As someone who offers $100,000 grants to college students willing to drop out and start companies, Peter Thiel makes for a somewhat unlikely commencement speaker. On Sunday, the billionaire PayPal cofounder and venture capitalist brought his message to Hamilton College in upstate New York, telling graduates to chart their own courses as they start the rest of their lives.
Thiel was selected by a committee of students, faculty and board members at Hamilton, according to the college's communications department. Hamilton director of media relations Vige Barrie said students on the committee were particularly interested in hosting a commencement speaker from the technology field.
Drawing from his own experience working at a law firm where "from the outside everyone wanted to get in, and from the inside everyone wanted to get out," he said recent graduates have an opportunity to try things that people with more life experience might not think will work.
An example from the tech investor's own life: Launching payments startup PayPal. He described the venture as a challenge that, while fulfilling, did not initially supply him with an easy explanation initially of how he was succeeding in life.
He said during the commencement address that he and his cofounders didn't accomplish their end goal, which was to replace the dollar with digital currency. But they learned a lesson that stuck with him: "We learned that while doing new things is difficult, it is far from impossible."
"At this moment in your life you know fewer limits, fewer taboos and fewer fears than you will ever in the future. So do not squander your ignorance. Go out and do what your teachers and parents thought could not be done and what they never thought of doing," Thiel told graduates.
He went on to reference modernist poet Ezra Pound, encouraging graduates to "make it new" in what he described as the American and Western tradition of "doing new things."
"When Pound said 'make it new,' he was talking about the old. He wanted to recover what was best in tradition, and to render it fresh," said Thiel, describing Pound as "a prophet of sorts" in addition to being a poet.
"Here at Hamilton, in America, and in that part of the world called the West, we are all part of an unusual kind of tradition. The tradition we inherited is itself about doing new things," he continued. "Our whole continent is a new world."
Thiel mentioned that Pound was a graduate of Hamilton, a private liberal arts college located in the town of Kirkland, population approximately 10,000. Thiel is a graduate of Stanford University.
The Silicon Valley icon said he disagreed with referring to the United States as a "developed country" because he thought it framed the nation as one that is at the end of its history.
"We have all heard America described as a developed country, setting it apart from countries that are still developing. This description pretends to be neutral, but I find it far from neutral because it suggests that our tradition of making new things is over," he said. "When we say that we are developed, we're saying that that's it. That for us, history's over. We're saying that everything there is to do has already been done and now the only thing left for others in the world to do is to catch up."
College spokesperson Barrie said Thiel's politics did not play a role in his selection. Thiel is an outspoken Libertarian and was recently revealed to have been approved as a delegate for Republican presidential Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention.
Hamilton College President Joan Hinde described Thiel in her introduction of him as a "creative and well-known public intellectual" who thinks differently than others and "takes on challenges that others consider insurmountable."