Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★★ (6/7)
Readability: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)
Challenge Level: 2/5 (Easy) | 195 pages ex-notes (224 official)
Blurb/Description: Billionaire Peter Thiel shares his contrarian take on technological innovation and building the future in a compact, hard-hitting book.
Summary: I perhaps identify with Peter Thiel a little less than I did in 2015, but this is still an excellent book that is worth reading multiple times. Reading Zero to One can feel a bit like being stripped of all your clothes and thrown into a frozen lake – once you get over the shock, you’re very awake and alert, and thinking clearly.
There are also funny bits; to wit, Thiel sums up nearly a decade of investment trends with the amusing:Since the ‘90s migration from bricks to clicks didn’t work as hoped, investors went back to bricks - housing - and BRICs - globalization. The result was another bubble. - Peter Thiel Click To Tweet
Whether you agree with all his points or not (and you’re not likely to, nor should you, in my opinion), Thiel presents a very contrarian, refreshing, thought-provoking set of views on technology, capitalism, and entrepreneurship.
Highlights: Thiel (pictured at right) writes snappy prose. This book does not waste your time.
Lowlights: At times, Thiel’s worldview is either self-contradictory (see my analysis below) or just not explained well enough to capture the nuances of his thinking, leaving portions of the book coming across as cute soundbites that sound smart and deep but don’t make sense once you take a second to think about them.
You should buy a copy of Zero to One if: you want an accessible yet thought-provoking discussion of some of the foundations of business.
Also, some other Peter Thiel goodies:
Reread Value: 3/5 (Medium)
More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):
IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK. Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive. It was primarily created for my own personal reference.
Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference. Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.” Do so at your own peril.
I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases. First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.
Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall. However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.
Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made. I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning. Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.
Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.
Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.
Peter Thiel pulls no punches: if you’re cloning, you’re doing it wrong, according to him. The philosophical premise of the book is that we have a unique ability as a species, i.e. intelligence amplified by culture:
“We are the only [animals] that can invent new things and better ways of making them. Humans don’t decide what to build by making choices from some cosmic catalog of options given in advance; instead, by creating new technologies, we rewrite the plan of the world.”
… and in Thiel’s book, it’s essentially our manifest destiny, our highest imperative, to continue doing just that. Thiel argues that over the past few decades, most of our progress has been “horizontal” – i.e. replicating things that have already been done – rather than “vertical” or finding truly new ways to do things, with the exception of limited progress within the field of IT. (This seems rather harsh to me, but let’s run with it.)
(I would point out that it’s not technically true that we’re the only species that makes things: so do crows! See Jennifer Ackerman’s “ The Genius of Birds” – Bird review + notes. Nonetheless, Thiel’s point is directionally fine/reasonable and I generally agree with it for the obvious reasons.)
After briefly reviewing the internet bubble, Thiel posits that entrepreneurs learned four (wrong) lessons:
- Advances should be incremental
- Planning is bad
- Try to do existing things better, not create a new market
- Product matters more than sales
Thiel believes the opposite of all these, but notes, in perhaps the most important line in the book, a quasi-Emerson “Self Reliance” view on schema:The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd but to think for yourself. - Peter Thiel Click To Tweet
Thiel very briefly touches on the idea of value creation vs. value capture (reference the disaggregation mental model), then moves on to discuss why you should (as an entrepreneur, and presumably also as an investor) be focused on markets where you will have monopolies rather than markets where profits will be competed away: if you go from 0 to 1 rather than trying to improve incrementally on competitors, you have more chance of this happening. (Zero to one / one to many.)
“competitiveness pushes people toward ruthlessness or death”
But on the other hand, businesses that don’t have to worry about competing with anyone can do more good for its employees and the world:
“monopolists can afford to think about things other than making money; non-monopolists can’t.”
Thiel argues that economists’ inappropriate focus on competition and equilibrium states is due to its ease of modeling. On this topic, see also Thaler’s “Misbehaving” (M review + notes), and the humans vs. econs mental model.
Thiel continues by discussing the negative impacts of our competition-focus in the education system.
Again, Thiel doesn’t pull any punches:
“for the privilege of being turned into conformists, students (or their families) pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation. Why are we doing this to ourselves?”
A good question that more parents should ask; Tiger Babies Strike Back and Enter Title Here come to mind here. See also Thiel’s commentary on “escaping Alcatraz.” Stitching together a few pieces of commentary on his Big Law job.
When I left the firm, after seven months and three days, my coworkers were surprised. One of them told me that he hadn’t known it was possible to escape from Alcatraz. Now that might sound odd, because all you had to do to escape was walk through the front door and not come back. But people really did find it very hard to leave, because so much of their identity was wrapped up in having won the competitions to get there in the first place.
I’d say a lot of these people may not understand this larger theory about society, but they are somewhat oblivious to it, and it pushes progress. Now, certainly my own experience would have been a little bit more where — I grew up in Northern California. It was this hyper-tracked process, where my eighth grade junior high school yearbook, one of my friends wrote in, “I know you’re going to get into Stanford in four years.”
Four years later I got into Stanford, then I got into Stanford Law School. You won all the conventionally tracked competitions; you ended up at a big law firm in Manhattan. From the outside, it was a place where everybody wanted to get in. On the inside, it was a place where everybody wanted to get out.Winning is better than losing, but everybody loses when the war isn't worth fighting. - Peter Thiel Click To Tweet
He mentions later in the book that “disruption” is overrated and innovation should be net-positive rather than negative-sum.
Thiel goes on to talk about the importance of durability and being a “last mover”, but I’ll diverge from Zero to One here because I believe his presentation at Stanford actually did a better job of explaining this concept than the book. What he said there is block-quoted in its glory below because it is truly next-level. Here’s a time-synced link (go watch it!); below is the transcript:
“… now the critical thing about these monopolies is, it’s not enough to have a monopoly for just a moment. The critical thing is to have one that lasts over time. In Silicon Valley, there’s always this idea that you want to be the first mover.
I think in some ways the better framing is, you want to be the last mover, you want to be the last company in a category. Those are the ones that are really valuable.
Microsoft was the last operating system, at least for many decades. Google’s the last search engine…
most of the value of these companies exists far in the future, if you do a [DCF]… so one of the things that we always overvalue in Silicon Valley is growth rates, and we undervalue durability.
Because growth is something you can measure in the here and now and you can always track that very precisely. The question of whether a company’s gonna be around in a decade, that’s actually what dominates the value equation, and it is a much more qualitative sort of a thing.
If we went back to this idea of these characteristics of monopoly – proprietary technology, network effects, economies of scale, branding… you also want to think about, are these things going to last over time…
as the network scales, the network effects actually get more robust, so if you have a network effects business, that can become a bigger and stronger monopoly over time.”
See also the nonlinearity mental model, which covers network effects. The point is that near-term numbers matter less than qualitative analysis of the factors that lead to durability: in Thiel’s estimation, those would be proprietary technology (Thiel suggests at least 10x better than the next alternative), network effects, economies of scale, or branding – the more of these the better, of course.
In the vein of Clayton Christensen (see also: “ The Innovator’s Dilemma” – InD review + notes), Thiel suggests targeting small markets rather than large ones and puts down the idea of going after 1% of a $100B market; he uses the example of PayPal targeting eBay power sellers.
I think he’s guilty of equivocation here, in the sense that you could just as easily frame this as: PayPal was going after a (XYZ basis point) share of the global payments market; indeed, earlier in the book, Thiel states that he had the audacious goal of inventing a digital currency or whatever.
He, ironically, actually does mention this concern of mine far later in the book re: cleantech, again with no irony:
“Cleantech entrepreneurs’ thinking about markets was hopelessly confused. They would rhetorically shrink their market in order to seem differentiated (SP – a specific kind of technology), only to turn around and ask to be valued based on huge, supposedly lucrative markets (SP – i.e. global energy).”
Not sure Thiel is intellectually consistent here.
Thiel continues with a succinct takedown of ideas like “the genetic lottery,” and “privilege,” (responding to a comment about “multimillionaire white men” in the Atlantic) –
“[Previous generations didn’t] pretend that misfortune didn’t exist, but [believed] in making their own luck by working hard. If you believe your life is mainly a matter of chance, why read this book?”
His argument for talent:
“if success were mostly a matter of luck… serial entrepreneurs [who created multimillion or multibillion dollar businesses – SP] probably wouldn’t exist.”
I’m going to take the middle road here. I think he’s absolutely correct directionally and his view (talent-focused) is far more sensible than the alternative view (randomness-focused), but it doesn’t seem to square up with all experience.
Here are a couple counterangles. First, consider Michael Mauboussin’s “ The Success Equation” ( TSE review + notes). It’s a great book on many levels, examining the interplay between skill and luck in many areas of life.
Let’s focus on one example therefrom (my favorite): the “MusicLab” experiment, which is cited in a few other books I’ve read. It’s the interaction of social proof with path-dependency. Researchers ran a controlled experiment that determined not only that (unsurprisingly) a lot of songs are popular because they’re popular – cue Yogi Berra quips – but that also there’s a huge degree of luck; a song getting some traction early can lead to massively disproportionate outcomes over other songs that control groups ranked as just as good or even better.
This happens all the time in the real world, too: Snapchat is a dumb and completely undifferentiated app, and Evan Spiegel has never (to my knowledge) displayed any particular talent or insight. So why is Snapchat so popular? Because, unlike tons of other social-media/messaging apps that fizzled out, it was the lucky MusicLab winner.
Of course, thanks to fundamental attribution error, we are sometimes capable of recognizing this when it comes to other people, but not to ourselves: Mauboussin cites an Ellen Langer / Jane Roth paper, whose title, “Heads I Win, Tails It’s Chance,” just about sums it up.
“I’ve made peace with the fact that Silicon Valley is so random. You have to make peace with it or otherwise you’ll never get a good night’s sleep in this town.”
Ravikant, it should be noted, barely got to put in $25K to Uber… which as you might imagine, is now worth a lot. But if his phone had been out of battery when he’d gotten the call back, you know, maybe his net worth would be a little different.
In other areas, too, this shows up. We’ll talk about the “genetic lottery” a bit. In Ian Leslie’s “Curious” (C review + notes), Leslie states that “curiosity is underwritten by love” – an example of a bottleneck – when you’re anxious or insecure, you don’t have the cognitive resources to be curious (which leads to exploring opportunities, being intelligent, taking the non-“safe” route as Thiel advises, etc.)
Similar phenomena are, in fact, observable in other species. See Jennifer Ackerman’s “ The Genius of Birds” – Bird review + notes – where she explores how many of the highly intelligent birds, like crows, had circumstances that made them at less threat from predators. Talking about one of the most intelligent bird species in the world, Ackerman notes on pages 76 – 77 of GoB, for example, that thanks to their island paradise with no natural predators:
“[New Caledonian] crows are free from the burden of vigilance – in other words, they have the time and ease of mind to tinker with sticks and barbed leaves […] without looking up.”
Ackerman also explores, in the book, how the quality of birds’ songs may be linked to their early-life nutrition; birds that faced privation during their early days in the nest might be less able to learn their songs and sing them as well.
Anyway, Thiel proceeds to take down the sorts of nihilistic lines of thought advanced by the Talebs of the world (though he doesn’t call anyone out specifically):If you expect an indefinite future ruled by randomness, you’ll give up on trying to master it. - Peter Thiel Click To Tweet
This is a well-corroborated finding on agency, actually.
Though I don’t think Thiel is citing any specific science here – but rather just “opining” – this is actually a scientifically validated phenomenon. Philip Tetlock, in “Superforecasting” (SF review + notes), overviews research on page 152 that finds that believing in fate makes you worse at predicting the future.
Similarly, much research on the “ growth mindset” – such as that by psychologist Carol Dweck, whose work is phenomenal but book “Mindset” (Mndst review + notes) isn’t that great – has found that a major predictor of success is people’s level of belief in their ability to improve themselves.
College students were put together in groups for 15 minutes then randomly assigned to be accepted or rejected by the group… then, one group is told that they’ll be alone for life and won’t have successful/lasting relationships.
The experimenters (Twenge and Baumeister) found that this led to self-defeating behavior such as being “more likely to […] procrastinate […] when given the opportunity to prepare for a test.” There was a decline in effort on cognitive tests and a state of mind that “avoids meaningful thought […] and is characterized by lethargy.” And quitting sooner on challenging tasks.
Although Olds/Schwartz cite focus on the social exclusion angle, I view it as a clear example of learned helplessness (with potentially other factors interacting). If you were told – with a dose of authority bias tinting your perception – that you’ll be alone for the rest of your life (with the implication being that you can’t do anything about it), that’s a pretty strong fixed-mindset, anti- agency, pro- learned helplessness framing.
And Martin Seligman’s 1972 paper on the topic observes:
In dramatic contrast to a naive dog, a typical dog which has experienced uncontrollable shocks before avoidance training soon stops running and howling and sits or lies, quietly whining, until shock terminates.
The dog does not cross the barrier and escape from shock. Rather, it seems to give up and passively accepts the shock. On succeeding trials, the dog continues to fail to make escape movements and takes as much shock as the experimenter chooses to give.
Touching on the college arms race – Thiel mentions middle schoolers “hoarding extracurricular activities” – he takes the contrarian view that (my terms, not his) that Hedgehogs are superior to Foxes – i.e.:
“instead of pursuing many-sided mediocrity and calling it ‘well-roundedness,’ a definite person determines the one best thing to do and then does it. Instead of working tirelessly to make herself indistinguishable, she strives to be great at something substantive – to be a monopoly of one.
This is not what young people do today… no one gets into Stanford by excelling at just one thing, unless that thing happens to involve throwing or catching a leather ball.”
(On the football: ouch!)
Again, here, I would accuse Thiel of some equivocation: what he’s saying could be interpreted as “get really good at one thing and focus on nothing else,” but in the following section he demonstrates his knowledge of history and philosophy, which is perhaps not directly related to being a technologist… and of course, he talks about the importance of both technology and sales, praising Elon Musk for being both a great technologist and a great salesman.
Where does Thiel draw the line between useful ( utility) learning/perspective and wasted time tending toward “mediocrity?” It’s unclear. (He also serves up literary quotes ranging from Faust to Rand, so clearly he’s read a bit of fiction too.) It is, of course, a hard question to answer; I’ve criticized Ian Leslie for his view in “Curious” ( C review + notes).
Then again, there’s various quotes from Ben Franklin overviewed in Isaacson’s biography “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” ( BfAAL review + notes – not worth reading). Franklin’s beliefs on science and the utility thereof, per Isaacson:
“science should be pursued initially for pure fascination and curiosity, and then practical uses would eventually flow from what was discovered.”
On balloons: while he saw no immediate purpose, he thought they might
“pave the way to some discoveries in natural philosophy of which at present we have no conception… important consequences that no one can foresee.”
“what is the use of a newborn baby?”
“It does not seem to me a good reason to decline prosecuting a new experiment which apparently increases the power of man over matter until we can see to what use that power may be applied.
When we have learned to manage it, we may hope some time or other to find uses for it, as men have done for magnetism or electricity, of which the first experiments were mere matters of amusement.”
Back to Zero to One. Thiel criticizes companies for “not investing” their cash balances literally a page after he finishes discussing how cheap technology invention is relative to biotech research (criticizing them for spending so much money on what he views as an inefficient process; the corollary would be that better biotech startups would consume less capital…)
Indeed, in the next chapter, Thiel goes on to discuss the problem of power laws as it relates to venture capital: Andreessen Horowitz made a successful $250K investment in Instagram in 2010, netting $78MM on it two years later, but given it was in a $1.5 billion fund, it didn’t move the needle… do you see the irony here?
Thiel clamors for a return to the future-focused 1950s, citing examples of ambition such as NASA and a schoolteacher in California (John Reber) who proposed a plan for reconstructing the physical geography of the Bay Area, a proposition that was seriously analyzed by the Army Corps and Congress notwithstanding his lack of formal credentials.
I don’t wholly understand his discussion of secrets, other than that it’s an extension of his view that we (as a society) are no longer ambitious enough.
His conclusions are, first, that you can find secrets in plain sight if you ignore convention. He cites Uber and AirBnb as examples – see also Brad Stone’s “The Upstarts” – TUS review + notes – which covers these two companies very well.
Thiel’s point is valid; Paul Graham of YCombinator – which Thiel used to be associated with – is quoted in “The Upstarts” as saying, when told that people were letting complete strangers stay in their houses:
“People are actually doing this? Why? What’s wrong with them?”
Thiel’s second point is that secrets about people (i.e. taboos) are as valuable as natural secrets.
(My “secret,” incidentally, is that chronotypes matter. See the sleep model, Dr. Matthew Walker’s “ Why We Sleep” – Sleep review + notes – and Till Roenneberg’s “ Internal Time” – IntTm review + notes.)
Thiel transitions abruptly from theory to practice, serving up recommendations on practical angles of startups: get the structure right from the beginning, don’t partner with the wrong person, involve only full-time people (excluding lawyers and son on), have everyone on-site (see REMOTE by Jason Fried for a contrasting view), make sure interests are aligned, don’t pay the CEO a lot, pay in equity as much as possible, etc.
Thiel views typical startup perks as overrated and unrelated to achievement of goals and the opportunity to “do irreplaceable work on a unique problem alongside great people” (see also intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, this also has an arms race feel to it- extrinsic motivation can always be one-upped by someone else, right?); he also thinks relationships are undervalued relative to resumes (insofar as working with people effectively).Customers will not come just because you build it. You have to make that happen, and it’s harder than it looks. - Peter Thiel Click To Tweet
This is really true. Back to “ The Upstarts” – one of my favorite bits was:When you’re starting a company it never goes at the pace you want or expect.... you start, you build it, and you think everyone’s going to care. But no one cares, not even your friends. - Nate Chesky, cofounder of AirBnB Click To Tweet
“In Silicon Valley, nerds are skeptical of advertising, marketing, and sales because they seem superficial and irrational.
But advertising matters because it works. It works on nerds, and it works on you. You may think that you’re an exception; that your preferences are authentic, and advertising only works on other people.
[…] but advertising doesn’t exist to make you buy a product right away; it exists to embed subtle impressions that will drive sales later.
Anyone who can’t acknowledge its likely effect on himself is doubly deceived.”
“people overestimate the relative difficulty of science and engineering, because the challenges of those fields are obvious. What nerds miss is that it takes hard work to make sales look easy.”
his is a good and true observation that deals both with product vs. packaging and ego and salience and a few other models. See also Megan McArdle on “hard problems” in “ The Up Side of Down” ( UpD review + notes). McArdles mentions that contrary to popular opinion, engineering problems are “easy” – it’s unintuitive, but as one of my professors once said, you don’t see a lot of planes falling out of the sky.
On the other hand, a lot of problems that seem “easy” – like getting people to take their medication, or getting doctors to routinely wash their hands – turn out to be quite difficult, that latter point explored as well by Atul Gawande in “ he Checklist Manifesto” (TCM review + notes).
Continuing on, Thiel notes the “dead zone” that exists in the SMB market (needs higher touch sale but not profitable enough), and suggests that startups should not try to compete with the advertising budgets of large companies.
While he does put down attempts at memorable TV spots and PR stunts because of the arms race effect, I think “Behind the Cloud” offers a contrasting view (Btc review + notes) – you don’t necessarily have to spend tons of money to get tons of coverage.
Perhaps the most important takeaway is back to the “do one thing, and do it well” approach – he recommends focusing on getting one distribution channel to work rather than trying them all.
Thiel then takes on the concept of technology “eating people” – positing that computers and humans are good at fundamentally different things, citing the cat example that I’m fond of:
“men and machines are good at fundamentally different things. People have intentionality – we form plans and make decisions in complicated situations. We’re less good at making sense of enormous amounts of data. Computers are exactly the opposite: they excel at efficient data processing, but they struggle to make basic judgments that would be simple for any human. […]
in 2012, [Google’s supercomputer] learned to identify a cat with 75% accuracy […] remember that an average four-year-old can do it flawlessly.”
He cites PayPal’s fraud detection system as an example of how computers and humans can be complementary, filling in each other’s gaps. This was (and is) also the premise of Palantir.
“Numbers have no way of speaking for themselves. We speak for them. We imbue them with meaning.
[…] It is when we deny our role in the process that the odds of failure rise. Before we demand more of our data, we need to demand more of ourselves.”
Silver goes on to discuss how they can be put together for maximum effect as they are in the field of meteorology. Even as computers get more powerful, humans have fairly consistently improved the accuracy of precipitation forecasts by 25% and temperature forecasts by 10%, per government data.
Getting toward the end of the book, Thiel cites the cleantech bubble as an example of conventional thinking gone amok – they failed on most all of the issues (distribution, people, market size, durability etc) that Thiel has brought up. He also takes a potshot at “social entrepreneurship,” noting that he believes it’s doing something different (i.e. something zero to one) that is really good for society. Tesla is cited as an example of a company that did everything right.
He has an interesting chapter discussing his belief that founders operate on an “inverse” distribution of personality traits (i.e. more extreme) due to both nature and intentionality. He has a brief discussion of celebrities, bringing up the “you either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain” mental model. He does caution founders not to overestimate their own power, explaining that Rand was half-wrong and there is no Galt’s Gulch – you can’t secede from society.
Thiel isn’t worried about the singularity… his thoughts on this are split between two chapters (the first before cleantech, and the last the last of the book.)
# Times Read: 3
Planning To Read Again? Yes
First Read: 2015
Last Read: July 2017
Review Date: July 2017
Notes Date: July 2017