Billionaire Peter Thiel on Conformity and Talent

“Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” — John F. Kennedy

In an interview with Tyler Cowen, Thiel says he worries the conformity problem of the 50’s and 60’s (guys in white shirts and starched collars, hoping to buy a little pocket calculator someday) as it relates to innovation nowadays is actually more acute. He says the category of eccentric scientist, or even eccentric professor, is a species steadily going extinct. There is less space for them in Universities than there used to be. Thiel says it’s harder now to measure these issues and calibrate them.

Using the example of politics, he says the conventional approach is to look at pollsters. What are your positions going to be? You look at the polls, you figure it out, and it works fairly well. He adds, at the end of the day, that’s probably not how the system really changes. For change, he says, it will probably take some idiosyncratic people who have really strong convictions and are able to, over time, convince more people. He notes change always comes from somewhat unconventional channels.

When it comes to talent, Thiel says it’s very difficult to reduce it to any single traits. A lot of what you’re looking for are almost Zen-like opposites. He says, though a bit contradictory, you want people who are both really stubborn and really open-minded. Thiel says when looking for talent, you want people who are idiosyncratic and really different, but who can work well together as a team.

Thiel likes to go after opportunities where you get a combination of unusual traits. Situations where you have people with some really interesting and very different ideas. Then the important question becomes; Would they actually be able to function socially and execute? You can view his comments here.

Photo: Dan TaylorCC