Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book Review: Zero to One by Peter Thiel

This book was one I had to hunt down on Amazon as it was not popular enough to show up in my local Barnes&Noble stores.  I knew of Peter Thiel from his involvement in the formation of PayPal and his continued private equity investments.  His membership in the "PayPal Mafia" is well known as are his libertarian-ish views and personal causes such as paying smart kids to NOT go to college and instead focus on a singular idea or product of their own development.

The book is written in a lecturing style which is fitting as the work is essentially a collection of his lectures to students at Stanford within a course on startups.

Within this collection are his thoughts on people like Malcolm Gladwell and John Rawls (who he thinks are pretty much boobs who focus on chance and "fairness" in their explanations for success and economics), the reason why current education and college produce a bunch of people studying everything but knowing nothing, why planning matters, how monopolies are a good thing, why successful startups contain people who are of a like mind/personality, etc.  Its all quite good and I must admit, my own particular political, social and economic leanings tend to make me a fan of Thiel's ideas.

What is most important about the book is its call to arms for people to think big, to plan, to try new things, and be contrarian (though you then get the "if everyone is being contrarian, is it contrarian anymore" argument, similar to the 1990's "Alternative" music argument).  Calling for a return to what he calls "definite optimism", a trait he finds in the world from the 1600's through the 1960's quoting Marx and Engels who stated that society had "created more massive and more colossal productive forces than all preceding generations together.  Subjection of Nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground--what earlier century had even a presentiment that such produced forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?"

Thiel likely sees and cites herein, man's placement of 12 men on the moon as the ultimate example of planning, creation and optimism.  Mentioning the plans of a 1940s schoolteacher by the name of John Reber who was a self-taught engineer and proposed a series of dams in San Francisco Bay designed to reclaim land, provide freshwater, etc. Thiel states that such a plan would never be taken seriously today but at the time the plan ended up being endorsed by newspapers across California, congressional hearings were held and the Army Corps of Engineers built a 1.5 acre scale model of the plan.  The fact that such an idea from such an individual would be dismissed outright in today's society is a major failing of our current culture he feels.  No longer do we welcome big plans and ask merely if they would work and instead we have turned into a society ruled by the Baby Boom generation, like Gladwell, who see little to no value in planning or individual effort but instead see only luck, happenstance, and social context.

We need more people who believe in individual exceptionalism, the ability to make one-self into whatever we wish and to dream big ideas.  We need more people like Thiel and less people like Gladwell (who's book Outliers I reviewed positively here in the past) if we hope to move the human race forward.  If you are developing a product or company or even just fantasize about carving your own path rather than being told what your path will be, then Zero to One is worth the read.

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