Peter Thiel, the billionaire investor who rocked the Stanford campus in the late 1980s when he founded the conservative Stanford Review, is known for being contrarian. It is fitting, then, that his new book — Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future — begins with the question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” His answer, or his important truth, is that technology, not globalization, will be the driving force of the world and the future. Progress in technology is invention; it means creating something that wasn’t there before, or going “from zero to one.” Progress in globalization, on the other hand, means duplication. Globalization just multiplies something that was already there.
The book originates from a class on startups that Thiel taught at Stanford in 2012, and is essentially a distillation of those lectures. But while the book is technically about how to build a startup, it says that giving a step-by-step guide is impossible: “Every moment in business only happens once. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system” — he’ll build something new, something that cannot be emulated.
Thiel goes on to make a compelling case that new technology is our best hope reinvigorating our economy and our culture. Using technology and its development as a focal point, Thiel offers provocative reinterpretations of subjects as varied as the DotCom crash of the 1990’s, economic competition and modern capitalism, human individuals and genetic lottery, the inherent merits of a startup and startup culture, the recent clean technology movement, and the direction the future is taking (“Stagnation or Singularity?”). Thiel’s engaging meditations draws on a dizzying array of authorities, including Chess Grandmaster José Raúl Capablanca, Leo Tolstoy, the Unabomber, John Rawls and Prince.
Thiel’s contrarian tendency comes through clearly as he challenges conventions held in each of the aforementioned areas, arguing, for example, that monopolies can be conducive to innovation and that chance plays very little role in peoples’ success. But Thiel’s primary objective is not just to be contrarian, but to provoke the reader’s intellect. From the beginning, with the question of important truths, to the end, with the direction of the future, it is always clear that for Thiel “the essential first step is to think for yourself.”
Helping the reader answer the initial question — “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” — is Thiel’s purpose in writing the book. For Thiel, the difficulty of answering speaks to a widespread lack of “intellectual originality,” an unconscious embrace of conventions and norms that substitute for genuine creativity.
This call for intellectual originality — for not being an excellent sheep — is not Thiel’s sole objective. He also recounts many stories from his towering career in Silicon Valley — as an investor in Facebook and SpaceX and a co-founder of Palantir and PayPal. These anecdotes give vivid insight into what building a startup is like and make the experience of reading as enjoyable as it is enlightening
There is a lot in this tightly argued book that could be covered in more depth, in articles of their own: his preference for economic monopolies and disdain for economic competition, his preference for last mover advantage rather than first, his libertarianism — the list goes on. Certainly, some of these arguments should be greeted with skepticism. That, after all, is the point — that you should not take things at face value and instead that you should think for yourself. To do that, and to do the book justice, you have to read Zero to One for yourself, and find your answer to Thiel’s opening question.
Alonzo Virata, a junior studying political science, is the managing editor of Stanford Political Journal.