Why Peter Thiel Searches for Reality-Bending ‘Secrets’

Originally published on The Profile.

I recently had dinner with Peter Thiel, arguably the world’s most influential technology investor. We met at a restaurant in Los Angeles, where he sat at the head of the table in a plain black T-Shirt. At some level, I knew what to expect: A dinner with Peter is an intellectual dinner. There’s no nonsense. Instead of talking about the hot new Netflix show, you debate ideas and how the future will unfold.

Though the contents of our conversation will remain private, I can talk about big-picture learnings. Everything here is public information that I now place a heavier emphasis on when trying to learn from Thiel.

Never before was I so prepared for a first meeting. I’ve read all his public essays, listened to more than 100 hours of his speeches and interviews, and published a 15,000-word essay about how Christianity shaped his worldview. And yet, something about the dinner surprised me: I under-estimated Thiel’s obsession with looking for secrets.  

His definition of secrets isn’t the one you grew up with. He’s not talking about spreading gossip or talking behind people’s backs. Rather, Thiel defines secrets as important truths about the world that other people don’t yet realize. They are keys into hidden chambers of knowledge, free from the distortions of lies and propaganda. 

His obsession with secrets is evident in his famous interview question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

But where does his obsession with secrets come from? 

Why Thiel Looks for Secrets

Thiel’s interest in secrets was inspired by one of his Stanford professors, a social theorist named Rene Girard who believed the world is filled with important but undiscovered truths. 

Like Thiel, Girard was a Christian. Both of their fascination with secrets thus originates with the New Testament. Jesus Christ famously spoke in parables to undermine the orthodoxy of the time. In scripture, Proverbs 25:2 says: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”

That search is defined by the quest for secrets. I like to imagine that every person has their own map of the way the world works. Everybody’s map is incomplete, either because they lack information or are blinded by dogma. The world is always changing faster than our ability to map its developments — just think of your family members who still don’t understand Bitcoin. 

Sometimes, our sense-making machinery has a glitch too. Many years ago, a McKinsey study concluded that nobody in the developing world would buy smartphones because they were too expensive. Based on that study, they held off on launching a smartphone for another three years. Around that time, an anthropologist who had recently returned from Chinese refugee camps saw how people would sacrifice half their disposable income just to own an iPhone. Though Nokia had an internet-enabled phone with a color touchscreen display and a high-resolution camera in 2004, the executives held off on launching a smartphone for another three years. Between the peak of their mobile dominance and their sale of the mobile division in 2013, Nokia’s value fell by almost $250 billion.

Though it’s easy to laugh at Nokia, their decision aligned with common knowledge at the time. Most people didn’t expect smartphones to become so popular. These society-wide distortions create opportunities though. 

Just as Apple capitalized on the smartphone secret, Thiel capitalizes on secrets by investing in startups. Praising those elusive secrets, he writes: “Every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside. A great company is a conspiracy to change the world; when you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator.”

Finding those secrets begins with a skepticism of consensus. 

— — 

Beware of Consensus

In the Bible, every time people unanimously agree on something, they are wrong. For example, the Tower of Babel story from the Book of Genesis outlines a united humanity where everybody speaks the same language. When they aim to build a tower tall enough to reach heaven, God confounds their speech so they can no longer comprehend one another. Then, he scatters them around the world.  

Ancient Jewish law heeded a similar lesson. If a suspect on trial was unanimously found guilty by all judges, then the suspect was acquitted. This reasoning sounds counterintuitive, but the legislators of the time noticed that unanimous agreement often indicates the presence of systematic error in the judicial process, even if the exact nature of the error was yet to be discovered. Intuitively, they reasoned that unanimous agreement signaled a mistake in the decision-making process. 

With a skepticism towards consensus, Thiel says: “We always think that democracy is a good thing, and in a Democracy, the majority is more right than wrong. 51% is more right than 49%. 70% is even more right. But if you get to 99.9%, maybe that’s totally right — or maybe you’re in North Korea.”

Of course, consensus is often right. You shouldn’t disagree with something just because the majority of people believe it. That’s not contrarianism. That’s stupidity. 

But do interrogate the dogmas of the day. Question authority. Read outside the mainstream. Surround yourself with independent thinkers.1 Observe which patterns cause humanity’s sense-making apparatus to malfunction and live in the persistent search of truth — especially when it’s unpopular. 

1

I actually prefer the term “uncorrelated” instead of independent. Everybody’s dependent on their experiences, the books they’ve read, and the people they talk to most. The solution is to surround yourself with people who don’t think like each other. Instead of consensus, you get conflicting viewpoints which help you triangulate towards the truth.

Out of respect for Thiel, I won’t share the secrets we discussed. 

But I’m happy to share one of mine: People looked at how poorly schools adapted to online education during the lockdowns and concluded that online education doesn’t work as well as in-person alternatives. But they’re misguided. Through my writing course, Write of Passage, and the ones I’ve taken myself, I’ve seen hundreds of students rave about what online education can offer. Moreover, online education is improving at a faster rate than in-person alternatives. My career is built on this secret.  

As confirmed by the intensity of our dinner conversation, the juiciest secret of all is that there are many secrets left to discover.

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