How to Make a Dent in the Universe
Peter Thiel is many things, but what he is not is an adherent of the status quo.
To most people, his fame is either associated with his wealth (he’s a venture capitalist) or with his politics (he is a libertarian who leans conservative) but for anyone who has taken a moment to look deeper, it’s pretty clear that those are arguably the two least interesting things about him.
There is a question that he likes to ask people before he decides to work with them that gives a good idea of how he sees the world. It’s quite simple:
“What important truth do few people agree with you on?”
His argument is that humans are mimetic creatures, and we consistently underestimate how much of our behavior is influenced by outside factors, often to the detriment of seeing the real potential in the world.
Questions like that are his way of prying beyond blind imitation and the obvious, because to him, that’s where opportunity lies, and that’s how you transcend ideology, the rat-race, and the constant gnawing.
As he elaborated in a recent interview:
The advice I always have is not to be overly competitive.. you need to find something where you’re not always just looking at the people around you and you have some other reference point…
I’m always struck by how in the ten commandments [as an example], the first and last in some sense are the important ones.. the first one is you should only look to God, there’s only one God.. and then the last one is you shouldn’t covet anything that belongs to your neighbor or that you shouldn’t look at the people around you too much..
And so we need to find some way to look up.. not to look around, because when we look around, it’s not that we figure out what we want to do.. it just ends up being the hyper-copycat, the mimetic-crazed environment, and you need to find some transcendence.
The Futility of Looking Around You
There is a basic truth that we would all hesitate to acknowledge about ourselves that we can easily pick up on in others: Pretty much everything we desire (beyond the core biological impulses) has nothing to do with what we want, but with what we have been conditioned to think we should want.
Naturally, we all have an innate desire to be social and to thrive in a tribal community, so the chances are that there likely isn’t much we can do to completely overcome this influence. It’s not a huge surprise, for example, that those around us — friends, family— shape our worldview.
Nonetheless, there are clearly different degrees to which people (especially in their careers and in the formation of their identity) let their surrounding culture influence them and their individual pursuits.
Sure, some people are genetically configured to want to compete and to climb the ladder and to play status games in the world more so than others (and some of them are very content doing so) but in the vast majority of cases, the reason that these pursuits dominate our societies is not because that’s what people really want; it’s because that’s what they have learned to want.
Of course, in truth, the issue is less that it’s wrong to pursue what’s embedded in the cultural status quo, but more so that, often, whatever is fashionable in this status quo is rarely the path that leads to real individuality and self-expression, meaning you never push to become your best self.
As Thiel implies, if you are always looking around you, you are also always adapting to what is; not what you could become. Instead of leading change by being in sync with a world that does nothing but change, you simply get dragged along with whatever is built around you by someone else.
We are all born different. My strengths and inclination likely aren’t your strengths and inclinations, just like my weaknesses likely aren’t your weaknesses. In some environments, I thrive. In others, you do.
A crazed, mimetic world is one in which the current status quo drowns the potential of both of our individuality by making mis-matched comparisons. Even if you happen to be good in a particular arena, there is only so much you can do by playing the same game as everyone else.
Whether or not we intend it, we fall to the foundation of what we compare to. And most often, this foundation lies below what’s possible.
Seeking An Archetype of the Ideal Form
Is it realistically feasible to never borrow anything from what we see around us? Of course not. We’re a bundle of experience shaped by our surroundings.
There are, however, ways to weaken our links so no single thing contributes too heavily to where we lead ourselves. Thiel gives the commandments that encourage looking up (towards God) rather than looking around (towards peers) as an example, but any transcendent archetype will do.
In Plato’s famous theory of forms, it’s suggested that there are non-physical, abstract ideas that capture the ideal form of what is true, what is beautiful, what is just, and what is wise better than anything physical in the world.
In the same way, there are ideal forms of archetypes we can all look up to that capture our potential far more holistically than anything we can find by looking around us in a world of competition.
Say, you are a writer. Rather than hoping to land on the NYT bestseller list, maybe you should think longer and broader than that; maybe you should have Tolstoy or Nietzsche be the archetypes of what it looks like to truly commit to something for decades. Not because they are worth copying themselves, nor because you’re likely to be their heir (you’re probably not), but because they represent an ideal abstraction that’s more important than the noise.
They transcend culture not as living, breathing men, but as forms that capture our imagination to show us what is possible outside of what is familiar.
It’s naturally important to note that you don’t have to look up to anything conventionally grand and significant, and it’s also valuable to ensure that if you do find inspiration in the grand and the significant, it’s not about developing an egotistical attachment to what is perfect.
The point is only to see in the horizon something that means something in itself — something that pushes you to be better not for the sake of comparison but because it shows you the untapped potential that’s still ahead of you.
Finding Your Own Way
When we take our first few steps into a new world, whether that be in a career or as we form our identity, we can’t help but look around us.
We have to start somewhere, and it’s not always apparent in the beginning where exactly that should be unless we try a few different things that we have been inspired to try because of our surrounding influences.
There comes the point, however — and this is usually the point where a spark of individuality begins to shoot through — where we have a choice: Do we continue looking around us so we can play the same game everyone else is playing (even if it’s not our game to play) or do find a way to look up?
The difference is between compliance and expression, structure and uncertainty, competition and potential — our peers and transcendence.
Whether it’s a Platonic abstraction or an image of God, when you look up, what you see is a life unlived, one that’s waiting to find form in the real world.
Making a dent in the universe has nothing to do with associating your name with something other people admire or signaling your competence relative to those around you. It’s about carving a piece of yourself into the fabric of reality in a way that gets more and more honest as time goes on.
There is a constant battle at every intersection in our lives between who we are and who we could be. The only problem is that even when we stick with who we are, we still become someone we may not want to be.