ideas. Others will build the future; perhaps we can just charge them rent. Better to never make a mistake in life, to conform and be safe, rather than dedicate your life to something that no one else believes in. As Thiel writes, “The prospect of being lonely and wrong can be unbearable.”
It can be so unbearable that today the life of a contrarian startup founder often only attracts oddballs. Thiel’s “Paypal Mafia” was a team of strange, eccentric, and gifted people. They were obsessed with creating a digital currency that individuals—not governments—would control. According to Thiel, “Of the six people who started PayPal, four had built bombs in high school. Five were just 23 years old— or younger. Four of us had been born outside the United States. Three had escaped here from communist countries.”
But in theory the work of building the future is open to everyone. “A great company is a conspiracy to change the world,” Thiel writes. A successful conspiracy to change the world requires only a “secret,” a plan, and a small group of people brought together by a founder. Not everyone can be a founder of a multibillion-dollar technology startup, but everyone can be a founder in the small worlds around us that are in need of our work and service. That requires rejecting the kind of “indefinite optimism” that has become orthodoxy in our schools, industries, and political institutions. Thiel exhorts us, “Only by seeing our world anew, as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first, can we both re-create it and preserve it for the future.” Zero to One is ostensibly about startups —but in the end, it is really about how to improve the world we find ourselves in. There are secrets left for us still.
Isaiah Berg is a United States Marine Corps infantry officer with the 1st Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment. He hails from a family farm in Starkweather, North Dakota, and is a graduate of Dartmouth College. This review has been republished with permission from Fare Forward, a quarterly Christian review of ideas and cultural commentary launched in the summer of 2012 and written and produced by young adults.