Peter Thiel’s Religion

By: David Perell

In: Blogpost

Date: July 2019

Key Quotes:

  • Humans have a drive to imitate.
    • “The human brain is an enormous imitating machine.”
    • “Imitation is a rare ability that is fundamentally linked to characteristically human forms of intelligence, in particular language, culture and the ability to understand other minds.”
    • “Learning and human behavior is learned through imitation. Without it, all forms of culture would vanish.”
  • Imitation can lead to distracting competition; don’t copy your neighbors.
    • “When you compete to be the best, you imitate. When you compete to be unique, you innovate.”
    • “How do I become less competitive in order that I can become more successful?”
    • “Competition distracts us from things that are more important, meaningful, or valuable.”
  • There are many false role models; if you are going to copy someone, copy the right person.
    • “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.”
    • “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.”
  • As time moves forward, have a plan for the future.
    • “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.”
    • “Make plans and sacrifice the present for the future.”
    • “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.”
  • The future will be different, not necessarily better.
    • “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.”
    • Progress is neither automatic nor mechanistic; it is rare.
  • There is an increasing lack of optimism and commitment.
    • “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.”
  • This drives the pursuit of empty optionality and increasing risk-aversion.
    • “We see fear, complacency, and extreme risk-aversion everywhere.”
    • “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.”
    • “The more optionality, the better. Picking a path reduces optionality, so people stay in limbo and don’t make commitments.”
    • 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.”
  • Some silver linings…
    • “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.”
    • “Look for secrets instead of luck.”
    • “After all, if people fight on social media, they won’t fight on the streets.”

Worth Reading

Great and thoughtful read. Interesting introduction to Rene Girard and Mimetic Theory; how imitation drives desire, learning, competition, envy and conflict; the role of scapegoats in maintaining peaceful communities; violence as a pressure valve to prevent further violence from spiraling out of control; and linear versus cyclical time. The religious references don’t always hit home.

Key Takeaways

  • Don’t look to your peers for answers. Find somebody in a different stage of life who you admire and respect.
  • Be the last man standing.
  • Ignore the nagging impulses of the moment.

Additional Thoughts:

  • On imitation:
    • There is little room in this discussion for the value of and need for shared reality, goals, interests, etc. in shaping a “successful” culture, capable of the type of collaboration needed for humans to thrive.
  • On linear versus cyclical time:
    • From a network perspective, as time moves forward, systems that are away from equilibrium need a constant influx of energy to maintain their existing structure or grow (in complexity). Without this influx, structures break down. If systems maintain their structure, patterns repeat at regular intervals and the experience of time may be cyclical; if systems break down or grow in complexity (or both), new patterns may appear and the experience of time may be linear.  The point to note in this context is that there is a constant need for energy (work, attention, expending of resources) to simply maintain or grow the out-of-balance systems we care about (relationships, institutions, communities) – see The Vital Question.
    • The other interesting perspective is John Gray’s view is the inherent cyclicality of moral and political systems, due to the fact that any potential long-term (linear) progress is undercut by the limitations of human rationality (and it ability to handle increasing complexity) and the slow changes (if any) in human nature – see EconTalk — John Gray.
  • On optionality and lack of conviction:
    • Some people like to meander. Many people’s personalities change substantially over time. Experimentation has value (for some), does not equate a lack of conviction per se,  and is not necessarily a pursuit of empty optionality – see Range.

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