Zero to One

It’s not the zippiest of titles but Zero to One, the Peter Thiel & Blake Masters duet about how to build the future is a short, fun and incisive read.

Perhaps Quantum Leap would have been better descriptively. Masters was a student at somewhere or other (Stanford at a guess) when Thiel gave an excellent sounding set of lectures on basically how he sees the world. You can read them over here. From the notes came a book.

Frankly you should read the notes. They’re more blunt, free and gives you a feel of being there. If you need it toned down and some sort of narrative structure to hold on to then get the book. Example. In the notes Thiel references the theory that eating carbohydrates is somehow healthy for you as just made up and let us say, influenced, by Kellogg’s marketing department – this isn’t to be found in the book. At least, as far as I could find.

What’s the central idea? It’s that it’s hard to make things the first time. Really hard. But it’s also really profitable. Alternatively it’s easier to take something that exists and iterate on it a little. Or to take something and divide it up.

Building OpenStreetMap was hard. Iterating it and copying it was easy. Comparatively if not in the absolute.

It looks like it was hard to build the United Kingdom but it’s pretty easy to try to divide it up. It’s the mentality that we’ve reached a plateau, things won’t get better and we need to divide up what’s left. Perhaps some sort of socialist paradise will save us – the ultimate division of wealth.

Thiel makes the argument repeatedly that the path to real wealth is to create new things (which as we noted, is hard).

It’s interesting to note little anger in the book or his comments. The outrage in San Francisco over prices of housing are a simple example. Thiel makes the entirely logical and evidence-based argument that house prices are high because it’s illegal to build houses and there’s therefore a shortage. Thomas Sowell does exactly the same thing in more detail in Basic Economics but with a strong hint of frustration and anger.

Should you read this book? If you want to build the future then yes you should, but that’s a demonstrably tiny number of the ~7 billion people on the planet and you’ve probably got it on your list already. If you want to understand how people who build things think then it’s useful too. Sadly the targeted audience and the inspiration it seeks to engender is outside the scope of this or any other book like it save maybe Atlas Shrugged.

And there lies the key question, how to get large groups of people building again instead of dividing and iterating?

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