Startup evangelism

“Is this a book about building better businesses or building better people and cultures? To Thiel’s credit, these issues are deeply interrelated if not, in some sense, the same. In this regard, Zero to One possesses a distinctly moral—at times, almost apocalyptic—dimension. Thiel’s vision isn’t just entrepreneurial; it’s also ethical and romantic.

The question, “What valuable company is nobody building?” is a derivative of his central question, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” There are still secrets to uncover, frontiers to explore, he emphasizes: Thiel wants to re-instill a sense of wonder, to help us see the world “as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first.” It’s these touches that lend Thiel the aura of being something more than just another Silicon Valley millionaire, even if he does quote Shakespeare like a soundbite.

But the book’s humanist strain also undermines Thiel’s notorious denigration of higher education. Thiel believes that academic degrees have become status markers of dubious benefit to society and the individual. He has compared university administrators to sub-prime mortgage brokers and tenured professors to sixteenth-century Catholic priests selling indulgences in the form of diplomas—secular salvation for modern souls. The Thiel Foundation offers students under age 20 scholarships to pursue a startup instead of going to school.

But the critical inquiry Thiel advocates is exactly what a liberal arts curriculum is designed to teach. “Will this business still be around a decade from now?” can only be answered, he believes, by “think[ing] critically about the qualitative characteristics of your business.” His book is, perhaps inadvertently, a plea for the necessity of humanist thought in the business world. This alone is fairly radical in a business culture that tends to think a literature degree means you can identify a simile and not much else. Thiel himself has benefited—financially and intellectually—from this background: Zero to One could only be written by someone who possesses not only tremendous business expertise, but also a deep and broad education. His insistence that you can get along without the taint of a formal education is hypocritical at best.”

Elizabeth Winkler, “Peter Thiel Is a Closet Humanist”