September 16, 2014
I recently read Peter Thiel’s new book, “Zero to One.” Thiel is the neo-libertarian, futurist-billionaire-contrarian venture capitalist who cofounded PayPal and now runs Palantir, a company valued at more than $10 billion. So, in other words, he casts a long shadow in Silicon Valley. The book, co-authored with Blake Masters, is based on a series of lectures he gave at Stanford on the topic of — what else — startups.
The idea at the heart of Thiel’s book is a simple one: Going from “zero to one” — that creating some completely novel technology is the most important thing any entrepreneur/inventor/creator can do. Thiel says all major advances in humankind have come from this creation of something from nothing, not “iterating from n+1”. America, he posits, has gotten great at the “n+1” part — that is, doing something that it has already done over and over and over again. The industrialized process of creating widgets, say, has gotten ever more profitable and efficient. While that may benefit society to a degree, it ultimately results in stagnation if no one is doing the zero-to-one heavy lifting. Silicon Valley, in his mind, isn’t doing enough of this. As Thiel himself said, “We wanted flying cars and all we got was 140 characters”.
Thiel never tries to hide that he is a bigger-than-big-idea, shoot-for-the-moon type. This is the man who started the Thiel Fellowship, which encouraged teenagers to skip college and become entrepreneurs. He also funds anti-aging research through the Methuselah Foundation and creating floating island-nations through his Seasteading Institute (see photo to the left). He thinks big and generally dismisses ideas that don’t match his ambition. This is fine. We need the Thiels of the world. As we need the Steve Jobs and the Elon Musks. Those who truly want to tackle the biggest industries and technological innovations of our time. But what Thiel misses in his most-macro-of-macro views, is the universal applicability of his idea. He doesn’t lose the forest for the trees; he loses the forest for the planet Endor, which he’s viewing from the near-space orbit of the interdimensional spaceship he handcrafted himself.
In general, anything “start-up” can be viewed from those outside Silicon Valley as inapplicable to their everyday lives. To the layman, a startup is little more than the far-fetched aspirations of Red-Bull-chugging hackers and Tesla-driving billionaires. For those inside Silicon Valley, everything is a bit of a black box, just ever-so-slightly disconnected from reality. While both things are probably untrue, Thiel misses an opportunity that’s right in front of his face. The power of his thesis is the fact that it applies so broadly to everyone, from tech insider to Midwestern soccer mom.
See, we all have our routines. We are creatures of habit who take comfort in repetition. I get up every day, have some coffee and eggs, go to the gym, have some more coffee, answer emails, and on and on. It’s the same thing every day and I actually take extreme pleasure in it. But this, Thiel would say, is my “n+1.” I have gotten good at something and I iterate and improve it a little bit each day. It’s so familiar and easy, though, that I rarely step outside my comfort zone to do something novel. It’s not that I hesitate to try new things — it’s that my very routine precludes the act of creation.
In Thiel’s view, applied to the scale of an industrial nation-state, this is a big problem. And he’s not wrong. Humans require innovation and discovery to move forward. The new iPhone 6 is the very glaring definition of the “n+1” problem. It’s a beautiful piece of technology that Apple has gotten profoundly good at engineering. It will not, however, eradicate AIDS or cancer. It is simply a feat of manufacturing and design.
It wasn’t that I found myself disagreeing with Thiel at all; in my opinion, he’s spot on. As applied to technology and startups, his book is invaluable. But I did find myself asking, “What if more people took this viewpoint in their everyday lives?” What would happen if everyone tried to apply the power of “zero-to-one” creation in their home, their workplace, their relationships? This is not to say that everyone should quit their jobs to go try and create Thiel’s fabled “flying cars.” I want to know where there’s room for innovation in the everyday routine. What can I do that I have personally never done? What is my “zero to one”?
The subtitle of Thiel’s book includes “how to build the future”. For him, that’s capital-F Future, in the largest, most sci-fi sense. But it could, and should, just as easily be “How to build your future.” Not in a New Age-y, self-help-manual sort of way, but just as a question to rattle around in the back of your mind. It’s something to ponder in the “n+1” of your everyday routine. Maybe you answer that question with a great innovation that will fundamentally change humanity for the better. Maybe you decide to quit your job and pursue a passion you’ve always denied yourself. Maybe you ask the question and the simple answer is: “I’m perfectly content”. The point is that routine can blind you. “Zero to one,” however, has the power to disrupt that routine for the better. It can force you to change on a personal level, just like it can force humanity to change on a grand scale.
So next time you’re drinking that beautiful, familiar cup of morning coffee, ask yourself: “What is my zero to one”?