Peter Thiel

[note: it turns out Peter Thiel is kind of a strange guy. when you’re done here, please also check out Peter Thiel, Part II]


Peter Thiel says this thing in his book.

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

It’s been bugging the shit out of me.

He continues:

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.

Most commonly, I hear answers like the following:

“Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed.”
“America is exceptional.”
“There is no God.”

Those are bad answers. The first and the second statements might be true, but many people already agree with them. The third statement simply takes one side in a familiar debate. A good answer takes the following form: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”

I’ve been looking of late for a new, concise objective for continuing to write essays here. Answering the Peter Thiel question will be a theme for 2016. I’ll have succeeded if the results of my efforts — these forthcoming essays — can help you (and me!) see the world in new light.

My first answer to the Peter Thiel question, actually, stems from an observation about the Peter Thiel question itself.

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

I think most readers would agree that there are two centrally important components to this question:

1) Important truth
2) People [dis]agree

If either part fails then the idea is not very interesting. It doesn’t create value. It won’t challenge you or change your worldviews. I think most of my peers would agree with that much, and can readily observe as much from reading Thiel’s question.

What’s glossed over is the third important tenet:

3) Very few

I’d been glossing over it myself. And because of that, my pipeline of published essays has sputtered to near halt in 2014-15. I’ve lost track of how many essays have been started and abandoned in drafts. I’ll come up with an concept that I think meets the first two criteria, only to find that while researching the subject, someone else on the internet has already beaten me to my argument, almost word-for-word. Damn. There goes that idea.

I think there’s two reasons “very few” is important.

The one that Thiel probably intended is that “very few” implies there will be a small band of people who agree with you, who might help you advance your important idea, without whom your crusade to change the world will be far more difficult.

The other, I think, is a concession that it’s really just not that feasible to have a truly unique idea — and that it’s not really worth bothering. There are billions of people on the internet who are all exposed to similar news, similar weather, similar media… the odds of coming up with something completely original must be about as slim as the odds of winning the $1.3 billion Powerball. Not something you’d want to bet on.

Businesses succeed for lots of reasons, but very often, “we had this totally unique idea” was not the foundation.

  • Apple started because Steve Wozniak’s friends had homebrew computers and he wanted one too
  • Tesla got into the electric car game about a hundred years after the first electric car company
  • Rocket Internet, a German internet company, has a valuation over $8 billion. Their entire strategy is basically “let’s rip off the good ideas that startups have in the US and employ them in the developing world”

I believe in the importance of “very few.” I think it’s powerful, even liberating, to no longer be responsible for true originality — but simply to be charged with championing ideas held by just a handful of like-minded contemporaries.

So my first answer to Thiel’s question is as follows:

Most of my peers believe that a big idea’s value mostly stems from its originality. The truth is actually that you don’t need originality to change the world (much less write an interesting blog post).

Originality has value.  If you stumble upon an idea that’s at the 99th percentile of the Originality curve, then great! But as Thiel subtly concedes and we’ve observed here, the 90th or 95th percentile is often good enough — and the work to drive your idea from the 95th to the 99th percentile is often counter-productive. The very long tail of uniqueness has diminishing returns.

When you’ve got an idea you like, that’s unique enough, then it’s time to start running.


More answers and ideas like this to come.


(Thanks to Cy, Matt, Zach, and others who’ve read drafts of this.)

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