Books: Zero to One

I read an interview recently on Peter Thiel (unfortunately, I can’t remember where now and googling it didn’t help because he’s been giving interviews everywhere) and I was impressed with some of the stuff he had to say so I decided to read his new book.

For those of you who may not have heard of him, he’s one of the founders of Paypal (as well as other companies) and an investor that is interested in funding innovative, cutting-edge companies, many of which are in the biotechnology sector. (That’s what drew me in.)

Apparently, this book is based on a course on entrepreneurship that he taught at Stanford.

He admits that entrepreneurship is something that can’t exactly be taught, but he begins with a compelling question that he often asks his students and potential employees to think about: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” The proper answer to this question, he suggests, might just be the key to the next great innovation.

(This question alone made the book worth reading for me…it was fun to try and brainstorm answers…)

Mr. Thiel goes on to discuss his belief that making new, technological advances is really an imperative for society if we expect to thrive in a world with scarce resources. He describes this technological progress as being “vertical”, or going from “zero to 1″ as opposed to globalization (improving on existing products in the same market) which is “horizontal”, or going from “1 to n”. He goes on to discuss that new enterprises should seek to monopolize their market, by essentially introducing a needed innovation that is so unique that it has no competitor. He frowns upon the typical aim of startups: to disrupt an existing market. It’s hard to question his logic, considering his track record, but also because he backs it up with historical evidence. He also goes on to give more practical advice about the successful building of a company, particularly its people, its organization, and its inner-workings.

But this book goes beyond offering just advice for entrepreneurs or investors. Mr. Thiel is clearly brilliant, well-versed in a number of fields–a “polymath” (which is a word I actually learned in this book)–and this makes for a really entertaining read. There’s economic theory, philosophy, sociology, history, science/technology, literary references (JRR Tolkein, Shakespeare, Ayn Rand and more), mythology (seriously), and of course, the requisite business development advice. Really, it’s a perfect book for anybody that enjoys reading the thoughts of great thinkers, and not just for the entrepreneurs.

The book closes by forecasting 4 possible versions of our future world–three are frankly terrifying, but one vision is very compelling and inspiring. If all goes well and we play these cards well, according to Peter Thiel, our future world will be one where we continue to create innovations that improve life as we know it, to a level that is beyond our imaginations.

I hope he’s right!

Originally published at on January 12, 2015.

Kirti A. Patel, MD is an women’s health physician (practicing Ob/Gyn and primary care) with 13 years of clinical experience. She received her BA from Boston University, her MD from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and will be receiving her Master in Healthcare Leadership from Brown University in May of 2015. Dr. Patel is passionate about innovations in science and technology that can improve healthcare.

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