Peter Thiel’s Zero to One: A Short Book Review

This book is a bit of a departure from my usual fare of science fiction and fantasy.  It’s a book based on a course the author gave on business start-ups.  And considering that Thiel was one of the founders of PayPal I guess he knows a thing or two about innovation.  The title “Zero to One,” is a way of describing the invention of something new, literally something out of nothing.  He contrasts this to the current business paradigm of amplifying existing businesses by small incremental improvements mostly involving decreasing business costs.  This might seem like a narrow topic that would only interest business school types and in one sense that’s true.  What makes it important to the general reader is how he frames this situation as a symptom of a larger societal problem that effects us all and threatens to make permanent the recession that has gripped the United States for the last thirty years.

Thiel defines the parameters involved as two binary variables.  The first pair is optimism versus pessimism.  As examples of these he compares American culture in the post WWII era (optimistic) with other cultures that tend to pessimism (e.g. Modern Europe, Modern China).  That’s easy enough to understand and familiar to most readers.  The other parameter he describes is definite versus indefinite.  The dichotomy here is the difference between believing that you can shape the future (definite) versus believing that the future is ruled by luck or random events.  Putting these two sets together you can come up with four cases, Definite Optimism, Indefinite Optimism, Definite Pessimism and Indefinite Pessimism.  With respect to the United States he claims that we have shifted from the Definite Optimism of the 1940s and 50s to the Indefinite Optimism of the present.  He maintains that Americans tend to regard the future as optimistic but instead of the bold plans for creating the future in the 40s and 50s (characterized by such bold endeavors as the Manhattan Project and the other engineering marvels of the times) we just assume that everything will turn out well without actually having a blueprint of what needs to be done to achieve this prosperity.

This framework is then extended to other areas of human activity such as finance, politics and even philosophy.  These observations seem genuinely compelling.  The analysis is uncomplicated and fairly obvious once examined.  I find this section the most interesting from a general interest perspective.

The majority of the book returns to more concrete elements of what a successful start-up business should look like (and that is something that is interesting to more than just venture capitalists and computer savants) but sprinkled throughout the book are arguments that show Thiel’s divergent view on modern business goals.  His thoughts on the desirability of monopolies is clever.  And finally, he examines the consequences of automation on human society.  He recognizes the disruptions to older life styles inherent in these technologies but offers an opinion on how it can be made to serve society instead.

News that Thiel is being considered for a role in the upcoming Trump administration strikes me as a positive turn of events.  He appears to be an original thinker who seems to possess insights into how innovation is central to the American Dream.  I think it’s almost prophetic that both Thiel and Trump seem to be telling America to return to a winning strategy.

This book is primarily for those interested in what makes for a successful start-up company but I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know why America is faltering economically and even spiritually.