Zero to One

I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Thiel's Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.

It's one of the few "business books" I've read recently that incorporates anything resembling a coherent global ethic into thinking about what it means to create and grow a business. Beyond that, he gets into some great reflections on human creativity, optimism and pessimism about the future, and investing.

I didn't always agree with Thiel's views or counsel, but I found his thinking to be clear and his insights helpful, especially on what it takes to build something that makes a substantial and/or lasting difference in the world. Read through the lens of my past experience creating a startup tech business and my current thinking about what I can do for the world in the future, there were some lovely and/or cringe-worthy "ah-ha" moments.

I highlighted many passages as I read, here are a few that stand out:

Horizontal or extensive progress means copying things that work— going from 1 to n. Horizontal progress is easy to imagine because we already know what it looks like. Vertical or intensive progress means doing new things— going from 0 to 1. Vertical progress is harder to imagine because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done.

In the most dysfunctional organizations, signaling that work is being done becomes a better strategy for career advancement than actually doing work (if this describes your company , you should quit now).

Anyone who claims to be able to do something great is suspect, and anyone who wants to change the world should be more humble. Small, incremental steps are the only safe path forward.

if you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.

proprietary technology must be at least 10 times better than its closest substitute in some important dimension to lead to a real monopolistic advantage.

By the time a student gets to college, he’s spent a decade curating a bewilderingly diverse résumé to prepare for a completely unknowable future. Come what may, he’s ready— for nothing in particular.

Every culture has a myth of decline from some golden age, and almost all peoples throughout history have been pessimists.

The government used to be able to coordinate complex solutions to problems like atomic weaponry and lunar exploration. But today, after 40 years of indefinite creep, the government mainly just provides insurance; our solutions to big problems are Medicare, Social Security, and a dizzying array of other transfer payment programs.

In philosophy, politics, and business, too, arguing over process has become a way to endlessly defer making concrete plans for a better future.

you can change the world through careful planning, not by listening to focus group feedback or copying others’ successes.

How must you see the world if you don’t believe in secrets?...To say that there are no secrets left today would mean that we live in a society with no hidden injustices.

The best entrepreneurs know this: 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.

Since time is your most valuable asset, it’s odd to spend it working with people who don’t envision any long-term future together. If you can’t count durable relationships among the fruits of your time at work, you haven’t invested your time well— even in purely financial terms.

Above all, don’t fight the perk war. Anybody who would be more powerfully swayed by free laundry pickup or pet day care would be a bad addition to your team. Just cover the basics like health insurance and then promise what no others can: the opportunity to do irreplaceable work on a unique problem alongside great people.

There simply aren’t enough resources in the world to replicate old approaches or redistribute our way to prosperity.

A startup is the largest endeavor over which you can have definite mastery. You can have agency not just over your own life, but over a small and important part of the world.

Hat tip to Tim Ferriss and Matt Mullenweg for mentioning Zero to One in this related captivating conversation about building things.

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Chris Hardie

Chris Hardie is an Internet tech geek, problem solver, community-builder and amicable cynic.

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