In the book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, entrepreneur Peter Thiel draws on his experience as the co-founder of PayPal and software company Palantir Technologies to discuss new ways to explore the world and create new inventions. In the following edited excerpt, he urges entrepreneurs to continue to discover secrets.
Every one of today's most famous and familiar ideas was once unknown and unsuspected. The mathematical relationship between a triangle's sides, for example, was secret for millennia. Pythagoras had to think hard to discover it. If you wanted in on Pythagoras's new discovery, joining his strange vegetarian cult was the best way to learn about it. Today, his geometry has become a convention--a simple truth we teach to grade schoolers. A conventional truth can be important--it's essential to learn elementary mathematics, for example--but it won't give you an edge. It's not a secret.
Consider this contrarian question: What important truth do very few people agree with you on? If we already understand as much of the natural world as we ever will--if all of today's conventional ideas are already enlightened, and if everything has already been done--then there are no good answers. Contrarian thinking doesn't make any sense unless the world still has secrets left to give up.
Of course, there are many things we don't yet understand, but some of those things may be impossible to figure out--mysteries rather than secrets. For example, string theory describes the physics of the universe in terms of vibrating one"dimensional objects called "strings." Is string theory true? You can’t really design experiments to test it. Very few people, if any, could ever understand all its implications. But is that just because it’s difficult? Or is it an impossible mystery? The difference matters. You can achieve difficult things, but you can't achieve the impossible.
There is a business version of our contrarian question: What valuable company is nobody building? Every correct answer is necessarily a secret: something important and unknown, something hard to do but doable. If there are many secrets left in the world, there are probably many world"changing companies yet to be started.
Why Aren't People Looking for Secrets?
Most people act as if there are no secrets left to find. An extreme representative of this view is Ted Kaczynski, infamously known as the Unabomber. Kaczynski was a child prodigy who enrolled at Harvard at 16. He went on to get a Ph.D. in math and become a professor at UC Berkeley. But you've heard of him only because of the 17"year terror ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼campaign he waged with pipe bombs against professors, technologists, and business people.
In late 1995, the authorities didn't know who or where the Unabomber was. The biggest clue was a 35,000"word manifesto that Kaczynski had written and anonymously mailed to the press. The FBI asked some prominent newspapers to publish it, hoping for a break in the case. It worked: Kaczynski's brother recognized his writing style and turned him in.
You might expect that writing style to have shown obvious signs of insanity, but the manifesto is eerily cogent. Kaczynski claimed that in order to be happy, every individual "needs to have goals whose attainment requires effort, and needs to succeed in attaining at least some of his goals." He divided human goals into three groups:
1. Goals that can be satisfied with minimal effort;
2. Goals that can be satisfied with serious effort; and
3. Goals that cannot be satisfied, no matter how much effort one makes.
This is the classic trichotomy of the easy, the hard, and the impossible. Kaczynski argued that modern people are depressed because all the world's hard problems have already been solved. What's left to do is either easy or impossible, and pursuing those tasks is deeply unsatisfying. What you can do, even a child can do; what you can't do, even Einstein couldn't have done. So Kaczynski's idea was to destroy existing institutions, get rid of all technology, and let people start over and work on hard problems anew.
Kaczynski's methods were crazy, but his loss of faith in the technological frontier is all around us. Consider the trivial but revealing hallmarks of urban hipsterdom: faux vintage photography, the handlebar mustache, and vinyl record players all hark back to an earlier time when people were still optimistic about the future. If everything worth doing has already been done, you may as well feign an allergy to achievement and become a barista.
All fundamentalists think this way, not just terrorists and hipsters. Religious fundamentalism, for example, allows no middle ground for hard questions: There are easy truths that children are expected to rattle off, and then there are the mysteries of God, which can't be explained. In between--the zone of hard truths--lies heresy. In the modern religion of environmentalism, the easy truth is that we must protect the environment. Beyond that, Mother Nature knows best,ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼and she cannot be questioned. Free marketeers worship a similar logic. The value of things is set by the market. Even a child can look up stock quotes. But whether those prices make sense is not to be second"guessed; the market knows far more than you ever could.
Why has so much of our society come to believe that there are no hard secrets left? It might start with geography. There are no blank spaces left on the map anymore. If you grew up in the 18th century, there were still new places to go. After hearing tales of foreign adventure, you could become an explorer yourself. This was probably true up through the 19th and early 20th centuries; after that point photography from National Geographic showed every Westerner what even the most exotic, underexplored places on earth look like. Today, explorers are found mostly in history books and children's tales. Parents don't expect their kids to become explorers any more than they expect them to become pirates or sultans. Perhaps there are a few dozen uncontacted tribes somewhere deep in the Amazon, and we know there remains one last earthly frontier in the depths of the oceans. But the unknown seems less accessible than ever.
Along with the natural fact that physical frontiers have receded, four social trends have conspired to root out belief in secrets. First is incrementalism. From an early age, we are taught that the right way to do things is to proceed one very small step at a time, day by day, grade by grade. If you overachieve and end up learning something that's not on the test, you won't receive credit for it. But in exchange for doing exactly what's asked of you (and for doing it just a bit better than your peers), you'll get an A. This process extends all the way up through the tenure track, which is why academics usually chase large numbers of trivial publications instead of new frontiers.
Second is risk aversion. People are scared of secrets, because they are scared of being wrong. By definition, a secret hasn’t been vetted by the mainstream. If your goal is to never make a mistake in your life, you shouldn't look for secrets. The prospect of being lonely but right--dedicating your life to something no one else believes in--is already hard. The prospect of being lonely and wrong can be unbearable.
Third is complacency. Social elites have the most freedom and ability to explore new thinking, but they seem to believe in secrets the least. Why search for a new secret if you can comfortably collect rent on everything that has already been done? Every fall, the deans at top law schools and business schools welcome the incoming class with the same implicit message: "You got into this elite institution. Your worries are over. You're set for life." But that's probably the kind of thing that's true only if you don't believe it.
Fourth is "flatness." As globalization advances, people perceive the world as one homogeneous, highly competitive marketplace: The world is "flat." Given that assumption, anyone who might have had the ambition to look for a secret will first ask himself: If it were possible to discover something new, wouldn't someone from the faceless global talent pool of smarter and more creative people have found it already? This voice of doubt can dissuade people from even starting to look for secrets in a world that seems too big a place for any individual to contribute something unique.
There's an optimistic way to describe the result of these ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼trends: Today, you can't start a cult. Forty years ago, people were more open to the idea that not all knowledge was widely known. From the Communist Party to the Hare Krishnas, large numbers of people thought they could join some enlightened vanguard that would show them the Way. Very few people take unorthodox ideas seriously today, and the mainstream sees that as a sign of progress. We can be glad that there are fewer crazy cults now, yet that gain has come at great cost: We have given up our sense of wonder at secrets left to be discovered.
Reprinted from the book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. Copyright 2014 by Peter Thiel. Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.