The Philosophy of Zero to One: Part 1
Books that bring out the secrets hidden in other books—an investigation into René Girard
Peter Thiel’s book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, is one of the most brilliant and subversive books on startups—and on business in general—ever written.
It is ostensibly about startups, but it’s really a Straussian masterpiece that disguises difficult truths in a text that appears, on the surface, to be talking merely about business. It puts forward a worldview shaped heavily by René Girard.
In this new series, I’m going to start working my way through Zero to One and sharing my perspective and interpretation about what Peter is saying. I’ll make connections to my own work and to other resources which I think have something to offer. My hope is to bring the book into contact and conversation with other books and thinkers in order to uncover the many layers of meaning found within it.
Zero to One opens with a strong warning against imitation. Importantly, it ties imitation to learning:
Every moment in business happens only once. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page of 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.
Imitation is how we learn many things—how to speak languages, how to play sports, how to do well in school (yes, there is a way to do well in school that has little to do with intelligence; many students learn it from a young age by imitating those who do well in school, often to the detriment of their own personality.)
The most important kind of learning, though, is learning how to create something new. And that is a very different skill.
Imagine an apprentice who is in the workshop of a famous artist learning the craft of making bronze statues. The form of the statue to be created is always given by the Master. At a certain point, the apprentice asks the Master: “So tell me, how do you come up with the ideas for the statues in the first place?”
The Master smiles and pats the student on the back. He knows his ability to teach this creative art is impossible for him to fully transmit.
Thiel acknowledges this idea later in the Preface:
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.
I joke with my own business school students that after a hitman visited me at my home in Las Vegas to collect a debt, I wanted to go back to my $65,000/year undergrad business school and ask them for my money back because they never taught me what to do in the 2008 debt spiral when you get mixed up with the wrong people on the Strip.
There is no roadmap. We create a new one every day, as the next bend and the next field comes into view.
The Master artist, like the Master entrepreneur, knows this secret: The creative process that leads to real innovation is far more mysterious and far less teachable—you might even say spiritual.
There is indeed a kind of mystical element that Thiel seems to ascribe to the act of going from zero to one. In traditional Jewish and Christian theology, going from zero to one is called creation ex nihilo—or the creation of something “out of nothing,” a quality the scriptures give to God alone.
I think there is a better way to think of creation which doesn’t require the conceit of thinking that we create things ex nihilo, yet which still acknowledges our tremendous capacity to participate in the continuing act of creation as humans.
Each person is a relational, mimetic creature—the difference is in the nature and quality of our imitation and the person or thing being imitated. There are at least three different kinds of imitation:
Static imitation is simply copying someone else. Tone-matching in emails is an example of this. It doesn’t create or destroy anything: it might establish rapport or maybe even empathy, but it keeps a baseline.
Destructive imitation is the kind of tit-for-tat competitive imitation that results in a zero-sum game, or in the destruction of one of the participants. The imitation of aggression in war is one particularly dangerous example of this. The language of war is often used in business schools, and it has led to the destruction of many companies (and lives).
Generative imitation creates something new by taking imitation and combining it (raising it to the power of) with critical thinking, courage, boldness, and a willingness to do something for which there is no model. It is imitation combined with an anti-mimetic act.
Imitation is the runway; the anti-mimetic act is the moment of take-off.
A great jazz musician must first learn music through imitation. Without that foundation, he doesn’t have the freedom to play anything new.
The same was true of Zuckerberg before he founded Facebook: he established baseline skills in coding that gave him the freedom to build something to seize an opportunity.
And here’s another interesting thought experiment: Parents are generative because they have the ability to create new life. A man and a woman are able to do this naturally in the sexual act because there is some Otherness in their partner—a kind of complementarity, the union of which transcends the capabilities of either partner alone.
There is a lesson to be learned from sex when it comes to a theory of creativity: entrepreneurship and transcendence go hand in hand because without a notion of alterity—without the willing exploration of that which is mysteriously Other—we are caught in a feedback loop which produces (at best) incremental improvements to existing structures.
It is the willingness to go beyond where we are currently at—even risking a radical new way of life (as a parent, perhaps)—that allows new life, and a new creation, to happen.
The second paragraph of Zero to One goes on to explain what the title of the book means, and it also doubles-down on the mystical notion of creation we explored above. [italics mine]
Of course, it’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.
The idea of 0 to 1 is pushed too far here, in my view.
To see why, let’s go back to the creation of a new human person—the parenting example. Yes, when parents make a baby they are “doing what we already know how to do” and taking the world from 1 to n, according to the book’s analogy.
But they are not just “adding more of something familiar.” Each person is fresh, strange, unique and unrepeatable. And children are the agents of new creations (as free, acting persons who might invent something that changes the world someday) which bring about that which is both familiar and unfamiliar—familiar because they share the genes of both parents, but unfamiliar in that they are a separate, unique person, who will exist in a different place and time and in a different body.
Does it seem strange to be bringing sex into the picture so soon in a book that is about ‘startups’? Maybe. But it’s the single-greatest way that humans create, and it sheds light on the question at hand. In life-giving sex, there is both zero to one and the zero to n happening at the same time, on two different levels. It is both-and.
The point is that creation is not so easily categorized, and the binary that is set-up in the first pages of this book is not the way that creation often happens. The concept of ‘zero to one’ is, however, a helpful reduction in understanding the difference between mimetic and anti-mimetic actions. But it does create fundamental philosophical, anthropological, and theological problems which we’ll explore later, especially once we get to Chapters 6 (“You Are Not a Lottery Ticket”) and 14 (“The Founder’s Paradox”).
Back to the Preface:
Today’s ‘best practices’ lead to dead ends; the best paths are new and untried.
I hate ‘best practices’ because I wake up everyday believing I can find a better practice—for most things, at least.
But it’s not always the case that ‘the best paths are new and untried.’ Take, for example, the pathway of religious traditions. Here’s G.K. Chesterton on Christianity.
The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.
Aside from spiritual paths, the pathway of virtue is also ancient. Aristotle laid it out in his Nichomachean Ethics, and millions of men and women have tried to walk it since. There is nothing esoteric or complex about it; it is not a hard path to find. It is simply a hard path to walk. There’s nothing terrible innovative about it, yet it’s terribly rare to find someone who possesses a high degree of many different virtues.
I know we’re not talking about business here; we are, rather, talking about a baseline without which the innovation will always be in the wrong direction. I am trying to stretch Zero to One to its limits because, as I said in the beginning, it is not merely a business book but a worldview.
I like Rowan Williams’ definition of creation. He says that it’s “the setting in being of a living system designed to grow toward beauty and order, even if this beauty and order is not at any given moment fully apparent.”
He is talking about creation that properly attends to the created order, not a kind of blank-slate ‘innovation’ that dispenses with reality or tries to refashion it according to its own laws.
I see this problem playing out in the debacle that is ‘social media’. Nobody designing these platforms took the time to properly attend to what human relationships and communication is, or think seriously about how these platforms might enhance it rather than alter it. They jumped straight to the creation, and they optimized for growth and profit.
Responsible creation, on the other hand, is about attending to the integrity of what is already there (things like human relationships, or nature).
Consider the example that RJ Snell, author of Acedia and Its Discontents, uses:
Attending at-tends—tends to—in awareness of and care for the nature of things. This is what it means to be a husband in the agricultural sense of knowing the carrying capacity of land…If the husband knows (pays attention) and cares (tends), he can rotate the cattle from plot to plot in a way which provides ample nutrition for the good of the cattle without harm to the grass or the soil, and, given particularly intelligent husbandry, to the benefit of the soil and grass itself…
Without that initial attending and intelligence that grasps the nature of things, the farmer’s innovations will always do some violence to what is already there. The farmer who attends, though, could build some fantastic technology that develops the soil—but he does so after having gained a profound understanding of the soil and the ecosystem he is working in.
Can we say the same about some of the people leading technological innovation in the domain of human communication?
Humans are distinguished from other species by our ability to work miracles. We call these miracles technology.
It’s impossible for me to read this line without thinking of the black monolith that appears to the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Watch this scene carefully, keeping in mind Girard’s conception of mimetic theory and particularly his conception of the scapegoat mechanism as a kind of ‘social technology’. We’ll be revisiting this scene as we get further into this book.
Let’s bring in one more resource. In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis writes: “Miracles do not, in fact, break the laws of nature.”
Perhaps we can relate this to what Thiel is saying here (and what 2001: A Space Odyssey) is hinting at: technology appears miraculous to us because it harnesses powers in nature that we simply did not know existed. Technology allows us to transcend some previously existing boundary and explore it in greater depth.