This guy Peter Thiel..

By this point, we've all read some, ahem, *interesting*, things about our friend Peter Thiel. I think if you look up the words "pompous" and "eccentric" in the dictionary, the definitions absolutely must say see Peter Thiel.

This morning I came across an article in BusinessInsider that discusses something slightly interesting: Thiel's class at Stanford - CS183: Startup. Usually I don't pay these things much mind, but the article opened my eyes to the fact that Peter used chess comparisons to illustrate a lot of points in his class. As a chess player, I found this to be slightly interesting, so proceeding with cautious optimism, I read the article. This guy is nuts.

For reference, you can find the article here.

First of all, check out these lecture titles!

  • If You Build It, Will They Come?
  • The Mechanics of Mafia
  • War and Peace
  • You Are Not A Lottery Ticket
  • Value Systems

Now, as a liberal arts major, I have taken many pretentious-sounding, three-noun-titled classes that mean absolutely nothing. A good example was a political science class I took that ended up being fairly interesting but the title is just so stereotypically "I have my nose super high in the air and am smarter than you" that it almost makes me barf: Authority, Obligation, and Dissent. Whatever the hell that means.

In any case, the only normal-sounding lecture title here is "Value Systems" -- the other ones just give off a strong desire to look innovative and and clever, but come off as pretty try-hard to me. Okay, I'll stop my cynicism, on to the actual contents of this course.

Thiel apparently makes the argument in this course (mind you, all of this information is sourced from a student's interpretation of his lectures) that STEM people are easy to measure against one another, while people with soft skills like folks in sales have many different skills and can't just be compared so easily. He analogizes this to chess, for no apparent reason, by saying there are "grandmasters" in sales, but that coders and engineers need no special titles because it's easy to evaluate how good they are.

Huh? To say that there are not masters and grandmasters, to use this useless analogy, in the fields of CS and engineering is absurd. At the most basic point, some engineers are better than others. Moreover, engineers and coders do a wide array of things for companies -- he just says "do they code well, do they code REALLY well?". I can say the same thing for salespeople: do they sell well, or really well?

The other points that the article goes over are less interesting (the aforementioned one is interesting just because it's kinda absurd). Thiel, in his infinite wisdom, tells us that you must have a game plan as an entrepreneur, that you must recruit talent, and that you must pick each move carefully. I don't know how much courses cost at Stanford, but I went to a comparably-expensive private school and each 1hr 20min lecture cost me somewhere in the range of $120. These ostensibly very bright Stanford students are paying top dollar to hear information on entrepreneurship from a proclaimed expert and they get advice that anyone who has made it college and has an ounce of common sense already possesses.

Seriously though, what is innovative about this guy? Why is everyone on him like he's the next great, awesome, big thing? Based on my understanding of the things I've read about him, he takes some business terms, re-packages them and makes them "Thiel-style", and then suddenly he's some great innovator and entrepreneurial mind. This, alongside his "drop out of college to start a business and I'll give you $100K" stunt, makes me just not like the guy. Thoughts?

Comments (16)

Jun 6, 2012

Outlier

Jun 6, 2012

I agree with you. And you didn't even mention the bizarre thesis on American economic growth that he has been plugging every chance he gets these last few years. If you've never heard him talk about it, he has essentially found some obscure, insignificant old book from way back that opines stupidly and pointlessly about what the future would be like. Peter claims he is surprised, disappointed, and deeply disturbed that the predictions of this book did not come to pass, never mind the fact that the book is no different than all the other crap that regularly tries to predict future lifestyles and that Peter offers no reason for why this particular book deserves more recognition than, say, A Space Odyssey. He goes on to baselessly insist that all growth in America in the past 20+ years is just an illusion, and at any rate is not moving fast enough, claims this shows troubling problems in the economy, and then refuses to say what those problems might be or to suggest any solutions.

Paypal is not an insignificant data point but I too cannot understand why he gets so much attention.

Jun 6, 2012

Have you gone through the notes from those classes? I think he provides a lot of insight and relevant examples to the lessons. Peter Thiel's Start Up Class

vontroponats:

I've read about him, he takes some business terms, re-packages them and makes them "Thiel-style", and then suddenly he's some great innovator and entrepreneurial mind.

This is what almost every single business class taught in America is. The same information, reformatted slightly different with every professor. Thiel does a pretty good job of finding great examples and their applications.

My WSO Blog

"Unbelievably Believable" -- RG3

Jun 6, 2012

I disagree, I've read through a lot of the lecture notes and came away thinking what a great class experience these kids are getting.

Sure some of the stuff on what is Technology vs. Globalization is a bit obvious, but what I've read on how to go about thinking about markets/nature of competition, product / team development, pitching, distribution, etc. has been very no-bullshit oriented and very unique, can't-be-found-elsewhere advice.

Secondly the types of people he brings in for class discussions is out of this world: Paul Graham, Marc Andreessen, Reid Hoffmann, Scott Nolan, and a host of others.

Anyway I wish I had the opportunity to take this class as it seems to me to be a great use of my money compared to all the other bullshit I had to sit through in school.

Jun 6, 2012

You're in the category of people who think that George Washington wasn't a great leader, Leonardo DiVinci wasn't a great mind, and Michael Jordan wasn't a great athlete. Congratulations on finding an article on some kid's notes of Thiel's class and rushing to judgement. You make your determinations as to his level of intelligence based on some kids class notes? You can't deny this guy's success. And it has come on multiple levels. Great things don't continuously happen to average people. And if his views about entrepreneurship are different than those of his peers, than maybe those views are what has made him so successful.

Jun 6, 2012
wannabeaballer:

You make your determinations as to his level of intelligence based on some kids class notes? You can't deny this guy's success. And it has come on multiple levels. Great things don't continuously happen to average people. And if his views about entrepreneurship are different than those of his peers, than maybe those views are what has made him so successful.

I'm not denying that he's successful, nor am I making any assertions about his intelligence. There is no doubt that the guy is brilliant. I don't have an MBA and haven't taken many business courses, so if they truly are "all the same", then I am in the wrong, but it just doesn't seem like Thiel's course, at least based on this article, offers anything revolutionary or new. Anyone who was rated among the highest U-21 chess players in the country is a brilliant mind, but a lot of these "quirky" things I read about him aren't indicative of his brilliance vis-a-vis others, just of his desire to be unique. And maybe that uniqueness is what made him successful, but one also can't deny the fact that there are plenty of successful entrepreneurs who got there through different lines of thinking.

Jun 6, 2012

^^^ And you're in the category of people who bought a pet rock in the '80s and Pets.com on the IPO. Also, it's spelled da Vinci, not DiVinci.

Peter Thiel is a smart guy. He is one of many smart guys. He is probably not Leonardo DaVinci, but I am willing to grant him at least the status of Lorado[/embed] Taft.

Point being is that smart, rational folks always need to engage in sober analysis and never give in to unqualified worship for folks. Thiel is a smart guy. That does not make him Leonardo Da Vinci. Even then, we shouldn't worship Da Vinci either. A [/embed] German farmer spent 12 months building what Da Vinci spent decades trying to figure out how to work.

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Jun 6, 2012

I agree and disagree with a few different things. While I do believe Peter Thiel to be highly successful and certainly someone who deserves the right to teach such course, alot of what he has to say is embedded in very high-risk assumptions. He is the type of guy whose reputation will always precede him when entering into a new venture. Its like Michael Jordan selling a shoe, people will buy it because its Michael Jordan. Much of what Peter preaches sounds nice and all, but his ideas aren't very practical to the every day person. In his defense, its tough to re-create your success in somebody else considering the substantial amount of luck that is always involved, especially when it comes to startups. Just because Peter has unorthodox business approaches doesn't necessarily mean that it will work for everybody else.

I have to agree with his assessment of engineers vs. salesmen. I like to think of this as natural talent vs. acquired knowledge. Sure, sales numbers are obviously comparable and certainly a measuring tool, but other things such as likability, charisma, and other non- quantifiable factors go into the long-term success of a businessman. In that sense, it is certainly harder to measure the significance a particular salesman can have on your direct business. Engineers certainly have talent, but because the knowledge is acquired, it makes it much easier to measure their particular value.

Jun 6, 2012

I don't buy into his cult of personality, or the lunacy of encouraging kids to skip college in favor of a basement business, but he's a smart guy that teaches some interesting stuff.

Jun 6, 2012

Does anyone find it ironic that he encourages kids to quit college in favor of starting a business, but then teaches a college course?

Ok, his course is about start ups, but I doubt many of his students are dropping out.

My WSO Blog

"Unbelievably Believable" -- RG3

Jun 6, 2012
Burgundy and Gold Blood:

Does anyone find it ironic that he encourages kids to quit college in favor of starting a business, but then teaches a college course?

Ok, his course is about start ups, but I doubt many of his students are dropping out.

The lineup of kids he offers this program to are out of this world, it's not like he's going up to the kids who took AP courses in high school doling out 100k and saying "Now go and make something happen", the prerequisites are pretty steep.

Jun 6, 2012
andyinsandiego:
Burgundy and Gold Blood:

Does anyone find it ironic that he encourages kids to quit college in favor of starting a business, but then teaches a college course?

Ok, his course is about start ups, but I doubt many of his students are dropping out.

The lineup of kids he offers this program to are out of this world, it's not like he's going up to the kids who took AP courses in high school doling out 100k and saying "Now go and make something happen", the prerequisites are pretty steep.

Oh for sure, and in terms of absolute prestige, it's probably better to be a "Thiel Scholar" or whatever it's called than much of anything else, at least in the business world. I don't want to start another "Peter Thiel gives $100K" discussion, but I think the program is reasonably solid. Seems a little bit like an asshole move (he could just let them finish college), but I don't think these kids are going to be homeless after Thiel gives them $100K and his support in various avenues.

Jun 6, 2012

this is a great post about a lucky over-celebrated self-indulgent cafe intellectual. peter thiel just got exposed

Jun 6, 2012

I wasn't saying that he picks the people in his program by using a random number generator to select applications. It's obvious he would pick them based on their economic feasibility and potential, just like he would for any VC investment. In fact, I bet a number of those he picked have already received some form of funding before he selected them. I was trying to point out, that to many, it sounds like he is saying something along the lines of "college is not as valuable as you may think" but then is a professor teaching a college course.

My WSO Blog

"Unbelievably Believable" -- RG3

Jun 6, 2012

I have some issues with Peter Thiel but his assertion on STEM majors is pretty spot-on. And this is coming from a guy who did hardcore humanities and social sciences in school. Back in college I did a lot of reading and writing papers as well as being active in class discussions. Sure, some papers were "better" than others in that they were better written, more organized, etc. But by and large, a lot of the grading was arbitrary and left to the whim of the professors. From reading various papers of my classmates, it's hard to distinguish between an A paper and a B+ one. In contrast, for STEM, you're taking an objective exam with a right or wrong answer. A very tough exam will separate those who just memorized the formulas from those who truly understand the material and can solve problems by thinking outside of the box. Moreover, when tech firms are interviewing programmers, it's very easy to tell who's a superstar coder.

Jun 6, 2012
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