If I could go back and give advice to my younger self, it might be this: Competition is for losers.” That’s the epigraph to an essay by Peter Thiel in the Spring issue of the Intercollegiate Review. It’s entitled “The Competition Myth,” and it lays out Thiel’s thesis in his book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. Thiel is an entrepreneur and a capitalist, but his wisdom derives not so much from Adam Smith as from Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Ordinarily, we think of business success as a matter of doing something better than the other guy. Organizations and individuals compete for customers, buyers, clients, students, patients, public support, and funding. The better competitors win, the lesser ones lose. The market rewards better products and services, and we get higher quality and lower prices.
Thiel sees it differently. The greatest talents don’t compete. They don’t do something better than others in the field. They do something different.
The problem is that it takes courage to do something different. It’s a risk to think divergently from the rest, and we live in a risk-averse society. Emerson in 1840s New England diagnosed conformity as the evil of the moment, but Thiel finds it just as powerful today, in spite of a libertarian ethos that tells people they can do whatever they want and digital technology that give every user a microphone and camera.
Paradoxically, high-achievers suffer it the most. At the high ends of the achievement ladder, conformity becomes ever more binding. He saw it at Stanford as an undergraduate and law student, and it led him to co-author The Diversity Myth.
And so he favors questions such as “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” And he rebukes our contemporary world for its moral failings, as he does in the last sentence of the essay: “And remember, we live in a world in which courage is in far shorter supply than genius.”
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.