Book Review: Zero To One

By Scott Alexander

I.

Zero To One might be the first best-selling business book based on a Tumblr. Stanford student Blake Masters took Peter Thiel’s class on startups. He posted his notes on Tumblr after each lecture. They became a minor sensation. Thiel asked if he wanted to make them into a book together. He did.

The title comes from Thiel’s metaphor that ordinary businessmen like restaurant owners take a product “from 1 to n” (shouldn’t this be from n to n+1?) – they build more of something that already exists. But the best entrepreneurs bring something “from 0 to 1” – they invent something that has never been seen before.

The book has various pieces of advice for such entrepreneurs. Three sections especially struck me: on monopolies, on secrets, and on indefinite optimism.

II.

A short review can’t fully do justice to Thiel’s treatment of monopolies. Gwern’s look at commoditizing your complement almost does (as do some tweets). But the basic argument goes like this: In a normal industry (eg restaurant ownership) competition should drive profit margins close to zero. Want to open an Indian restaurant in Mountain View? There will be another on the same street, and two more just down the way. If you automate every process that can be automated, mercilessly pursue efficiency, and work yourself and your employees to the bone – then you can just barely compete on price. You can earn enough money to live, and to not immediately give up in disgust and go into another line of business (after all, if you didn’t earn that much, your competitors would already have given up in disgust and gone into another line of business, and your task would be easier). The average Indian restaurant is in an economic state of nature, and its life will be nasty, brutish, and short.

This was the promise of the classical economists: capitalism will optimize for consumer convenience, while keeping businesses themselves lean and hungry. And it was Marx’s warning: businesses will compete so viciously that nobody will get any money, and eventually even the capitalists themselves will long for something better. Neither the promise nor the warning has been borne out: business owners are often comfortable and sometimes rich. Why? Thiel says it’s because they have escaped competition and become at least a little monopoly-like.

Thiel hates having to describe how businesses succeed, because he thinks it’s too anti-inductive to reduce to a formula:

Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina by observing “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Business is the opposite. All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.

But he grudgingly describes five ways that a company can successfully reach monopolyhood:

1. Proprietary technology. This one is straightforward. If you invent the best technology, and then you patent it, nobody else can compete with you. Thiel provocatively says that your technology must be 10x better than anyone else’s to have a chance of working. If you’re only twice as good, you’re still competing. You may have a slight competitive advantage, but you’re still competing and your life will be nasty and brutish and so on just like every other company’s. Nobody has any memory of whether Lycos’ search engine was a little better than AltaVista’s or vice versa; everybody remembers that Google’s search engine was orders of magnitude above either. Lycos and AltaVista competed; Google took over the space and became a monopoly.

2. Network effects. Immortalized by Facebook. It doesn’t matter if someone invents a social network with more features than Facebook. Facebook will be better than their just by having all your friends on it. Network effects are hard because no business will have them when it first starts. Thiel answers that businesses should aim to be monopolies from the very beginning – they should start by monopolizing a tiny market, then moving up. Facebook started by monopolizing the pool of Harvard students. Then it scaled up to the pool of all college students. Now it’s scaled up to the whole world, and everyone suspects Zuckerberg has somebody working on ansible technology so he can monopolize the Virgo Supercluster. Similarly, Amazon started out as a bookstore, gained a near-monopoly on books, and used all of the money and infrastructure and distribution it won from that effort to feed its effort to monopolize everything else. Thiel describes how his own company PayPal identified eBay power sellers as its first market, became indispensible in that tiny pool, and spread from there.

3. Economies of scale. Also pretty straightforward, and especially obvious for software companies. Since the marginal cost of a unit of software is near-zero, your cost per unit is the cost of building the software divided by the number of customers. If you have twice as many customers as your nearest competitor, you can charge half as much money (or make twice as much profit), and so keep gathering more customers in a virtuous cycle.

4. Branding Apple is famous enough that it can charge more for its phones than Amalgamated Cell Phones Inc, even for comparable products. Partly this is because non-experts don’t know how to compare cell phones, and might not trust Consumer Reports style evaluations; Apple’s reputation is an unfakeable sign that their products are pretty good. And partly it’s just people paying extra for the right to say “I have an iPhone, so I’m cooler than you”. Another company that wants Apple’s reputation would need years of successful advertising and immense good luck, so Apple’s brand separates it from the competition and from the economic state of nature.

Thiel continues with various counterintuitive pieces of wisdom. Don’t try to “disrupt” your field – if you’re “disrupting” someone, it means you’re competing with them, and making enemies who will try to hold you back. Don’t try to be the “first mover” (Yahoo was the first-mover in the search engine space), instead try to be the “last mover” whom nobody is able to supplant. Etc, etc.

Is all of this a plot against the public? Monopolies are usually viewed as cheating the system and preventing progress; is Thiel promoting that behavior to the detriment of society? Well, obviously he says he isn’t:

The problem with a competitive business goes beyond lack of profits. Imagine you’re running one of those restaurants in Mountain View. You’re not that different from dozens of your competitors, so you’ve got to fight hard to survive. If you offer affordable food with low margins, you can probably pay employees only minimum wage. And you’ll need to squeeze out every efficiency: that’s why small restaurants put Grandma to work at the register and make the kids wash dishes in the back. Restaurants aren’t much better even at the very highest rungs, where reviews and ratings like Michelin’s star system enforce a culture of intense competition that can drive chefs crazy. (French chef and winner of three Michelin stars Bernard Loiseau was quoted as saying, “If I lose a star, I will commit suicide.” Michelin maintained his rating, but Loiseau killed himself anyway in 2003 when a competing French dining guide downgraded his restaurant.) The competitive ecosystem pushes people toward ruthlessness or death.

A monopoly like Google is different. Since it doesn’t have to worry about competing with anyone, it has wider latitude to care about its workers, its products, and its impact on the wider world. Google’s motto — “Don’t be evil” — is in part a branding ploy, but it’s also characteristic of a kind of business that’s successful enough to take ethics seriously without jeopardizing its own existence. In business, money is either an important thing or it is everything. Monopolists can afford to think about things other than making money; non-monopolists can’t. In perfect competition, a business is so focused on today’s margins that it can’t possibly plan for a long-term future. Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits.

So the advantages of monopolies is that they’re better for employees, more socially responsible, able to engage in long-term thinking. The classic examples of this (which I don’t think Thiel brought up) are Bell Labs and Xerox PARC. Two monopolistic companies with more money than they knew what to do with started super-basic-blue-sky research centers that ended up creating many of the technologies that shaped the modern world (Bell Labs, started by AT&T, helped invent the transistor, the laser, information theory, UNIX, C, C++, radio astronomy, etc; PARC, started by Xerox, helped invent Ethernet, laser printing, the personal computer, graphical user interfaces, object-oriented programming, bitmaps, and the LCD.) Google X wants to be the modern version of this kind of thing, though I don’t know how much success they’ve had so far.

On the other hand, all of the classical disadvantages of monopolies are still there. Monopolies remove the pressure to do a good job – whether that’s in keeping prices low, keeping working conditions tolerable, or in keeping products and service high-quality. They lower the diversity of an industry, making it more likely to get stuck in an evolutionary blind alley it can’t get out of; they increase the risk of merging with government into a crony capitalism. A wolf sheltered from survival-of-the-fittest for too long becomes a Chihuahua; Amazon sheltered from survival-of-the-fittest for too long becomes the DMV.

(also, isn’t Thiel the guy who wanted floating independent seasteads because competitive governance would break the monopoly of existing nation-states and lead to a revolutionary improvement in institutional capacity? Doesn’t that suggest even he acknowledges monopolies are often bad?)

I don’t think this is one of those issues that’s going to get decisively solved in a few paragraphs. Moloch and Slack are the new yin and yang, the new chaos and order; their interplay creates the Ten Thousand Things. Err too far towards competition and everyone works themselves to death in garment sweatshops; err too far towards monopoly and everyone sits at a desk filling out forms and backstabbing each other until the lights slowly go out. It’s only the collision zone between the two that anything interesting ever happens.

One could rescue Thiel’s position by assuming that competition will always be with us. Google’s pretty monopoly-like, but even they can’t rest on their laurels too long. It’s not just that Bing might take over, but that advertisers might get better non-search-engine ways to place ads, Facebook might come up with better ways to target ads, some alternate platform like cell phones or VR might take over from classic Internet searches, or something else. Whatever their concern, real-life Google sure does seem to put a lot of effort into being competitive. So sure, maybe one has to find the sweet spot between perfect competition and perfect monopoly, but one could argue that right now only the most monopolistic companies are near that sweet spot.

III.

The rest of Zero To One becomes less directly about the startup world, and more about deep social trends that good startup founders will have to buck. One such trend – which Thiel approaches in a lot of different equivalent ways – is the loss of belief in secrets. People no longer believe that there are important things that they don’t know, but which they could discover if they tried a little harder.

Past scientific discoveries came from a belief in secrets. Isaac Newton wondered why apples fell, thought “Maybe if I work really hard on this problem, I can discover something nobody has ever learned before”, and then set out to do it. Modern people aren’t just less likely to think this way. They’re actively discouraged from it by a culture which mocks the story of Newton as “the myth of the lone genius”, and tells young people that even thinking about this risks promoting a regressive political agenda. Nowadays people get told that if they think they’ve figured out something about gravity, they’re probably a crackpot. Instead, they should wait for very large government-funded programs full of well-credentialled people to make incremental advances.

Good startups require a belief in secrets, where “secret” is equivalent to “violation of the efficient market hypothesis”. You believe you’ve discovered something that nobody else has: for example, that if you set up an online bookstore in such-and-such a way today, in thirty years you’ll be richer than God. This is an outrageously arrogant claim: that you have spotted a hundred-billion-dollar bill lying on the sidewalk that everyone else has missed. But only people who believe something like it can noncoincidentally found great companies. You must believe there are lucrative secrets hidden in plain sight.

Thiel relates this to the decline of cults (see these two essays fleshing out the phenomenon). Although cults may not be desirable, they are the failure mode of individuals and small groups trying to throw off conventional wisdom and discover profound new ways of looking at the world. Have we lost our cults because we no longer fail at this task, or because we no longer attempt it at all?

Belief in secrets is connected to belief in one’s own reasoning abilities. Modern conventional wisdom says armchair reasoning never works; any idea you prove true in your head is useless until it’s been exhaustively tested in real life, and you’re more likely to get some other (true) idea out of the exhaustive testing than to validate your armchair speculation. As a corollary, the more steps in your proof, the less likely it is, since each one exponentially increases the error rate of your final conclusion. Since your armchair reasoning is useless, you are unlikely to ever discover a secret (except perhaps by chance, if you randomly do experiments no one else has ever done). The only thing that might not be useless is large institutions working together to gradually advance knowledge with lots of testing, who effectively buy many lottery tickets hoping one will pay off.

The modern skepticism about secrets and reasoning implies a similar skepticism about planning. If the argument against multi-step reasoning is right, then a mildly Internet-famous scene from Harry Potter And The Methods Of Rationality is right too:

Father had told Draco about the Rule of Three, which was that any plot which required more than three different things to happen would never work in real life. Father had further explained that since only a fool would attempt a plot that was as complicated as possible, the real limit was two.

This disbelief in planning suggests, not a strategy, but a sort of meta-strategy. Do something vaguely in the space of what you want to do, don’t commit yourself to a specific plan, watch what happens, iterate, keep your options open at all time, and be prepared to pivot quickly once you know more.

But Thiel says the most successful visionaries of the past did the opposite of this. They knew what they wanted, planned a strategy, and achieved it. The Apollo Program wasn’t run by vague optimism and “keeping your options open”. It was run by some people who wanted to land on the moon, planned out how to make that happen, and followed the plan. Not slavishly, and certainly they were responsive to evidence that they should change tactics on specific points. But they had a firm vision of the goal in their minds, an approximate vision of what steps they would take to achieve it, and a belief that acheiving an ambitious long-term plan was the sort of thing that people could be expected to do. And great startups like SpaceX are much the same. Elon Musk started with a n-step plan to get to Mars, and he’s currently about halfway through.

He gives one particularly striking example of the past’s attitude to secrets and planning:

Bold plans were not reserved just for political leaders or government scientists. In the late 1940s, a Californian named John Reber set out to reinvent the physical geography of the whole San Francisco Bay Area. Reber was a schoolteacher, an amateur theater producer, and a self-taught engineer. Undaunted by his lack of credentials, he publicly proposed to build two huge dams in the Bay, construct massive freshwater lakes for drinking water and irrigation, and reclaim 20,000 acres of land for development. Even though he had no personal authority, people took the Reber Plan seriously. It was endorsed by newspaper editorial boards across California. The U.S. Congress held hearings on its feasibility. The Army Corps of Engineers even constructed a 1.5-acre scale model of the Bay in a cavernous Sausalito warehouse to simulate it. These tests revealed technical shortcomings, so the plan wasn’t executed.

But would anybody today take such a vision seriously in the first place? In the 1950s, people
welcomed big plans and asked whether they would work. Today a grand plan coming from a schoolteacher would be dismissed as crankery, and a long-range vision coming from anyone more powerful would be derided as hubris. You can still visit the Bay Model in that Sausalito warehouse, but today it’s just a tourist attraction: big plans for the future have become archaic curiosities.

This is a fascinating story (and remember that early San Francisco was settled by New England Puritans; there’s something super-Puritan about all this, right down to it being a schoolteacher) and does a great job of highlighting the contrast between past and present attitudes.

But how much of a flaw is it that the Reber Plan would in fact not have worked? Suppose a thousand enterpreneurs try to create exciting long-term plans for their businesses, each of which requires guessing ten binary variables in advance. And suppose the vague-ists are right, nobody can do armchair reasoning or long-term planning, and all of their guesses are random. By chance, one of the thousand entrepeneurs will get all ten variables right, his plan will go perfectly, and he’ll become a multi-billionaire and land a rocket on Mars. He will be the only person we ever hear about and the only person who ever becomes a stock example, and it will look like “Wow, multi-step reasoning and long-range planning can work well after all!”

This is the proper canned response that the conformist parts of my mind generated after three seconds. But is it true? Elon Musk has founded at least three super-successful companies that have executed decade-long plans; lightning shouldn’t strike the same place twice. Newton didn’t just discover gravity, he discovered optics, calculus, the laws of motion, and [insert ten page list of other things Newton discovered here].

And, uh, Thiel compares these sorts of long-term plans to “conspiracies”. And he himself is implicated in a conspiracy – his successful destruction of Gawker is now the subject of a book titled Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, And The Anatomy Of Intrigue. His Gawker accomplishment was exactly the kind of ambitious long-range multi-step plan he describes as possible in the book – and the book was written long before it bore fruit.

Some of the smartest people I know suspect that Thiel’s endorsement of Donald Trump was the same sort of complicated plot. Thiel endorsed Trump at a time when no other famous intellectual would touch him. Trump won and followed a spoils strategy of rewarding his early supporters (like how he made Jeff Sessions the Attorney General), and Thiel got 100x the influence he would have if he’d had to fight against every other important person for prestige in the Clinton administration. I am still trying to figure out what happened with this – my impression is that for about a month after Trump won, he was doing a lot of things that bore Thiel’s fingerprints, and after that he didn’t. Either there was some kind of early break between the two of them, or Thiel decided to operate very quietly – a few hints of leaked information suggest the latter. If he’s still involved, this is a hundred times more impressive than Gawker.

I’m bringing these things up because once you write a book saying “Hey guys, conspiracies are totally doable and often successful”, and then a few years later you succeed at multiple ambitious conspiracies that destroy your enemies and give you vast national influence, I think you are allowed to say that this is possibly something other than coincidence and survivorship bias.

But then it equally becomes fair to say that Peter Thiel is a billionaire CEO Stanford professor chess master, and Elon Musk is, well, Elon Musk. Both may be better at planning than the average person. Suppose you have a ten-step plan. And suppose you’re good enough at planning that you have a 90% chance to carry out each step. That means a 35% chance of all ten steps going without a hitch; start three companies or Gawker-destruction plans, and one will succeed. Now suppose someone only a little worse at planning – 70% success rate per step – tries the same thing. Now their per-plan chance of destroying Gawker is less than 3%. In the real world, where there’s more variance between plan steps, I think this becomes even more pronounced.

On the other hand, each successful SpaceX or Gawker-elimination-plan brings huge benefits to the world. We are stuck in the awkward position where a heuristic of “Go ahead, think big” will be inappropriate for and predictably bankrupt the vast majority of people, but a heuristic of “Think small and don’t trust yourself” will create a world of sub-par rockets and tragically un-destroyed gossip rags. Which do we choose? This is probably the wrong question; nobody controls the heuristic supply, and the one that works for most people will catch on. Under this model, Thiel is doing the public service of saying “Hey, if you’re a smart person, then despite what everybody says this whole ‘make big plans’ thing might actually work for you.”

(good thing everybody has an accurate, undistorted estimate of whether they are a smart person or not!)

I really liked this part of the book. When every intelligent person you trust is pushing one heuristic, it can be really refreshing to hear someone else intelligent and successful say exactly the opposite. Not even prove the opposite – I don’t think Thiel makes all that strong a case in this book – just say “Hey, think about the fact that this piece of conventional wisdom might be totally wrong”. This is almost the first time I’ve heard this said about the “don’t make complex multi-step plans” piece of conventional wisdom, and it was fun to hear this new perspective that I’m going to have to wrestle with from now on.

III.

Zero To One has one more section on secrets and planning, where it expands them society-wide into the ideas of definite optimism vs. indefinite optimism.

Definite optimism is Thiel’s take on the can-do philosophy of the 1950s. We can-do the Apollo Program, so let’s get to work. We can-do John Reber’s plan to dam the San Francisco Bay, so let’s start debating it. People believed anything was possible, so they made grand plans and carried them out. Progress would happen because people would have great ideas and force them into being.

The 2010s aren’t less optimistic, they’re just less definite. We still believe in the impersonal force of Progress, we just doubt any existing plan’s ability to serve as its avatar. Nobody will say “Let’s dam San Francisco Bay”, they’ll say “let’s promote innovation” or “let’s grow the economy”. It is assumed there are no secrets to discover or grand plans to implement, but everything will get better anyway based on- I don’t know, some sort of principle that it should, plus millions of small actors doing little things below the threshold of notability in the right direction.

Again the weird modern belief in “the myth of the lone genius” (not belief in the lone genius, belief in the mythicism of it) comes into play. We are perhaps glad that there is convenient online retail, but this does not translate into appreciation of Jeff Bezos. Online retail came into being because it’s a part of Progress; Jeff Bezos is just some annoying guy who claimed credit and captured the profits.

(the obvious counterargument here seems to be that if Jeff Bezos didn’t do the admittedly hard work of creating an online retail giant, somebody else would have, perhaps a little later and a little worse; hundred billion dollar bills don’t lie on the sidewalk literally forever. I’m not sure what Thiel thinks of this; at the very least he might say our society fails to appreciate that some specific person does have to do the work for the work to happen.)

The flagship industry of the definite optimism of the 1950s was engineering. The flagship industry of the indefinite optimism of the 2010s is finance. Finance is about “making money when you have no idea how to create wealth”. While the engineers plan out specific dams and rockets and so on, the more abstract levels of finance invest in “the market”, a vague aggregate of all economic activity which is expected to go up because Progress. And so:

Think about what happens when successful enterpreneurs sell their company. What do they do with the money? In a financialized world, it unfolds like this:

– The founders don’t know what to do with it, so they give it to a large bank. – The bankers don’t know what to do with it, so they diversify by spreading it across a portfolio of investors. – Institutional investors don’t know what to do with their managed capital, so they diversify by amassing a portfolio of stocks.

– Companies try to increas ehtie share price by generating free cash flows. If they do, they issue dividends or buy back shares and the cycle repeats.

At no point does anyone in the chain know what to do with money in the real economy. But in an indefinite world, people actually prefer indefinite optionality; money is more valuable than anything you could possibly do with it. Only in a definite future is money a means to an end, not the end itself.

The flagship government of indefinite optimism is liberalism, here including both the standard Clinton-issue variety and libertarianism. Liberalism doesn’t take any specific position about what the good life is, or how to promote it – it is a neutral arbiter that enforces content-independent laws. It can ban or promote the construction of monuments, but it cannot and will not say “Ten Commandments monument good, Satanist monument bad” – it either accepts or rejects both. The culmination of this style of indefinite liberalism is Rawls’ veil of ignorance, where government only works insofar as it approximates what people would create if they knew nothing about their own opinions.

The flagship level of indefinite optimism is the meta-level. Come up with some principles that should work, like “capitalism” or “evolution”, then let them figure everything out.

Like the section on secrets and planning, this succeeds in being an interesting critique of something I had previously thought so obviously good that I had never bothered thinking of criticisms of it before. But its specifics are a bit weird – the Burkean/Chestertonian argument for conservativism goes that our current traditions are the outcome of exactly the same sort of incremental experimentation that indefinite optimists love, and that our own multi-step reasoning and planning telling us that X new law will improve things is too fallible to trust. So if our philosophy of government isn’t liberal, libertarian, or conservative, what is it? Thiel mentions two “definite optimistic” philosophers – Marx and Hegel – and neither is the sort to inspire too much confidence. Maybe we should be imagining Eisenhower-era America – liberal-ish, but still with grand visions? I don’t know enough about that era to know whether that era really had a unified version of the good life, or what shifting more in that direction would entail.

Also, different philosophies work for different situations. The virtues of feudalism are more relevant to a sprawling medieval empire than to modern Denmark. Indefinite liberalism seems suited to a country where in fact nobody agrees on anything; one with deep religious and racial divisions, caught in the grip of a smoldering culture war. If nobody can agree on what the good is, then refereeing everybody as they pursue their own private versions of the good might be the best you can maange.

IV.

There’s a lot more to this book, but it all seems to be pointing at the same central, hard-to-describe idea. Something like “All progress comes from violations of the efficient market hypothesis, so you had better believe these are possible, and you had better get good at finding them.”

The book begins and ends with a celebration of contrarianism. Contrarians are the only people who will ever be able to violate the EMH. Not every weird thing nobody else is doing will earn you a billion dollars, but every billion-dollar plan has to involve a weird thing nobody else is doing.

Unfortunately, “attempt to find violations of the EMH” is not a weird thing nobody else is doing. Half of Silicon Valley has read Zero To One by now. Weirdness is anti-inductive. If everyone else knows weirdness wins, good luck being weirder than everyone else.

Thiel describes how his venture capital firm would auto-reject anyone who came in wearing a suit. He explains this was a cultural indicator: MBAs wear suits, techies dress casually, and the best tech companies are built by techies coming out of tech culture. This all seems reasonable enough.

But I have heard other people take this strategy too far. They say suit-wearers are boring conformist people who think they have to look good; T-shirt-wearers are bold contrarians who expect to be judged by their ideas alone. Obviously this doesn’t work. Obviously as soon as this gets out – and it must have gotten out, I’ve never been within a mile of the tech industry and even I know it – every conformist putting image over substance starts wearing a t-shirt and jeans.

When everybody is already trying to be weird, who wins?

Part of the answer is must be that being weird is a skill like any other skill. Or rather, it’s very easy to go to an interview with Peter Thiel wearing a clown suit, and it will certainly make you stand out. But will it be “contrarian”? Or will it just be random? Anyone can conceive of the idea of wearing a clown suit; it doesn’t demonstrate anything out of the ordinary except perhaps unusual courage. The real difficulty is to be interestingly contrarian and, if possible, correct.

(I wrote that paragraph, and then I remembered that I know one person high up in Peter Thiel’s organization, and he dresses like a pirate during random non-pirate-related social situations. I always assumed he didn’t do this in front of Peter Thiel, but I just realized I have no evidence for that. If this advice lands you a job at Thiel Capital, please remember me after you’ve made your first million.)

Another part of the answer must be that when everyone is competing on weirdness, the winners will be the people who are actually weird. The people who unavoidably do weird things because they are constitutionally weird people. There is a certain degree to which an ordinary person can relax constraints on their behavior and act and think in a weirder way than they ordinarily would. After that, you actually have to just be a strange kind of guy.

Of the six people who started PayPal, four had built bombs in high school. Five were just 23 years old—or younger. Four of us had been born outside the United States. Three had escaped here from communist countries: Yu Pan from China, Luke Nosek from Poland, and Max Levchin from Soviet Ukraine. Building bombs was not what kids normally did in those countries at
that time.

The six of us could have been seen as eccentric. My first-ever conversation with Luke was about how he’d just signed up for cryonics, to be frozen upon death in hope of medical resurrection. Max claimed to be without a country and proud of it: his family was put into diplomatic limbo when the USSR collapsed while they were escaping to the U.S. Russ Simmons had escaped from a trailer park to the top math and science magnet school in Illinois. Only Ken Howery fit the stereotype of a privileged American childhood: he was PayPal’s sole Eagle Scout. But Kenny’s peers thought he was crazy to join the rest of us and make just one-third of the salary he had been offered by a big bank. So even he wasn’t entirely normal…

The lesson for business is that we need founders. If anything, we should be more tolerant of founders who seem strange or extreme; we need unusual individuals to lead companies beyond mere incrementalism.

Signing up for cryonics doesn’t give you a business advantage. But it indicates that you are probably good at thinking outside the box. People who learn that thinking outside the box is a useful skill and decide to try it with zero experience are always going to lose to people who have been doing since they could speak at all.

Or as a wise man once said, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”.