Peter Thiel Shares his Insights

Source: Medium, Apr 2015
<via the Mercatus Center, George Washington University>

TYLER COWEN: Then if you have to make a prediction, which breakthrough in particular will get us out of the stagnation? What’s your pick?

PETER THIEL: I still think there are — probably the most natural ones are all these things that are at the boundary of information technology on atoms, of bits and atoms.

I think the most natural hope is that information technology starts to broaden out and starts to impact this world of atoms.

We need to ask, what is it about our society where those of us who do not suffer from Asperger’s are at some massive disadvantage because we will be talked out of our interesting, original, creative ideas before they are even fully formed?

We’ll notice that’s a little bit too weird, that’s a little bit too strange. Maybe I’ll just go ahead and open the restaurant that I’ve been talking about, that everyone else can understand and agree with, or do something extremely safe and conventional, and therefore hypercompetitive, and probably not that great as an idea.

… that’s probably not how the system really changes. It probably will be changed by some idiosyncratic people who have really strong convictions, and are over time, able to convince more people of them. But whether this means that we have more or less change is hard to evaluate. It always comes from these somewhat nonconventional channels.

a lot of what you’re looking for, are these almost Zen-like opposites. You want people who are both really stubborn and really open-minded. That’s a little bit contradictory. You want people who are idiosyncratic and really different, but then who can work well together in teams. And so, this is again, maybe not 180 degrees opposite, but like 175 degrees.

think the technology and science questions are ones that I find very interesting. I think they are somewhat more measurable than a lot of the qualitative social ones.

A lot of what I end up doing is somewhat serendipitous. You talk with a lot of interesting people. You try to figure out what are some great technologies, great entrepreneurs to work with in different ways.

That’s how you end up getting very interesting perspectives, and how you change your mind on things. The overarching agenda is always to try to figure out some way to get out of the stagnation by literally helping people to start companies that will change the world.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: You talk about vertical progress versus horizontal progress. I’m wondering, how does one create vertical progress? Do you have any tips for doing that?

PETER THIEL: There’s no straightforward formula for innovation. It’s much easier to do horizontal progress, which I describe as globalization, copying things that work going from one to n, versus vertical progress, technology, doing new things, going from zero to one.

Globalization, I think there is actually a formula. You can copy what’s working, try to mechanically apply it. There’s something scientific about globalization. There’s something deeply unscientific about the history of technology itself.

Science starts with the number two, whereas every moment in the history of science, technology, business, I believe, happens only once. The next Mark Zuckerberg won’t start a social network, the next Larry Page won’t start a search engine.

It’s always some idiosyncratic thing. It’s good to be passionate about something that you are good at, that other people are not doing. If you get those three things lined up, that’s a very good start.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: In order to go from zero to one in a nonprofit organization, or a political advocacy group, what would one have to do? What would be a key differentiator, or angle, to approach with it?

PETER THIEL: The contrarian business question is what are great businesses no one has started, the contrarian investor question is what great investments does nobody like — the contrarian nonprofit question is what great causes are deeply unpopular? This is how I always deflect requests for money, is I ask people, “Why is your cause popular? Why is your cause unpopular?” Because I only want to fund unpopular causes. I assume popular causes are funded relatively well. Relative to good, unpopular causes.

If you are able to push unpopular causes, that’s very good. Then, the Zen-like problem, the paradox, is that you have a lot of impact, if you are able to push a good, worthwhile, but unpopular cause. The Zen paradox, is that it’s very hard to market it and get money to do it.

Always having a counterfactual sense of mission is important. If we weren’t doing this, nobody else in the world would be doing this. To the extent that’s not true, you want to make that more true. Maybe it’s a spectrum, but you want to always tilt more in that direction.


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