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Doing new things

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I just finished reading Peter Thiel’s new book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. For those of you who may not be well-versed in the world of technology geeks, Peter Thiel is an entrepreneur and investor. He was one of the founders of PayPal back in 1998 and was the first outside investor in Facebook in 2004. He invested $500,000 for a 10.2% stake in the company!

While the focus of the book is obviously on technology startups, it’s less about “here’s how you build a startup” (there is no formula) and more about “here’s how to think about the world, humanity, and the future of our civilization.” So even if you’re not a founder, or startup and technology enthusiast, I think you’d still find it really interesting.

As one example, Thiel makes the distinction early on in the book between what he calls “vertical or intensive progress” and “horizontal or extensive progress.” The specific example he gives is of typewriters and word processors. If you take one typewriter and figure out how to make 100 of them, you’ve made horizontal progress. However, if you’ve just replaced typewriters with word processors, you’ve made vertical progress.

In other words, vertical progress is doing new things and horizontal progress is just copying things that we know already work. In the grand scheme of the world, he argues that globalization is really just a form of horizontal progress. The rise of China is a result of them copying what has already worked in developed countries. But the true way to advance our economy and civilization is to not just copy – that’s easy – it’s to do, new, things.

That, of course, is a lot harder to do. But to build the future, you need to build things and do things that haven’t been done before.

Which is why Thiel actually gives $100,000 to a handful of college students every year so that they can drop-out and pursue a startup. In his mind, our education system is just perpetuating the status quo. MBAs move money around without creating anything new. Lawyers just preserve value and mitigate risk, also without creating anything new (Thiel is trained as a lawyer). And so he doesn’t believe that is the best way forward.

This may not sit right with many of you, but questioning the status quo is a prerequisite if you’re trying to do new things.

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