“I am the Lord your God.” — 1st Commandment
Human culture began with a murder. That culture was fueled by rage and rivalry, which led to violence. Managing that violence is the secret reason for all religious and political institutions.
In The Bible, The Cain and Abel story is the first act of life after the Garden of Eden. Cain is a farmer and the older brother to Abel, who is a shepherd. Initially, Cain admires Abel. But eventually, when Cain turns envious of his younger and more successful brother, he kills him. The two brothers represent two halves of the human psyche: Abel represents the part that looks up towards the transcendent, where Cain represents the other that looks down towards death and destruction.
Depending on who you ask, the significance of the Cain and Abel story ranges from nothing to everything. For some, the Christian cross is too strange to be taken seriously. It’s archaic and stuck inside a biblical world that can no longer speak to the challenges of life with iPhones, Tinder, and $12 avocado toast. But to others, religion is the foundation of human culture. Without it, peace cannot be maintained and violence will erupt like an angry volcano.
What does Peter Thiel think? Is religion a superfluous add-on or the origin of everything?
In this essay, we’ll explore the significance of religion and the Cain and Abel story. We’ll learn why the story is an archetype for human relationships, even in the Western world where people stiff-arm religion like it’s the Heisman trophy.
We’ll study religion through the lens of Peter Thiel. He’s an investor who found wealth in PayPal, a student who found wisdom in Libertarian ideals, and a philosopher who found faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thiel was raised as an Evangelical and inherited the Christianity of his parents. But his beliefs are “somewhat heterodox.” In a profile in the New Yorker, Thiel said: “I believe Christianity to be true. I don’t feel a compelling need to convince other people of that.”
Three simple statements will lead us towards our ultimate answer about the importance of religion:
Don’t copy your neighbors
Time moves forward
The future will be different from the present
Rather than focusing on Thiel’s actions, I’ve chosen to focus on his ideas. First, we’ll explore the principles of Peter Thiel’s worldview. We’ll begin by explaining Thiel’s connection to a French philosopher named Rene Girard. We’ll return to old books like The Bible, old ideas like sacrifice, and old writers like Shakespeare, and see why this ancient wisdom holds clues for modern life. Then, we’ll return to the tenets of the Christian story. We’ll cover the shift from cyclical time to linear time, which was spurred by technological development and human progress. We’ll see why the last book in The Bible,The Book of Revelation, is a core pillar of Thiel’s philosophy. Then, we’ll close with Thiel’s advice and wisdom almost as old as Cain and Abel: the Ten Commandments.
Some disclaimers: I’ve never met Peter Thiel. The contents of this essay are based on public information and my own intuition. Hopefully, some of it is interesting. Inevitably, some of it is wrong. I am not a Christian and only have a basic understanding of Christian theology. If you agree with everything in this essay, I haven’t challenged you enough. I’ve also chosen an interpretation of the Bible, and especially The Book of Revelation that aligns with Thiel’s philosophy. Thiel fanatics will say I’ve only scratched the surface. Others will say I’ve gone too deep. And both might complain I’ve focused too much on his relationship with Christianity.
I don’t agree with all of Thiel’s conclusions, but I admire his rigorous and independent thought. By the time you finish reading this essay, you will too.
I wrote this essay because I’m fascinated by Christianity and impressed with Thiel. I’ve spent the past decade as an agnostic, just like everybody around me. But after a recent change of heart, I’m on a quest to develop my own conclusions about religion.
This essay is an introduction to his ideas, but it’s not just about Thiel. It’s about modern society, human behavior, and the philosophy of religion.
Thiel’s Intellectual Background
To understand Thiel’s ideas, we need to begin with the person who influenced Peter Thiel more than any other writer: Rene Girard.
Rene Girard was a French historian and literary critic. He’s famous for Mimetic Theory, which forms the bedrock of Thiel’s worldview. Thiel studied under Girard as an undergraduate at Stanford in the late 1980s. Their relationship stretched beyond the walls of Palo Alto classrooms and became a lifelong friendship. When Girard died, Thiel spoke at the memorial service.
Mimetic Theory rests on the assumption that all our cultural behaviors, beginning with the acquisition of language by children are imitative. He sees the world as a theatre of envy, where, like mimes, we imitate other people’s desires. His theory builds upon the kinds of books and people that modern people tend to ignore: The Bible, classic fiction writers such as Marcel Proust, and playwrights like Shakespeare.
Mimetic conflict emerges when two people desire the same, scarce resource. Like lions in a cage, we mirror our enemies, fight because of our sameness, and ascend status hierarchies instead of providing value for society. Only by observing others do we learn how and what to desire. Our Mimetic nature is simultaneously our biggest strength and biggest weakness. When it goes right, imitation is a shortcut to learning. But when it spirals out of control, Mimetic imitation leads to envy, violence, and bitter, ever-escalating violence.
Mimesis is the Greek word for imitation. Imitation is not the childish, low-level form of behavior that many people think it is. Since humanity would not exist without it, humans aren’t as independent as they think they are. Early psychologists like Sigmund Freud didn’t take imitation seriously enough. In one essay, Thiel described human brains as “gigantic imitation machines.”
Our capacity for imitation is unconscious. This drive towards imitation separates us from other animals, and historically, it enabled our evolution from earlier primates to humans. Imitation is linked to forms of intelligence that are unique to humans, especially culture and language.
We’ve known this for centuries. In the time of Shakespeare, the word ape meant both “primate” and “imitate.” Learning and human behavior is learned through imitation. Without it, all forms of culture would vanish. As any dancer will tell you, the heart beats fastest when two people agree to imitate each other and move in perfect sync. These are the moments when time disappears; when years of trust are built in seconds of synchronicity.
Thiel speaks with a religious reverence for Girard’s theory:
“[Girard’s ideas are] a portal onto the past, onto human origins, and our history. It’s a portal onto the present and onto the interpersonal dynamics of psychology. It’s a portal onto the future in terms of where we are going to let these Mimetic desires run amok and head towards apocalyptic violence… It has a sense of both danger and hope for the future as well. So it is this panoramic theory… [It’s] super powerful and extraordinarily different from what one would normally hear. There was almost a cult-like element where you have these people who were followers of Girard and it was a sense that we had figured out the truth about the world in a way that nobody else did.”
Thiel credits Girard with inspiring him to switch careers. Before he internalized Girard’s ideas, Thiel was on track to become a lawyer. He worked as an associate for Sullivan & Cromwell in New York City, where the hours were long and the competition was cutthroat. As Thiel recounts, all the lawyers competed for the same shared goals. They ranked themselves not by absolute progress towards a transcendent end goal, but by progress within their peer group.
“When I left after seven months and three days, one of the lawyers down the hall from me said, ‘You know, I had no idea it was possible to escape from Alcatraz.’ Of course that was not literally true, since all you had to do was go out the front door and not come back. But psychologically this was not what people were capable of. Because their identity was defined by competing so intensely with other people, they could not imagine leaving… On the outside, everybody wanted to get in. On the inside, everybody wanted to get out.”
Competition distracts us from things that are more important, meaningful, or valuable. We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like. Trapped in a never-ending rat race, lawyers climbed the corporate ladder by winning favor with partners at the top. Others engaged in small acts of sabotage against their coworkers.
Law school was worse. Like lobsters in a bucket, wannabe lawyers battled for law school placement and law firm employment. Each goal led to the next. Rather than focusing their attention on the end goal of developing a legal expertise, transforming the Constitution, or rescuing the powerless from tyrannical injustice, they elbowed their peers so they could score higher than their classmates on standardized tests. The competition was zero-sum. The better one student did, the worse their peers scored.
How Girard Influenced Thiel in Business
Thiel sees the world at a strange angle. His contrarian streak runs through everything he does. But until now, nobody has explained the roots of his singular philosophy.
His verbal tendencies double as a mirror into his mind. Listen to a Thiel interview and you’ll notice how often he reframes the question before answering. When he speaks, he skips between perspectives faster than a game of hopscotch. He says things like “One version of this is…” or “You could say that…” He has an uncanny ability to consider cultural trends and investment trades from a diversity of perspectives. Sometimes, I wonder if he sees life as a game of chess, where he plays against himself and simultaneously switches from black, to white, and back again. Listen carefully and you’ll see how often he hides answers inside of questions. By playing both sides of the board with the rigor of a Dostoyevsky novel, he sees what others miss with crystal clarity.
In the words of one of his friends:
“Peter is of two minds on everything. If you were able to open his skull, you would see a number of Mexican standoffs between powerful antagonistic ideas you wouldn’t think could be safely housed in the same brain.”
Before playing a game, you have to know the rules. Breakthrough businesses are so innovative that people don’t have the words to describe them. He focuses on questions as much as answers, so he can identify the difference that makes the difference. For example, people still talk about Google as a search engine and Facebook as a social networking site. Both descriptions miss the point. Google succeeded because it’s a machine-powered search engine. Until Facebook, social networks mostly helped people become virtual cats and dogs. Facebook succeeded because it helped people create real identities online. 15 years after its founding, people incorrectly frame the history of social networks. He doesn’t just focus on the brushstrokes. He looks at how the painting is framed.
Thiel’s companies are governed by Girard’s wisdom. Girard observed that all desires come from other people. When two people want the same scarce object, they fight. In response, as CEO of PayPal, Thiel set up the company structure to eliminate competition between employees. PayPal overhauled the organization chart every three months. By repositioning people, the company avoided most conflicts before they even started. Employees were evaluated on one single criterion, and no two employees had the same one. They were responsible for one job, one metric, and one part of the business.
Thiel provided the first outside money into Facebook and still serves on the company board. His $500,000 investment was partially informed by Mimetic Theory because he saw Girard’s ideas validated by social media. As Thiel said: “Facebook first spread by word of mouth, and it’s about word of mouth, so it’s doubly Mimetic. Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.”
To be sure, not all of Thiel’s investments have been successful. Thiel’s hedge fund, Clarium Capital, was unsuccessful. The fund fell 13 percent in August 2008, 18 percent in October 2008, and lost money for the third year in a row in 2009. By September 2009, the total assets under management had fallen from a peak of $7.8 billion to a mere $850 million, most of which was Thiel’s personal capital.
People who work with Thiel are told to look for heterodox ideas and people with clear visions of the future. Thiel doesn’t like to be an operator because it’s a low-leverage activity. Instead of banging the keyboard himself, Thiel installs strong CEOs and leaders whose judgements are similar to his own. Time and again, these skilled operators have the agency to act without Thiel’s approval, and are encouraged to pursue bold visions of the future. They have freedom to pursue bizarre ideas and people who don’t fit the standard mold.
In an epic exchange between two billionaires, Jeff Bezos said:
“Peter Thiel is a contrarian, first and foremost. You just have to remember that contrarians are usually wrong.”
In an email to Ryan Holiday, Peter responded as such:
“Contrarians may be mostly wrong, but when they get it right, they get it really right.”
Across PayPal and Facebook, Peter Thiel’s philosophy can be summarized in a single sentence: Don’t copy your neighbors. It’s like a search for keys. Instead of looking in the light, Thiel and his employees look in the dark, where nobody else is looking.
Section 1: Don’t Copy Your Neighbors
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” — 1 John 2: 15–17
Everybody imitates. We cannot resist Mimetic contagion, and that will never change. But there are bad ways to copy and good ways to copy. Bad imitators follow the crowd and mirror false idols, while good imitators copy a transcendent goal or figure.
Imitation draws people together. Then, it pulls them apart like an ocean riptide.
At first, two people who share the same desire will be united by it. But if they cannot share what they both desire, their relationship will transform. They’ll turn from the best of friends to the worst of enemies. Conventional wisdom says that we loathe people who are nothing like us. But when it comes to envy, jealousy, and resentment Girard takes a different perspective. Since small disagreements loom large in the imagination, Girard wrote that social differences and rigid hierarchies maintain peace. When those differences collapse, the infectious spread of violence accelerates. The fiercest rivalries emerge not between people who are different, but people who are the same. The more two people share the same desires, the greater the risk of Mimetic competition.
Consider the famous opening words of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “Two houses, both alike in dignity…” Through bloody battles between the Montagues and the Capulets, Shakespeare reminds us that people fight not because they’re so different, but because they’re so alike. Similar people are most prone to Mimetic envy because we tend to compete for status with the people who are closest to us. When two people are different and far away from each other, the tension will stay calm. Thus, the more we resemble our peers, the more Mimetic conflict will arise.
Shakespeare wasn’t the only writer to identify the vicious Mimetic impulse. Sigmund Freud called the tendency for conflict between two similar people “The Narcissism of Small Differences.” We reserve tooth-grinding envy for people most like ourselves. Thomas Hobbes wrote that “if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their End… endeavor to destroy, or subdue one another.“
True to the observations of Shakespeare, Freud, and Hobbes, academics are famous for institutional elbow-knocking.
Prestige-oriented environments can create nasty feuds over little prizes. A family friend named Julia tells a head-spinning story about her time at Columbia University. She couldn’t leave her books in the library. When she did, competing students often stole them. Not because they needed money or material goods, but because they felt surges of envy. Rather than absorbing the course material and preparing themselves for a life after college, students sabotaged their peers and shared false study guides. Relationships were shattered by sour resentment. Classmates could not be trusted, especially those who wanted to help.
As Julia’s story demonstrates, academic rivalries are vicious because they focus on hierarchies over knowledge. They bicker over trivial details and compete for a limited set of status-based titles. In each department, there can only be one chairman. In each university, one president. Speaking about the faculty relationships at Harvard, Henry Kissinger once said: “The battles were so ferocious because the stakes were so small.” By obsessing over their competitors, the faculty lost sight over the big picture and fought over the small scraps of superficial status games. The more they strived to be different, the more their actions mirrored each other.
Choose your enemies well. Like two children who fight for a toy, the more you fight somebody, the more you resemble your enemy.
Toys: Lessons from Rene Girard
I’ll be honest. When I first read about Mimetic Theory, I was skeptical. Girard’s ideas seemed trivial and I couldn’t find any evidence to support them. Then, I started seeing his ideas everywhere. Once I saw empirical evidence of Girard’s ideas, I started taking them seriously.
Mimetic Theory shines brightest in trivial everyday moments, such as watching children play with toys. First, you have to understand Mimetic Theory at an intellectual level. Then, you have to understand it at an emotional one. Until then, Girard’s ideas might feel like ancient and irrelevant ideas. Once you watch these ideas impact your family, your friends, and your coworkers, you will have the same revelation Peter Thiel had as a student in Girard’s class at Stanford.
Girard observed that even when you put a group of kids together in a room full of toys, they’ll inevitably desire the same toy instead of finding their own toy to play with. A rivalry will emerge. Human see, human want.
Our capacity for imitation leads to envy. Babies’ interest in a particular toy has less to do with the toy itself and more to do with the fact that the other babies desire the toy. As soon as one child desires the toy, so do the others. Eventually, even though there are many toys available to play with, all the children want the same toy.
Toys: Lessons from Joseph Henrich
Harvard anthropologist Joseph Henrich found empirical evidence for Girard’s observations about children and toys. In his book, The Secret of Our Success, he shows that humans are cultural learners. Mimetic desire is innate, not learned. We copy other people spontaneously, automatically, and unconsciously. And we are especially likely to copy people who are more successful than us, especially in moments of difficulty or uncertainty.
Henrich illustrates our Mimetic nature by studying children and how they desire toys. Even at a young age, and especially in moments of confusion, they emulate people around them. In one study, Henrich found that babies engaged in social referencing four times more often when an ambiguous toy was placed in front of them. When faced with an ambiguous toy, babies altered their behavior based on adults’ emotional reactions. In their early years, babies depend on elders to navigate the world and outsource their decisions to them.
I can relate. Nothing piques a child’s desire like watching their friends receive a new toy. Throughout my childhood, I remember coming home to my parents to ask for new toys. Back when I needed a car seat to ride in a vehicle, I asked for Thomas the Tank Engine train sets. Once I could read and write, I asked for the same LeBron James jersey my friends had. And in my first month of college in North Carolina, I demanded the same “Nantucket Red” Vineyard Vines pants as my fraternity brothers.
None of these desires were my own. Looking back, these desires came from my peers. I wasn’t the only one. My friends’ desires moved in perfect synchronicity. Once one kid received a cool new toy, so did the rest of the group. When my parents wouldn’t buy me a toy, I shot back with Mimetic-fueled social proof: “But my friend Jeremy just got a new baseball glove and now I need one.”
Turns out, I’m not crazy.
Through toys, Girard and Henrich show how our tendency to desire the same scarce resources as our peers leads to envy and competition.
Mimetic competition is visible in every aspect of social life. People shift their attention from the object of desire to the other person, and the drive to beat them. From bored students, to ambitious graduate school students, to empire-building business professionals, the objects we fight about change, but human nature doesn’t.
Competitive Strategy in Business
Thiel’s Christianity-inspired worldview lines up with Michael Porter’s philosophy of business strategy. Porter is a Harvard Business School professor known for his theories on economics and business strategy. He believed that strong businesses aim to be unique, not the best. Trying to outcompete rivals leads to mediocre performance, so companies should avoid competition and seek to create value instead of beating rivals.
As Thiel once wrote:
“Once you have many people doing something, you have lots of competition and little differentiation. You, generally, never want to be part of a popular trend… So I think trends are often things to avoid. What I prefer over trends is a sense of mission. That you are working on a unique problem that people are not solving elsewhere.”
After the 2008 financial crisis, when the new General Motors went public in 2010, CEO Dan Akerson announced that his company was free of legacy costs and ready to compete again. As he shouted to reporters: “May the best car win!” This phrase reflects an assumption that competition is the best way to grow shareholder value. It implies that if you want to win, you should try to be the best. But this is the wrong way to think about competition.
We analogize business to war. In war, victory requires that the enemy is crippled or destroyed. Rivals who pursue the “one best way” to compete will converge on a collision course, where everybody listens to the same advice and pursues the same strategies, leading to zero-sum outcomes where total industry profits fall towards nothing.
When you compete to be the best, you imitate. When you compete to be unique, you innovate. In business, multiple winners can thrive and coexist. You don’t have to annihilate your competition. While imitation creates a race to the bottom, innovation promotes healthy competition and economic growth. In that way, business is like the performing arts, not war. In the performing arts there are many entertaining singers and actors, each with a distinct style. The more talented and differentiated performers there are, the more the arts flourish. This is the essence of positive-sum competition.
To drive the point home, let’s turn back to Peter Thiel. The third chapter of his book, Zero to One is called “All Happy Companies Are Different.”
Thiel’s book applies Girard’s ideas to business. Like Girard himself, he says companies should avoid competition and walk the path of differentiation. He explains that many businesses create a lot of value, but don’t capture a lot of the value they create. As a result, even very big businesses can be unprofitable.
According to Thiel, monopoly is the end state of every successful business. If you want to create and capture lasting economic value, don’t compete. The more unique companies are, the more the business world can flourish. Consider Thiel’s favorite example: the airline industry.
As I type these words, I’m sitting in the United Airlines lounge at Denver International Airport. I’m writing during a five-hour layover on my way from New York to Los Angeles. In front of me, I see a lemon yellow Spirit Airlines jet preparing for takeoff. To advertise its affordable prices, the engine on the right wing says “Home of the Bare Fare.” Like the Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 to its left, the rise of low-cost airline carriers reflects the price sensitivity of flyers. I’m part of the bargain-hungry tribe too. This morning, I woke up at 3:50am so I could take a dirt-cheap 6:10am flight from La Guardia. As part of the journey, I also swallowed a five-hour layover in Denver so I could pay with frequent flyer points. My body screams for sleep, my mind shouts for productivity, and thankfully, due to the triple-shot cappuccino on the table in front of me, I’ll meet my writing quota today.
Let’s wrap my morning in economic language. Air travel is an “elastic good.” Small changes in price lead to big changes in demand for a flight. Behavior differs between leisure travelers and business travelers. Leisure travelers are particularly sensitive to price fluctuations, so they fly much less when prices are high than when they are low. In contrast, business travelers don’t have as much flexibility. Since there’s money at stake, their decision to travel isn’t as influenced by shifts in price.
The airline industry suffers from near-perfect competition. Each year, U.S airlines serve millions of passengers and create hundreds of billions of dollars in consumer value. But in 2012, when the average airfare each way was $178, the airlines made only 37 cents per passenger trip. Whenever one airline makes a move such as lowering prices or adding an extra inch of leg room, its rivals match it. Since all the airlines chase the same price sensitive customers, they compete for every sale. That’s why, compared to the major tech companies, the major airlines in America are starving for profit.
As a contrast to the hyper-competitive airline business, consider Google. Here’s Peter Thiel:
“Compare [the airlines] to Google, which creates less value but captures far more. Google brought in $50 billion in 2012 (versus $160 billion for the airlines), but it kept 21% of those revenues as profits—more than 100 times the airline industry’s profit margin that year.
Google makes so much money that it’s now worth three times more than every U.S. airline combined. The airlines compete with each other, but Google stands alone.”
Perfect competition is the default state in Economics 101. In a perfectly competitive market, undifferentiated companies sell homogenous and substitutable products. Firms don’t have market power, so their prices are determined by the iron laws of supply and demand.
High profits attract competition. According to economic theory, if outside entrepreneurs hear about profits, they’ll start a new firm and enter the industry. Increased supply will drive prices down, which will decrease total industry profits. If too many firms enter the market, the entire industry will suffer losses. If companies start to lose money, they’ll go out of business until industry prices rise back to sustainable levels. Most importantly, in a world of perfect competition, no company will make an economic profit in the long run. Just like the airline industry.
Thiel offers an alternative to perfect competition: monopoly. Without competition, they can produce at the quantity and price combination that maximizes their profits. Successful strategies attract imitators, so the best businesses are difficult to copy. Firms in a competitive industry who sell a commodity product cannot turn a profit. But companies who have a monopoly can set their own prices since they offer an in-demand product that cannot be replicated. Monopoly firms are big fish in a small pond.
Don’t copy your neighbors.
Section 2: Time Moves Forward
“The twentieth century was great and terrible, and the twenty-first century promises to be far greater and more terrible.” — Peter Thiel
In this section of the essay, we will depart from a focus on Thiel. Instead, we’ll explore Christianity and the history of time. By doing so, we will have the necessary context to frame Thiel’s worldview in the next section.
The Christian story begins with: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” At its root, the story is about how the world went bad and how we can fix it. The world is broken because humans are broken. Human sin is responsible for the world’s evil, and our relationship with God is broken because it was ruined by human rebellion. God is the central character in the story. That’s why instead of worshiping things, Christians are instructed to worship their creator. God’s purposes are central, not theirs. Humans need to be ruled, and man must glorify its king. Only under God’s rule can man discover his deepest satisfaction and forever enjoy the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Resurrection is a symbol that someday, all wrongs will be made right. Christians do not take it as a symbol, but as a concrete fact. Christians say that if you believe in Jesus — that he was raised from the dead and is the Son of God — he will restore your life until every pain and heartache becomes untrue.
Linear conceptions of time, and especially the idea of progress, emerged with Christianity. In a cyclical conception of time, the circle of time closes where it opened. There is no beginning or end. For example, the Hindu Vedas teach that the world spins along an endless cycle: creation, rise, decline, destruction, and rebirth. Even if the cycle repeats for millions of years, it will continue to spin forever.
With a linear perspective, time moves from the past to the future. It begins with the Garden of Eden at the beginning of The Bible and ends with the Kingdom of Heaven.
With Jesus as its savior, Christianity is the only religion that sees a human as the Son of God. When Jesus died on the cross, he paid for the sins of humanity so he could end evil and suffering. Jesus speaks of his return to earth in Matthew 19:28. He says: “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne.” Instead of relying on a cyclical re-birth, Jesus’ return will fix the material world by destroying all decay and brokenness.
From Cyclical to Linear Time
Religious or not, it’s worth studying Jesus Christ. He’s had more influence than anybody in human history. For example, Western Civilization divides time into two periods: before and after Jesus Christ. He’s a universal icon.
In a letter called One Solitary Life, James Allen Francis wrote:
“Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race. I am well within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned—put together—have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one, solitary life.”
Earlier this year, I attended a series of Questioning Christianity lectures in New York City. Every Thursday, Tim Keller spoke about the core tenets of Christianity: faith, meaning, satisfaction, identity, morality, justice, and hope. In one of his talks, he spoke about the human transition from hope to optimism. From praying for a better world to working hard to ensure a better future. In the sermon, Keller argued that humans are future-oriented beings. If we don’t have a positive vision for our future, we become slaves to the desires of the present day and crumble under the suffering of daily life. That’s why we need to believe that our lives are marching towards an end that’s worth striving for. Otherwise, we will become adrift like a log in the ocean.
In his final lecture, Keller quoted Robert Nisbet, the author of The History of the Idea of Progress. In it, Nisbet argues that ancient people saw time as cyclical, and no idea has been more important to Western Civilization than the idea of progress.
The Ancients assumed that humanity was doomed to cycles of pessimism. Even if they held ideas of moral, spiritual, and material improvement, the idea that humanity can improve itself, step-by-step and stage-by-stage into an earthly paradise is uniquely Western. Christian theology sees time as linear. It moves away from the Garden of Eden, and toward a day of judgement, justice, and the establishment of a divine, peace-filled kingdom.
The linear perspective on time was born out of Greek philosophy. Controversial at the time, writers like Seneca wrote that mankind had advanced in the past, and will continue to advance in the future. But the idea of progress did not crystallize until St. Augustine. His book, The City of God, was the first full-blown philosophy of world history. By fusing the Greek idea of growth with the Jewish idea of sacred history, St. Augustine introduced a Christianity-inspired linear theory of humanity. He believed in the unity of mankind, a succession of fixed stages of human development, the assumption that all that has happened and will happen is necessary, and the vision of a future condition of heaven on earth.
Through a belief in Redemption, Christians turned their minds to the supernatural and adopted a belief in an eternal heaven. Nisbet writes:
“Of all the contributions to the idea of progress by Christian thought, none is greater than this Augustinian suggestion of a final period on earth, utopian in character, and historically inevitable.”
Christian ideals of progress are sprinkled throughout The City of God. At the end of his book, St. Augustine refers to the seven stages of early history. The last, still-yet-to-come stage will consist of peace and happiness on earth. He wrote that as a result of the inevitable historical development from the primitive world of the Garden of Eden, those who put their faith in Christ will experience an earthly paradise. ¹
Beginning with the Greeks and accelerated by the Christian writers such as St. Augustine, Western philosophy is defined by the march towards heavenly perfection. People in the West see progress, evolution, and innovation as synonyms. We assume that increased freedom and knowledge is limited only by the passage of time and an active commitment to creating a better future. Like a law of nature, progress was as inevitable as cherry blossoms in the spring.
If time is cyclical, the future will look like the present. The arrow of time points back towards its origin and ends where it began. Taken to the extreme, cyclical perspectives on time implicitly remove human agency. No matter what you do, the world will return to its original state.
Girardian Sacrifice: How Violence Stops Violence
Once Tim Keller’s lectures were over and I understood Nisbet’s philosophy of progress, I turned to a series of Rene Girard interviews. As I started reading, I was shocked to see Nisbet’s idea of progress fit Girard’s theory of Mimetics like a pair of puzzle pieces.
The similarities are stunning. Girard saw sacrifice and the scapegoat mechanism as the reason for Christianity and the center of human culture. The Christian story is the ultimate Girardian ritual because Jesus is a classic scapegoat, but with an all-important twist. Where previous myths were told from the perspective of the community, the Christian story is told from the perspective of the victim. And according to Girard, this is the essence of biblical revelation. The Gospels classify Jesus as a scapegoat. True to the scapegoat phenomenon, Jesus is not killed by the Romans, the Jewish priests, or by the crowd alone, but by everybody. The death of Jesus, like a scapegoat ritual, is a collective and community murder.
Like all scapegoat victims, Jesus is killed despite his innocence. Christianity reveals the radical injustice of the scapegoat phenomenon. All scapegoats are both insiders and outsiders. At once, they must be insider enough to be part of the community, but outsider enough to blame for the community’s problems. As the Gospel of John says: “It is better for one man to die for the people, than for the whole nation to be destroyed… They hated me for no reason.”
Sacrifice is a social event. Without sacrifice, human beings wouldn’t have a culture. All human societies are built around religion because it’s the only way to peacefully work with the scapegoat mechanism. When humans engage in a Mimetic crisis, the violence can only be fixed by murdering the scapegoat. This process of killing the victim again and again is the main peace pill in an archaic society. People perform ritual sacrifices together, and when a priest is appointed to kill a victim, he kills the victim in the name of the whole community. After all, a community can’t scapegoat somebody unless it thinks the scapegoat is guilty. That’s why scapegoating has to be unconscious. Once the group ritual is performed, violence is repelled and peace is restored for the community.
Ritual protects communities from the great violence of Mimetic disorder thanks to the real and symbolic violence of sacrifice. Girard said “sacrificial systems contain violence.” His message has two meanings. Violence is the disease and the cure for the disease. Sacrificial ritual is always violent. And yet, since the real and symbolic violence of sacrifice restores peace in the community, it prevents the escalation of runaway Mimetic violence. In that way, humanity contains violence with violence because sacrifice saves the community from its own violence.
How Time Relates to Girardian Sacrifice
It’s hard to gauge the impact of various philosophies of time. Even as I argue for it, I’m skeptical that a linear perspective on time is a meaningful driver of innovation and technological progress. And yet, my skepticism is balanced by my own relationship with my future self.
Creating explicit images of my future has made me healthier, happier, and much more productive. I re-write my 25-year vision multiple times per year. Then, twice a month, I meet with a personal coach to make sure my short-term actions sync up with my long-term goals. By treating my future self with the same respect as my current self, I’m better able to ignore the nagging impulses of the moment and work towards a better future for myself and humanity.
Fueled by a healthy skepticism, I’d love to see two studies. The first one would track the relationship between technological progress and conceptions of time. Scientists would ask proxy questions for determining a culture’s time horizon, and use it to evaluate its impact on productivity growth. The second study would measure the relationship between urban life and farm life. In my recent podcast conversation with Jason Zweig, he shared his experience growing up on a farm in upstate New York. Farm life encourages cyclical thinking in a way city life doesn’t. On a farm, you’re mesmerized by simple pleasures: the movement of the sun, the turn of the seasons, and the emotions of the turbulent skies. Aside from violent rainstorms and purple-painted sunsets, synthetic city environments take us away from nature. I suspect that people in cities are more likely to see time as linear, while people who grow up in nature see its cyclical traits, such as the rise of the sun, the seasonal thunderstorms, and the changing of the seasons.
Likewise, ancient cultures saw time like an endless wheel. They believed that every so often, the universe would wind down and burn up, and after this re-birth, history would begin again. And everything, from our bodies to our souls, would be purified. Relative to the Christian tradition, this philosophy assumes the futility of long-term progress.
Girard offers a historical perspective for the transition from cyclical time to linear time. He identified a cyclical loop: First, when a scapegoat is sacrificed, peace is restored in the community. Then, the culture lives peacefully for a short time. But eventually, tensions flare and violence returns to the community. To restore the peace, a new scapegoat must be named and sacrificed, which re-starts the sacrificial loop.
How Linear Time Drives Progress and Long-Term Thinking
To Peter Thiel, short-term thinking is the essence of sin. Like The Bible, he advises us to make plans and sacrifice the present for the future. Greatness is like chess. To win, you must study the end game and work towards the one you want to see. Thiel’s favorite chess player was José Raúl Capablanca who said: “To begin you must study the end. You don’t want to be the first to act, you want to be the last man standing.”
Thiel says a bad plan is better than no plan at all. Having no plan is chaotic. He supports people who trade the shiny mirage of short-termism for the calm, controlled grace of a long time horizon. Like Capablanca, they are the kinds of people who study the end-game and work backwards from there.
In a thought-provoking essay called Peter Thiel and the Cathedral, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry argues that Cathedrals were the equivalent of the Apollo project in the High Middle Ages. Like America’s Apollo program, each Cathedral required a specific and ambitious plan for building it. Medieval cathedrals were the first man-made structures to soar higher than the Egyptian Pyramids, which were monuments to death. But cathedrals are dedicated to the triumph over death. Moreover, cathedrals can only be built with scientific knowledge and communal support. They require scientists, mathematicians, engineers, craftsmen, and artists. And all of them need a long time horizon.
Long time horizons aren’t just psychological. They’re cultural. Modern society suffers from temporal exhaustion. Or as, sociologist Elise Boulding once said: “If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future.”
As I’ve written before, the speed of technology and the hyperconnectivity of society have placed us in a “never-ending now.” Like hamsters running on a wheel, we live in an endless cycle of ephemeral content consumption — a merry-go-round that spins faster and faster but never goes anywhere. Even the virtues of information consumption have changed. Most people I know care more about being informed than being well read. By focusing on the desperate screams of moody news anchors and not the books you’ll find in libraries, they let the culture’s moods dictate their own. The news has swept us into a dizzying chaos. When we whirl in its vortex, we become overwhelmed by the slightest breeze of chaos and lose sight of our place in history.
For the opposite perspective, consider the Japanese. Some of its citizens recently witnessed the 66th cycle of a ritual that began more than 13 centuries ago. In a city called Ise, people have been rebuilding the grand Jingu shrine with wood and thatch since the 7th century. This Shinto ritual does more than keep the structure intact. It helps the master temple builder train the next generation and injects participants with a long-time horizon. This Japanese commitment to maintenance allows it to sustain structures and rituals for millennia. We shouldn’t be surprised that Japan is home to most of the oldest companies in the world.
With that said, I don’t endorse the Japanese perspective in all its forms. The country is not as innovative as it once was. When I speak with friends who do business there, they complain about the rigid hierarchies and the inability to take risks. Instead of copying the Japanese commitment to long-term thinking, we should learn from it and use Christian-theology to build upon it.
Thiel concludes that time is linear, not cyclical. The future won’t look like the present. It will either be much worse or much better. Or more explicitly, “stagnation leads straight to apocalypse.” If we don’t, we’ll suffer from limitless Mimetic violence; and if things go well, we might find our place in God’s peaceful kingdom.
Informed by its linear conception of time and the Christian image of heaven, Thiel applauds the grand visions of yesterday’s leaders. Modern presidents no longer inspire Americans with positive visions of the future. The visions of the past weren’t just ambitious. They were clear and specific. Unfortunately, there is no modern equivalent of the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Project, or Nixon’s 1974 plan to defeat cancer by the end of the decade.
Christians were the first group to reject cyclical time. They shouted that the future could be meaningfully better than the past. By doing so, they initiated a positive feedback loop, where progress led to progress, which led to more progress.
Guided by this belief in the possibility of progress, Christians follow a high-resolution painting of a perfect future. It’s as if humanity is on a mission. They believe humans are here to reflect God’s light onto the world. Instead of returning to the Garden of Eden, humanity will march forward, from the past to the future, and create “a new heaven and a new earth.”
Section 3: The Future will Be Different From the Present
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.” — Revelation 21:1
“The cliche goes like this; live each day as if it were your last. The best way to take this advice is to do exactly the opposite: live each day as if you would live forever.” — Peter Thiel
A New Heaven and a New Earth
The Book of Revelation is the last chapter in the New Testament. In this section, I interpret it in a way that supports the rest of Thiel’s conclusions. Inevitably, I have misspoken here. If I met Thiel, this is the section I would focus on. It’s foundational to Thiel’s worldview and I’ve never heard him speak about this section of The Bible in public.
Here’s what I do know: Thiel is trying to save the world from apocalypse.
The Book of Revelation paints two outcomes for the future of humanity: catastrophic apocalypse or a new heaven and a new earth. Some of the Christians I know believe that humans aren’t literally taken out of this world and transported into heaven. Instead, as explained in Revelations 21, heaven comes down to earth. According to this vision, humanity will be cleansed, renewed and perfected. The horrors of the world will be undone. People will receive the lives they’ve always wanted. All evils will be repaired, and the pain of existence will vanish like evaporating water after a thunderstorm. Better yet, the joy and glory of a world after redemption will be greater because humans have suffered to reach it.
I suspect Thiel holds this philosophy. To Thiel, The Book of Revelation is more than a metaphor. It’s a playbook for guiding humanity from the garden of the past to the city of the future.
As Thiel once wrote:
“For Girard, this combination of mimesis and the unraveling of archaic culture implies that the modern world contains a powerfully apocalyptic dimension.”
Under globalization, Thiel believes that the probability of a civilization-ending apocalypse is increasing. Just because we no longer believe that Zeus can strike humans with sky-lighting thunderbolts, doesn’t mean that existential risk isn’t possible. Like Girard, he worries that the world is becoming more Mimetic. Worse, globalization is raising the threat of runaway mimesis and an apocalyptic world with cold corpses, dead horses, and splintered guns.
In an essay called The Optimistic Thought Experiment, Thiel advises us to build the modern equivalent of Noah’s ark, so we can survive the floods of Girardian evil. Thiel fears that due to technologies like nuclear weapons, humans are already capable of destroying the world. With modern technology, a tiny number of people are capable of inflicting unprecedented levels of damage and death with the push of a single button. That though, doesn’t mean we should stop innovating. A lack of progress leads straight to a bleak, ravaged, and apocalyptic world. He writes:
“The entire human order could unravel in a relentless escalation of violence — famine, disease, war, and death. The final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, even gives a name and a place: The Battle of Armageddon in the Middle East is the great conflagration that would end the world. Against this future, it is far better to save one’s immortal soul and accumulate treasures in heaven, in the eternal City of God, than it is to amass a fleeting fortune in the transient and passing City of Man.”
Here, Thiel encourages us to be specific about the long-term future we want to create. Here, he counters the secular and Eastern philosophy. Under the secular mindset, there is no transcendent future after death. This is it. You have one life. Similarly, according to Eastern religions, we lose our individuality and lose our material lives so we can become part of the whole again. But Christianity offers a different perspective: work for the fruits of eternity instead of chasing the fleeting pleasures of the day. Don’t place too much weight on the present moment. Instead of focusing on meaningless scandals, endless political dramas, or the limitless accumulation of wealth, we should focus on the impending catastrophe at the end of the road. Work to prevent runaway Girardian violence. That way, when the Day of Judgement comes, we’ll lean towards the side of the good.
If there was ever a silver bullet, Thiel believes living with a long time horizon is it.
Whether the future is better or worse will depend on our actions. Like Girard, Thiel, believes that Western political philosophy cannot cope with global violence. In 2004, three years after 9/11, Thiel sponsored a philosophical conference called “On Politics and Apocalypse.” Thiel contributed an essay called The Straussian Moment. In it, he tried to find common ground between Girard’s Mimetic theory and the work of two right-wing political philosophers: Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt. He argued that the issue of violence and existential risk has not been taken seriously enough since the Enlightenment.
Here are Thiel’s words:
“The Christian statesman or stateswoman knows that the modern age will not be permanent, and ultimately will give way to something very different. One must never forget that one day all will be revealed, that all injustices will be exposed, and that those who perpetrated them will be held to account.
The postmodern world would differ from the modern world in a way that is much worse or much better — the limitless violence of runaway mimesis or the peace of the kingdom of God… One must never forget that one day all will be revealed, that all injustices will be exposed, and that those who perpetrated them will be held to account.”
As a libertarian who holds the New Testament as a seminal text, Thiel seeks to increase individual freedoms while preventing runaway Mimetic violence. As promised, here’s where Girard’s observations of the past can shape our understanding of the present. Everybody condemns hate-fueled online speech. If Girard’s theories are accurate, online fighting might be the preventative medicine we need, even if it tastes disgusting and comes with painful side-effects. The forces of globalization and technology may have abolished the boundaries of violence.
If so, the cure is nested inside the disease. Online, social-media based arguments might repel an apocalyptic scenario. Perhaps Thiel sees Facebook as a place to contain unbounded Mimetic violence. It simultaneously perpetuates violence and prevents it from happening. After all, if people fight on social media, they won’t fight on the streets. Like a boiling kettle, we have to let out steam somewhere. Better to cool the pot on social media than in the streets. In the words of Thiel, “social media proved to be more important than it looked.”
Four Ways of Thinking About the Future
The pull towards Girardian conflict stems from pessimism and short-term thinking. In Zero to One, Peter Thiel describes four ways of thinking about the future: definite optimism, indefinite optimism, definite pessimism, and indefinite pessimism. In a definite world, the future is knowable. There is a predetermined plan for what the future will look like. An indefinite world is more of a random walk. Like a lottery, the future is out of our control. It’s governed solely by probabilities and chance events, which makes it impossible to act with any agency.
Thiel defines the four quadrants as such:
- Definite Optimism: The future will be better and we know how.
- Indefinite Optimism: The future will be better and we don’t know how.
- Definite Pessimism: The future will be worse and we know how.
- Indefinite Pessimism: The future will be worse and we don’t know how.
Background to Definite Optimism
Innovation begins with inspiration. Positive visions of the future inject people with imagination, which pulls the future forward.
A quick browse through the history books shows that Americans, and especially the government, used to make big plans and live with Definite Optimism. To illustrate the idea, let’s turn to my favorite example: The Reber Plan.
The Reber Plan is my favorite example of Definite Optimism. In the 1940s a San Francisco-based teacher and amateur theater producer devised a plan to reconstruct the San Francisco Bay Area. People took the plan seriously. Newspaper boards across California endorsed it.
Reber proposed two large earth and rock dams, one between San Francisco and Oakland, and another between Marin County and Richmond. Dams would drain water from north to south and convert the Bay from saltwater to freshwater. Congress explored the project. Engineers planned to construct a 32-lane highway and scatter high-rise buildings throughout the reconstructed city. To test the plan, the Army Corps of Engineers built a 1.5-acre scale model of the proposed design.
Ultimately, the Reber Plan didn’t work. The freshwater lakes would have evaporated too quickly. Nevertheless, due to the spirit of the post World War II age, people gave the Reber Plan the respect it deserved.
Ford Motors Airplanes During World War II
As Americans geared up for World War II in the early 1940s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) called upon the nation to increase its production of airplanes. But in a 1940 speech to Congress, FDR said: “I should like to see this Nation geared up to the ability to turn out at least 50,000 planes a year.” At the time, nobody thought FDR’s goal was possible.
Americans were still plagued by the Great Depression. Roosevelt spoke to 132 million Americans. Only 48,000 of them earned more than $2,500 per year, the modern equivalent of $40,000 in today’s dollars. Nearly one-third had no running water. And none of them had antibiotics or unemployment insurance.
At the time, Americans were producing fewer than 1,000 planes per year. The Nazis had 7 million soldiers, but America had less than 200,000. American industry responded with passionate intensity. Ford Motors had never built an airplane, but America sought to produce more airplanes at Willow Run than Hitler produced in all of Germany. To build the plant, builders moved 650,000 cubic yards of dirt and laid 58 miles of grain tile underground. Production exceeded expectations. Ford Liberator bombers took flight in the spring of 1942, ahead of schedule. Within five years, Ford produced tens of thousands of airplanes per year. War production board chief Donald Nelson captured the ambition of the moment: “When we are talking about America’s war production job we are discussing the biggest job in all of history.”
Today, these bold visions would be ignored and dismissed as lunacy. Definite Optimism is withering. Big dreams are now seen as childish illusions. We no longer trust amateurs with vast imaginations, and we no longer challenge people to imagine futures that look radically different from the present. Instead, we defer only to experts with mainstream opinions.
The Reber model has been demoted from a grand vision of the future to a meager Sausalito tourist attraction. “Let’s dam the San Francisco Bay” is too grand and too specific. Instead, we say “Let’s improve the economy” or “promote information.” We doubt the potential of grand plans. Instead, we put our faith in small tweaks and A/B tests, implying that millions of small actions are a better way of improving the world and creating a desired future.
We’ve moved from an atmosphere of utopian promises to one of dystopian threats. Definite Optimism has disappeared.
The End of the Future
Since the Financial Crisis, tens of thousands of Americans have moved into the Indefinite Optimism and Definite Pessimism quadrants.
According to Thiel, this shift has been worse than acknowledged. A 2011 essay called The End of the Future, which lives on the homepage of the website of his venture capital firm, argues that progress has stagnated. We’ve shifted away from funding transformational companies and toward companies that solve incremental problems, and sometimes even fake ones. To be sure, he doesn’t only invest in companies with little competition like Palantir and DeepMind. His firm also invested in Airbnb, Stripe, and Postmates.
Today, we’ve narrowed the definition of technology to Angry Birds and goofy SnapChat filters. That’s why Thiel longs for the days when technology alluded to space, airplanes, and rockets that generated more energy than a small atomic bomb.
NASA’s star spangled splendor transformed consciousness. Astronauts with stomachs of steel traveled the impossible distances of space. The Apollo 8 mission required superhuman precision, equivalent in scale to throwing a dart at a peach from a distance of 28 feet, and grazing the top of the fuzz without touching the fruit’s skin. To reach the moon, America’s pioneers traveled across 240,000 miles, about fifty-eight times the distance Columbus sailed when he discovered the Western world. As the Apollo rockets pierced through the stratosphere, and navigated the pin-drop silence of outer space, they inspired people back on earth to expand their horizons.
America’s imagination peaked in 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. He stepped on moon-dust less than a decade after Alan Shepard became the first American in space, and only 8 years after President John F. Kennedy’s speech at Rice University where he said: “We choose to go to the moon, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.”
As the American people watched their comrades explore the distant skies and travel to the moon, they thought they’d witnessed the opening of a new frontier. Humans were no longer trapped on the pale blue dot. Soon, all of humanity would traverse the stratosphere and soar through space. Science fiction writers such as Arthur C. Clarke predicted imminent commercial space travel, interstellar exploration, and genuine artificial intelligences. The Apollo Project didn’t just shake the Florida launchpads. It shook the entire world.
To echo the point, Thiel likes to quote a 1967 best-selling book called The American Challenge. The book predicted that America would be a post-industrial society by the year 2000. Americans would work four days per week and seven hours per day. The year would be comprised of 39 work weeks and 13 weeks of vacation.
Unfortunately, this dream never arrived. Transportation machines soared higher and faster for 200 years. In the span of a single lifetime, people went from traveling by horse and buggy to walking on the moon. Depending on who you ask, it seemed like humanity was guided by the invisible hand or an all-powerful God. Interstellar travel and vacations on the moon were the future, and everybody knew it.
In an unexpected twist, the physics stagnated. Transportation stopped improving. And today, we’re no longer pushing the limits of height and speed.
Just ask Pan American World Airways, the iconic airline of the Post World War II era. After Americans stepped foot on the moon, the airline’s customer center was inundated with phone calls from around the country. First the astronauts. Then, the people. Customers wanted to reserve seats on the first trips to the moon. Between 1968 and 1971, Pan Am accepted 93,005 reservations for planned commercial flights to the moon. Fast forward five decades and only 12 men have ever walked on the moon. No American, let alone any ordinary human being, has stepped foot on the moon since 1972.
The rate of technological progress is slowing. The only major exceptions are semiconductors, DNA sequencing, and communications technology. Side effects of slow growth plague the economy. Real median wages haven’t risen since 1973. Meanwhile, the costs of housing, healthcare, and education are rising faster than inflation. More than 40 million Americans are collectively liable for more than $1.5 trillion in student loans.
In response, we’ve lowered our efficiency standards. The Golden Gate Bridge was built in less than four years in the 1930s. The recently completed Golden Gate Bridge access road, Doyle Drive, took seven years to build and cost more in real dollars than the original bridge. Buildings, too. The Empire State Building was built in 15 months from 1931-1932. 80 years later, The Freedom Tower took more than 12 years to build. We’ve masked our lack of progress with government money printing, rising debt levels, and distractions of digital technology.
America is not as dynamic as it once was. We see it in the statistics and feel it in our politics. And yet, ask the average person, and they’ll tell you that we’re living in a world of exponential technological growth.
Don’t believe Thiel?
Follow the money. Warren Buffett, the richest investor in America bets against change. The less the world changes, the more Buffett succeeds. BNSF Railway, where Buffett recently invested $44 billion is the largest non-financial company in the Berkshire Hathaway portfolio. Thiel proclaims that 40 percent of railroads involve the transport of coal, so Buffett’s investment will do especially well if the travel and energy consumption patterns of the 21st century look like the past.
After digging through the 2018 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Report, I’d like to add context to Thiel’s thesis. Buffett’s firm has poured millions of dollars into renewable energy. In addition to coal and natural gas, Berkshire Hathaway Energy (90% owned by Berkshire Hathaway) has made meaningful investments in solar, nuclear, hydro-electric, geo-thermal, and in particular, wind.
From a distance, we see a mirage of progress. From up-close, once we remove the smartphone screens in front of us, we feel the reality of struggle and stagnation. According to a recent survey, 80% of Americans think the next generation will be worse off than the current generation. As Tim Keller wrote in Making Sense of God:
“Younger Americans today are perhaps the first generation to be certain that they are and will be “worse off” than their parents. The interconnected nature of the world makes nightmare scenarios—pandemics, global economic collapse, climate-change disaster, cyberattacks, terrorism—all seem like genuine possibilities, even probabilities… Today hope has narrowed to the vanishing point of the self alone. In our current phase of American history we have lost belief in God and salvation, or in any shared sense of national greatness and destiny.”
This intuition is supported by data. Millennials are less well off than members of earlier generations were when they were young. They have lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth. Children born in 1940 had a 90% chance of earning more than their parents. But children born in the 1980s have only a 50% chance. Christoper Kurz, an economist at the Federal Reserve has shown that millennial households had an average net worth of about $92,000 in 2016, nearly 40% less than Gen X households in 2001, adjusted for inflation, and about 20% less than baby boomer households in 1989. Wages tell a similar story. In short, millennials have it tough and it isn’t their fault. With the rise of dystopian films, Hollywood creates and reflects these dark predictions about the future.
Unable to pay for college or afford an apartment in a job-filled city, many Millennials have lost hope.
One friend doesn’t want to have kids because “the entire state of California is going to be underwater by 2050.” Or, in the words of a comedian on Twitter: “The fun part about living right now is we get to see how it ends.”
Millennials: Young and Yearning
When I speak with friends and travel the 50 states, I’m struck by how numb many people are to the world. Besides immigrants and their children, both of whom inspire me with their ambition and passionate work ethic, I see fear, complacency, and extreme risk-aversion everywhere.
Benjamin Franklin once said: “If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.”
The most talented people follow the same narrow tracks. People are afraid to dream big or stand out. Without a positive vision for their future, these young Americans are stuck playing vicious, zero-sum status games. Instead of constructing our own desires, they mirror the goals of people around them. Patrick Collison, the CEO of Stripe, shared a similar observation:
“If you’re in the US and go to a good school, there are a lot of forces that will push you towards following train tracks laid by others rather than charting a course yourself. Make sure that the things you’re pursuing are weird things that you want to pursue, not whatever the standard path is. Heuristic: do your friends at school think your path is a bit strange? If not, maybe it’s too normal.”
There’s a lack of differentiation. As Thiel observed:
“There is something very odd about a society where the most talented people get all tracked toward the same elite colleges, where they end up studying the same small number of subjects and going into the same small number of careers… It’s very limiting for our society as well as for those students.”
The top colleges have become vocational schools for investment banking and management consulting. In 2007, for example, half of Harvard seniors took jobs in finance or consulting. This mirrors my own experience. My college jobs department steered us towards high-status jobs instead of high-impact ones. Students, professors, and advisors cared more about perception than reality. It felt as if the goal of life wasn’t to improve the world, but to win awards and build an impressive resume. Instead, my smartest friends were pushed towards a handful of fields: law, management consulting, and investment banking. Other options were peripheral and besides the point.
Young Americans are trapped by student loans, crippled by path dependence, and constrained by runaway housing costs. They’re raised in institutional environments where conformity is praised and originality is punished. Like Pavlov’s rats, they’ve responded with authoritarian obedience. To no fault of their own, they’re sleepwalking through life as if their best years are already behind them.
I recently had dinner with a fraternity brother in Manhattan. Let’s call him Jim. Right after the bacon cheeseburgers arrived and just as we splattered ketchup on our crispy French Fries, I asked him how he liked his job. First, he paused for time. Then, he wiggled his eyes left and right, and said “Good. I’m learning a lot.”
Immediately, I smirked and questioned his answer. It reeked like Orwellian doublespeak. In my experience, “learning a lot” is code for “boring, but I’m putting up with it.”
Jim told me he liked his job because it taught him how to “collaborate” and “work with people.” His words sounded like they were parroted from the company’s Human Resources department. I poked and poked. And after 10 minutes, we reached the truth.
He explained how the school system taught him to follow rules, mimic his peers, and listen to teachers. That’s how Jim was taught to succeed, so that’s his strategy for climbing the corporate ladder. It’s as if the age-based fraternity hierarchy never left his mind. Pledge first. Succeed later. All the while, he’s spent years marching along the institutional track, obeying orders and doing exactly what others told him to do, without questioning why he should listen to them in the first place.
Spoiler alert: Jim is wasting his time.
He knows how to get things done, but never asks if it’s worth doing in the first place. Instead of working on important problems, he’s building “options” for the future. Like so many other college graduates, he’s been pushed into a mundane and uncreative profession. His dream-filled heart is crushed by the cold logic of investment banking. His words echo those of another friend, who said: “I’m just trying to get through the next 25 years as fast as possible.”
Sparkling dreams have become minor annoyances, like a buzzing fly in a lakeside cabin. Student loans keep him stuck on the institutional treadmill. He paid too steep a price for college, and now he’s unable to question the system and forced to accept the institutional doctrine as gospel. As I listened, I wondered what would happen if a high-voltage defibrillator shocked him and he woke up from his intellectual slumber.
Until then, he’ll stagger along the soul-crushing stepping stones of life: work hard in middle school so you can do well in high school; work hard in high school so you can do well in college; work hard in college so you can get a respected job; and get a respected job so one day, towards the end of your career, you can finally do what you want to do. All the while you “build skills” and “accumulate options,” as if the next corner will provide the happiness you’ve been seeking all along.
In an essay called The Trouble with Optionality, Harvard professor Mihir Desai worries that the language of finance has polluted life. He condemns the modern, finance-fueled affair with optionality. Rather than taking risks or working on important projects, students acquire options. In finance, when you hold an option and the world moves with you, you enjoy the benefits; when the world moves against you, your downside risk is protected and you don’t have to do anything. The more optionality, the better. Picking a path reduces optionality, so people stay in limbo and don’t make commitments. This language doesn’t only apply to career planning. Some students talk about marriage as the death of optionality. But life is not like options trading.
Optionality is a means to an end, not the end itself. Our obsession with optionality can backfire. In theory, these safety nets give them freedom. Bolstered by the confidence of security, they can jump head-first into ambitious projects. In practice, they become habitual acquirers of safety nets and never work on anything of substance. The longer they spend acquiring options, the harder it is to stop.
“The shortest distance between two points is reliably a straight line. If your dreams are apparent to you, pursue them. Creating optionality and buying lottery tickets are not weigh stations on the road to pursuing your dreamy outcomes. They are dangerous diversions that will change you.”
When we pursue optionality, we avoid bold decisions. Like anything meaningful, venturing into the unknown is an act of faith. It demands responsibility. You‘ll have to take a stand, trust your decision, and ignore the taunts of outside dissent. But a life without conviction is a life controlled by the futile winds of fashion. Or worse, the hollow echoes of the crowd.
By brainwashing us into thinking that prosperity is inevitable, privilege can have a numbing effect. Among my friends in the upper echelons of society — the ones with the means to pursue transcendent dreams — I wonder if they’re too comfortable. Nobody believes in destiny. Social events revolve around binge drinking and conversations so superficial a robot could automate them. They’re dozing off in an intellectual slumber. Rather than rising to the level of their dreams, they fall to the average of their environment. In my college classes, where the annual education costs $40,000 per year, the vast majority of students wasted the time away on Facebook. Office hours were an afterthought. “Try hards” were mocked and made-fun-of, and nobody had a vision for their future.
We lack courage, not genius. We’re swimming in money, but starving for ambition. Every venture capitalist I meet says there’s too much money and not enough good ideas. As Peter Thiel reminds us:
“Progress is neither automatic nor mechanistic; it is rare. Indeed, the unique history of the West proves the exception to the rule that most human beings through the millennia have existed in a naturally brutal, unchanging, and impoverished state. But there is no law that the exceptional rise of the West must continue.”
We increasingly believe that progress is inevitable. Progress, though, is not guaranteed. We must work for it. Otherwise, our living standards will not improve, and may get worse.
The Promise of Christianity
To offer solutions, Thiel turns to the Christian value of hope. He has a heterodox view of Christianity. In his reading of history, the non-violence of Jesus is the antidote to Mimetic conflict.
When I speak with Christians, they always return to the importance of hope. They have a point. Our beliefs about the future impact our thoughts about the present. The more we can turn our attention away from the ephemeral present and towards the eternal future, the more we can pursue grand visions and persist through the challenges of the day. The present cannot be divorced from the future. They are codependent.
One of my friends works for a California-based investment firm which manages $6 billion in investment assets. For the first three years, during the initial fundraising process, investors turned their cheeks. The firm struggled to raise capital. And yet, in the face of rejection, the fund’s Christian founder maintained faith in the face of struggle. As my friend observed: “She succeeded because her Christianity gave her hope.”
Our spirits rise when hopes are high. That’s why the day before Christmas is as exhilarating as Christmas Day. Big, bright gifts sit under the tree. Smaller ones hang in firetruck-red socks over the living room fireplace. Children play. Parents cook. Grandparents tell stories. And the rush of anticipation releases everybody’s serotonin.
Likewise, everybody knows that a team with belief is hard to beat. But a team that doesn’t believe they can win is hopeless. The importance of belief and momentum is evident to any shouting fan in any arena across the country. And yet, few consider its importance at the societal level.
Christianity promises a Living Hope that enables believers to endure unimaginable suffering. A hope so resilient that like a Captain America’s shield, it can survive any evil, any sickness, or any torture. No matter the obstacles, certainty about the future gives you the confidence to act in the present.
Thiel’s idea of Definite Optimism is Christian theology cloaked in secular language. By raising our spirits, a positive vision for the future unites society and raises our spirits. And that’s what the Western world needs right now.
Technological growth is the best way to reduce suffering in the world. Technological progress has stagnated since the 1970s, which contributes to the vile political atmosphere and the pessimism of modern Westerners. Thiel says we should acknowledge our lack of progress, dream up a vision of Definite Optimism, and guided by Christian theology, work to make it a reality.
Section 4: Peter Thiel’s Advice
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13)
Now that we’ve outlined the Christianity-inspired foundations of Peter Thiel’s worldview, we’ll close with Peter Thiel’s advice for how to live. I’ll conclude with three actionable, Thiel-inspired principles: (1) create a positive vision for the future, (2) be careful who you copy, and (3) follow the Ten Commandments.
Search for Secrets
“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.” — Proverbs 25:2
Thiel opposes the idea that luck is all-powerful. He encourages human agency and believes in the power of a single individual to bend the future to their will. Thiel believes we attribute too much to luck, which stops us from actually doing things. As he proclaimed, “you are not a lottery ticket… you can either dispassionately accept the universe for what it is, or put your dent in it, but not both.”
For example, if you treat startup investments like a series of lottery tickets, you won’t think hard about them, and as a result, you will fail. Thiel asks: “Is this a business that I have enough confidence in that I would consider joining it myself?” If yes, he’ll consider an investment. If the answer is no, he won’t. He doesn’t see the world as a mere distribution of luck-based outcomes. Instead, he praises conviction, bets on transcendent founders, and invests in the kind of companies he’d want to work for.
God is an all-encompassing term for things we don’t understand. Under that definition, luck is the secular God. Naturally, Thiel speaks about luck in the context of startup investing. “It’s just a matter of luck” is a statement of the deep nature of the universe. Deferring to luck is counter-productive. Treating people and events like lottery tickets makes us doubt our agency.
Look for secrets instead of luck. Thiel recommends one book: Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World by Rene Girard. The title is as revealing as the contents of the book. It comes from Matthew 13:35, which reads: “I will proclaim what has been hidden [since] the foundation of the world.”
In job interviews, Thiel famously asks: “What very important truth do very few people agree with you on?” With it, Thiel can identify heterodox thinkers who aren’t blinded by Mimetic dogmas or intellectual fashions. He insists that there are still secrets left to uncover. Some are small and incremental. But the most valuable secrets are big enough to shake the world. Like Easter eggs, these broad and unconventional truths are hidden in places where nobody looks. You can find them, but you have to dig in obscure places. Other secrets are hidden in plain sight. They’re so obvious that nobody thinks about them. And once you learn about them, you’ll pinch yourself for not seeing them before.
“The big secret is that there are many secrets left to uncover. There are still many large white spaces on the map of human knowledge. You can go discover them. So do it. Get out there and fill in the blank spaces. Every single moment is a possibility to go to these new places and explore them.”
Thiel’s attraction to secrets comes from a conservative writer named Leo Strauss. His writing was obscure because he hid truths behind a curtain of mystery. That way, they would only be shared with a small, select group of people. Make no mistake. Even today, forbidden truths are exchanged in closed forums, private conferences, and corner offices on the 72nd floor. They’re shared in whispers, not shouts.
Strauss did not believe in transparency. He believed that even in the most open-minded societies, many truths were too problematic to be shouted. His contemporary disciples, like Thiel, conceal their words. They hide controversial ideas in esoteric language, and Strauss described the benefits as such:
“It has all the advantages of private communication without having its greatest disadvantage—that it reaches only the writer’s acquaintances. It has all the advantages of public communication without having its greatest disadvantage—capital punishment for the author… Their literature is addressed, not to all readers, but to trustworthy and intelligent readers only.”
Sometimes, Straussians hide truths in plain sight. When they do, they’re concealed in unpopular characters, such as devils, beggars, and buffoons. Pseudonymous Twitter accounts are the new Straussian philosophers, but with one important twist. Instead of sharing their names and hiding the truth, today’s Straussians hide their names, but share the truth.
Be Careful Who You Copy
“Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” — Ecclesiastes 4:4
Even if imitation is inevitable, we can reduce the negative effects of it. We can avoid the kinds of competition that lead to violence. If Girard is right, we are not as individualistic as we think we are. If we must copy others, we should be careful who we copy.
Thiel encourages people to ask themselves: “How do I become less competitive in order that I can become more successful?”
Ask a Christian and they’ll say that you should only imitate Jesus. That’s why, in Revelations, humanity receives a warning: “In the future, an Antichrist will come who brings a promise: we can all be Gods and models for one another, and we can all live in harmony together.” In a world where everybody is a model, anybody can become a scapegoat. This is a recipe for evil. Rather than turning to each other for answers, the Bible tells us to imitate Jesus, and nobody else. Or as Christ says: “Imitate me as I imitate the father.”
I’m not sure that works for me. I feel an intellectual pull towards Christianity, but not an emotional one. Many of my secular friends feel the same way. Telling them to only follow Jesus’ teachings wouldn’t be productive. To a Christian, Jesus’ words carry the weight of the world. To me, they’re like a brick: heavy enough to make me careful, but light enough to add other ones to my mental backpack.
According to Girard, the more differentiated a society, the more stable it is. But on the internet, everybody feels like an undifferentiated peer. Social media decreases the distance between people and their role models, so the pull to idolize false gods is greater than ever. Pair that with the blank slate theory that anybody can do whatever they want, and you have a recipe for runaway Girardian conflict. YouTube celebrities and Instagram influencers sell the exact kinds of behaviors that the Bible warns us about. By manufacturing envy, they tell fans that if they look like them, dress like them, and act like them, they can become them.
We all form our identity by looking towards others. Since everybody copies, we can improve society by encouraging people to copy the right people. As a kid, back when I was 100% sure I was going to be a professional baseball player, I looked up to J.T. Snow, the first basemen for the San Francisco Giants. I was obsessed. I scavenged the kids’ section for his jerseys and waited patiently for autographs at the annual Giants meet-and-greet. I copied his mannerisms, his jersey number, and his position on the baseball field. And in 4th grade, I brought a chocolate ice cream cake to school to celebrate his birthday.
Here’s how Thiel would respond to my imitative instincts: Be careful who you copy. If you’re going to follow a role model, find one who you won’t compete with. Don’t look to your peers for answers. Find somebody in a different stage of life who you admire and respect. They should be somebody who defied the status quo and took an independent path. In life, you have two options: (1) you can dispassionately accept the universe for what it is, or (2) you can put your dent in it. But you can’t do both.
Win the decade, not the day. For example, if you’re a writer, your goals should transcend the New York Times Bestseller List. Think bigger than that. If you’re going to model a famous writer, pick a dead one such as Tolstoy or Hemingway. They are real enough to model. Since they’re dead, you won’t compete with them directly. Better yet, you can copy more than their writing. If you want to stretch your imagination, you can live where they lived and read what they read. That way, you can ignore superficial status competitions and think beyond the day-to-day stress of writing a book.
I suspect this is why Thiel admires Elon Musk so much. Since the first day of SpaceX, Elon has been on a mission to go to Mars. Since the entire company was aligned around the mission, the employees were motivated and paddling the boat in the same inspiring direction.
Great people trade the temptations of today for the trophies of tomorrow. Think like you’re immortal. Place the eternal before the perishable. Treat people like you’ll know them for the next ten thousand years and work on the kinds of projects you’ll be proud to tell your grandchildren about. Live like you’ll be alive forever. When in doubt, follow the Ten Commandments.
Follow the Ten Commandments
“Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s goods.” — 10th Commandment
To return to our initial question about the significance of the Cain and Abel story, we return to Rene Girard. From history, Girard learned that human relations are built on the primacy of violence. That’s why the Cain and Abel story is the archetypal example of Mimetic conflict, and Thiel sees Christianity as the optimal solution to apocalyptic violence.
As Girard once said: “There are fundamentally only two ways of looking at religion: as superfluous, added on—or as the origin of everything.” If there can be no in-between, I suspect that like Girard, Thiel sees religion as the origin of everything.
Thiel closed his Dave Rubin interview with practical career advice, inspired by the Ten Commandments.
The first commandment says that we should only look to God. There is only one God and you should worship him. Look up, not around. Follow The Bible, which says there is no salvation in anyone other than Jesus. You won’t figure out what to do by looking at your peers, so don’t copy the people around you. Instead, we’ll end up in copycat rivalries where we claw and fight with each other like crabs in a bucket.
The last commandment says you shouldn’t covet your neighbor’s goods. Inspired by the 10th commandment, Thiel encourages listeners to avoid competition. True to Mimetic Theory, the last commandment focuses on the neighbor instead of the object of desire because all objects are desirable when they belong to your neighbor. Society will push you towards competition, but you shouldn’t compete with your peers or depend on them for guidance. Competition is for losers. Instead of looking to the people around you for answers, find models that you cannot compete with. If you’re Christian, follow Jesus, and if you’re not, follow an intellectual hero who is way ahead of you. Rather than using your peers as a reference point, find your own transcendent orientation.
Let the flame of Definite Optimism burn away the Mimetic virus. Use the Internet to curate your environment, so you can be hyper-mimetic towards the rare few who are anti-mimetic. Copy the people who don’t copy people. Take risks. Build a differentiated skillset. Pursue timeless wisdom, not intellectual fashions. Be skeptical of convention, and don’t let it double as a shortcut to the truth. Work on problems that nobody else is working on, especially if you’re uniquely capable of solving them. And ultimately, ask the questions you’re not supposed to ask, so you can find the answers you’re not supposed to find.
Guided by the Cain and Abel story, remember the danger of imitating the wrong person. At first, it can inspire cooperation. But over time, it leads to envy, violence, and the apocalypse.
¹ In addition to St. Augustine, writers such as Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin supported Christian ideals of progress. Adam Smith’s book, The Wealth of Nations is regarded as economics’ foundational text. Smith declares that there’s a natural order to the progress of nations. His “invisible hand” doesn’t just speak to the stability of the economic system, but also to the natural progress of wealth, labor, skill, rent, and profits. Western civilization is built on these ideals. Two of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin operated with a similar progress-inspired philosophy.
Writing two years before his death in 1824, Thomas Jefferson marveled at all the progress he had witnessed in his life: “And where this progress. No one can say. Barbarism has, in the meantime, been receding before the steady step of amelioration, and will in time, I trust, disappear from the earth.”
Likewise, in a letter to a friend, Benjamin Franklin wrote: “It is impossible to imagine the height to which may be carried, in a thousand years, the power of Man over Matter.”
Thank you to Kevin Harrington for the conversations that led to this post. Your wisdom and feedback is invaluable to me, and I’m grateful for our friendship. This essay is for you.
Thank you to the other people who contributed to this essay through feedback and conversation: Brent Beshore, Lyn Cook, Nick Maggiulli, Sid Jha, Bushra Farooqui, Jeremy Giffon, James Patterson, Manan Hora, Ben Colley, and Michael Naka.
Cover Photo: JD Lasica | CC 2.0 License via Flickr.