Peter Thiel Speaks at The Olympic Club

The title of Mr. Thiel's talk was "Developing the Developed World" - perhaps an arrogant lead in when addressing a room full of older men in suits eating charred salmon filets in a gilded era ballroom of the San Francisco Olympic club. With regard to the truly under-developed and those attempting to help them, he wrote off social entrepreneurship as a "dismal failure" in which the vast majority of companies achieve merely a semblance of helping society. 

Peter Thiel is not one of those rare geniuses blessed with an optimistic outlook. His intensity of mental prowess and techno-societal clairvoyance weigh heavily on him as he quips that in an apocalypse "you don't go into outer space" commenting on the film Gravity, by which I think that he meant Interstellar (but who can blame him?) confirming the sad reality that the tech industry's greatest minds are driven to obsession over notions of doomsday preparation.

Thiel went on to deliver the most compelling case for establishing a monopoly that I've witnessed outside the weathered cardboard flaps of a Hasbro board game. It was in this thesis that he truly shone. His philosophy on entrepreneurship echoed something that I've always held dear but never been able to articulate so well: dare to be exceptional. 

He evoked images of the rat race of law school - students competing to be the best by a tiny a margin in a cruel zero sum game. The restaurant industry in San Francisco - a land of perfect competition in which achieving a profit is nearly impossible. One need not look farther than the insane price wars between Uber and Lyft to recognize how this paradigm can play out in the technology industry ($2.25 was how much I paid to get to the lunch). 

The way around the madness? Do something different enough from what's out there that there is no competition. Don't be the best player in the game - invent a new game, one in which you are the only player. In short, he proclaimed, "competition is for losers". 

"All happy companies are different" stated Thiel, riffing off of the opening lines of Anna Karenina. In fact, the best companies are those that need to redefine what they do in order not to seem like a monopoly. Google for example, frames itself as being one of many players in a "technology" space where companies like Apple and Microsoft are fierce competitors, but in reality they are completely dominant in the field of web search - a true monopoly.

When Q&A came around, Thiel was posed with a question that he himself suggested for interviews earlier in the talk: "What do you know is true that nobody agrees with you on?" Answering this with ease in a number of over-your-head inklings, and eventually moving on to talk about how he feels that the higher education is simply a sham - "a weird club with a velvet rope and a long line out front, with nobody inside." He compared colleges in the US today to the Catholic church in the 1500's. "Anyone who does not have mild Aspergers will be systematically talked out of pursuing any original idea that they conceive of." 

The question that finally stumped Thiel was the following:

"What made you think differently? Family? Education? Experience?"

After a seemingly unending series of stutter starts and "well let's see's" he landed on an answer that you could tell didn't fall into his thesis on higher education.

"There was something about running the only Conservative Libertarian publication at Stanford. It forced me to confront differing ideologies, to have the hard conversations."

Thiel's new book, Zero to One is now sitting in a gift bag on my desk.