Peter Thiel’s book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, is about building companies that create new things. But more than that, there is a lot of wisdom in this book.
We look to models of success — be they companies, prescriptions, or people and we attempt to blindly copy them without understanding the role of skill versus luck, the ecosystem in which they thrive, or why they work.
We want the shortcut. We want someone to give us the map without understanding the terrain.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen companies attempt to solve innovation — as if it were a mathematical formula — with a version of Dragon’s Den or 20% innovation time.
Zero to One
Every moment happens only once.
The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network. If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them.
So why do we copy?
[I]t’s easier to copy a model than to make something new. Doing what we already know how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But every time we create something new, we go from 0 to 1. The act of creation is singular, as is the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange.
We are unique. We are the only animals that build by creating something new.
Other animals are instinctively driven to build things like dams or honeycombs, but we are the only ones that can invent new things and better ways of making them. Humans don’t decide what to build by making choices from some cosmic catalog of options given in advance; instead, by creating new technologies, we rewrite the plan of the world. These are the kind of elementary truths we teach to second graders, but they are easy to forget in a world where so much of what we do is repeat what has been done before.
We are all searching for the elusive formula — the things that if only we’d do them we’d become successful. This is why we flock to the bookstore to learn about how Google innovates only to find that blindly applying the same prescription results in no more success than taking a polar bear and putting it in the desert. There simply is no formula for success. Giving up that notion might be the most helpful thing you can do today.
The paradox of teaching entrepreneurship is that such a formula necessarily cannot exist; because every innovation is new and unique, no authority can prescribe in concrete terms how to be innovative. Indeed, the single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.
In his wonderful book of Fragments, Heraclitus writes: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
If every moment happens only once, where does this leave us? These are the questions we must explore.
Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future is worth reading in its entirety.