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Peter Thiel Is a Closet Humanist

Peter Thiel makes for thorny material. Hail him as a visionary thinker, a secular prophet, and you seem to be following the crowds: Nassim Taleb has already called Thiel's new book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future, a classic. Fortune Magazine ventures to declare Thiel “America’s leading public intellectual today.” Critique him and you end up playing into his paramount philosophy—contrarianism. Last year, The Telegraph called Thiel’s firm, Palantir Technologies, “the reigning champion of creepy startups.” Between these poles of love and hate, perhaps the most judicious response is simply to evaluate him on your own terms. Oh wait, he says that too: “The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd but to think for yourself.”


This call to intellectual originality is the core thesis of his new book, which isn’t really a management manual or guide to startups so much as an extended polemic against stagnation, convention, and uninspired thinking. What Thiel is after is the revitalization of imagination and invention writ large. He offers plenty of practical insider advice, to be sure: A startup flawed at its foundation cannot be fixed. Unless your company is publicly held, your board shouldn’t exceed five people. There’s also the typical serving of iconoclastic ideas—namely that competition is a deceptive, destructive ideology, and monopoly is the true condition of any successful business. But Thiel is also upfront about the limits of what he can tell aspiring entrepreneurs: There’s no special formula he can impart because every innovation is unique, and “no authority can prescribe in concrete terms how to be innovative.”

What he can offer is an “exercise in thinking,” something he thinks we’re not doing very well anymore. This exercise manages to reference Prince, Marx, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, chess grandmaster Jose Raul Capablanca, Malcolm Gladwell, Johann Goethe, Francis Bacon, Tolkien, John Rawls, unabomber Ted Kaczynski, James Madison, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Mark Twain, Lady Gaga, and Sophocles. Thiel is at pains to identify and correct a pervasive malaise—our loss of faith in a definite future—and its symptoms, in Thiel’s view, are everywhere. The underlying idea is that startups, even business more generally, can’t be cut off from other sectors of modern life. He wants to talk about entrepreneurship holistically, within the context of larger cultural phenomena, and he wants you to start thinking critically about the world, not just your startup’s disruptive new slogan.

On the one hand, this is a refreshing, enlivening approach to business in a genre that tends either to narratives of complacent self-congratulation or painfully obvious management maxims—with little attention paid to the world beyond corporate walls. Thiel takes whole professions to task for dedicating themselves to the rearrangement of already-invented products, instead of the creation of new ones: bankers rearrange existing companies’ capital structures; private equity investors and management consultants squeeze efficiency from those companies but fail to create new value. That these professions tend to attract the most successful, ambitious graduates is troublesome; for Thiel, the trend is indicative of a culture that has lost interest—and belief—in its ability to seize the future.

Thiel wants to restore your faith—in the future, in yourself, in the promise of technology. This faith is the only viable path forward. It requires that Americans envision, design, and create their future instead of waiting passively for it to come to them. And of course, intelligent entrepreneurship is the best expression of this ethos. Thiel is often associated with extremist, Ayn Rand-style libertarianism—for instance, he’s building a government-free island—but he is also writing in the tradition of American idealism: There’s the belief in progress, the insistence on meaningful labor, and the valorization of the critically minded, pioneering individual. His emphasis on frugality—“a company does better the less it pays the CEO”—is also part of this. But above all, Thiel’s call to entrepreneurship is founded on the American idea that the big dreams of individuals benefit everyone else too.

Is this a book about building better businesses or building better people and cultures? To Thiel’s credit, these issues are deeply interrelated if not, in some sense, the same. In this regard, Zero to One possesses a distinctly moral—at times, almost apocalyptic—dimension. Thiel’s vision isn’t just entrepreneurial; it’s also ethical and romantic.

The question, “What valuable company is nobody building?” is a derivative of his central question, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” There are still secrets to uncover, frontiers to explore, he emphasizes: Thiel wants to re-instill a sense of wonder, to help us see the world "as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first." It’s these touches that lend Thiel the aura of being something more than just another Silicon Valley millionaire, even if he does quote Shakespeare like a soundbite. 

But the book’s humanist strain also undermines Thiel’s notorious denigration of higher education. Thiel believes that academic degrees have become status markers of dubious benefit to society and the individual. He has compared university administrators to sub-prime mortgage brokers and tenured professors to sixteenth-century Catholic priests selling indulgences in the form of diplomas—secular salvation for modern souls. The Thiel Foundation offers students under age 20 scholarships to pursue a startup instead of going to school.

But the critical inquiry Thiel advocates is exactly what a liberal arts curriculum is designed to teach. “Will this business still be around a decade from now?” can only be answered, he believes, by “think[ing] critically about the qualitative characteristics of your business.” His book is, perhaps inadvertently, a plea for the necessity of humanist thought in the business world. This alone is fairly radical in a business culture that tends to think a literature degree means you can identify a simile and not much else. Thiel himself has benefited—financially and intellectually—from this background: Zero to One could only be written by someone who possesses not only tremendous business expertise, but also a deep and broad education. His insistence that you can get along without the taint of a formal education is hypocritical at best. 


Still, it’s hard to pretend there isn’t something appealing about Thiel’s insistent irreverence. “All Rhodes Scholars,” he writes, “had a great future in their past.” We need people who remind us that there may be other and better ways of doing things than the ordained routes. When Thiel suggests that it’s lamentable to spend your days amidst the “oddly thin” relationships and “lukewarm” attitudes of typical professional environments, he isn’t being radical; he’s being reasonable. Of course, not everyone has the luxury of being able to pursue their ideal profession. It's clear that Thiel is somewhat disconnected from the realities of average and struggling Americans. But Thiel is speaking to the complacent class, the bands of bright young things in “safe” careers who might have a chance of doing something different.

It is true that swaths of the country's top students funnel every year into tracked, uninventive careers. I saw this myself at Princeton, where the dreams and idealism of the freshmen were gradually shed until, by senior year, almost everyone was heading for one of the predictable paths: consultant, banker, lawyer, doctor. Those of us who prided ourselves on being more resistant to convention continued on in our academic specialties, accumulating graduate school indulgences. Thiel isn't wrong when he suggests that our imagination of what we can do with our lives has become excessively constrained. 

Nor is he wrong to point out that the university system is flawed: "For the privilege of being turned into conformists," he writes, "students (or their families) pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation." I've felt my share of guilt for what my fancy degree cost my parents. Much of my education happened on my own time—during late, lonely hours at the library or private conversations—and autodidacticism seems to be what Thiel has in mind in place of classes and degrees. 

On the other hand, these experiences would not have taken place without setting aside several sacred years for the sole purpose of education. Real world experience is itself an important element of education, but the race toward entrepreneurship sends the message that doing and producing is more important than thinking and understanding—as though the successful creation of anything significant isn't founded on a well-developed mind. Surely, with his emphasis on independent, imaginative thought, that isn't the message Thiel wants to send.

And Thiel's final plug for technology sounds a bit hysterical: “Without new technology to relieve competitive pressures, stagnation is likely to erupt into conflict. In case of conflict on a global scale, stagnation collapses into extinction.” The choice is between “nothing” or “something.” This fear-mongering casts Thiel's emphasis on wonder and curiosity in a new light: Seeing the world as "fresh and strange" is a mandate, not a pleasure, a perspective to be instrumentalized for cold, hard entrepreneurial ends.