Why Cultivating Nonconformity is More Important Than Ever

“In Silicon Valley many of the more successful entrepreneurs exhibit a mild form of aspergers – they are missing the imitation socialization gene,” said Peter Thiel. It turns out that’s a, “Plus for innovation and creating great companies,” Thiel said.

Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and first investor in Facebook, spoke with Mercatus Center polymath Tyler Cowen on his new vlogcast Conversations with Tyler.

Equating it to a Calvinistic sense of original sin, Cowen asked about American complacency.

Thiel called it a, “Massive disadvantage because we can be talked out of our interesting original creative ideas before they are even fully formed.” Instead, Thiel said, “We migrate to safe and conventional ideas that are hyper-competitive.”

Cowen noted that society is, “Shaped by people that are neurodiverse.” Thiel agreed that, “Innovation is driven in strange ways, more shaped by people that think differently.”

Thiel believes conformity is a bigger problem than it was in the 50s or 60s. “The category of eccentric scientist is going extinct, there is less space for them in our research universities than there used to be.”

In politics the, “Conventional approach is to simply look at polls,” Thiel said while suggesting that society will be changed by idiosyncratic people, “Change always comes from non-traditional channels.”

On traits of successful entrepreneurs Thiel looks for “zen-like opposites: really stubborn and really open minded.” He wants people that are really idiosyncratic but work well in teams. Thiel suggests, “If you focus on one end or the other you get it wrong, it’s the combination of unusual traits that produces interesting ideas.” After spotting these unusual combinations, the “important question becomes can they can function socially and execute?”

Thiel’s favorite interview question is, “Tell me something that’s true that very few people agree with you on.” Most people are stumped. Thiel suggest that a lot of important questions simply don’t get surfaced, until you start digging.


Thiel opens his new book, Zero to One, with a deceptively simple question, “What important truths do few people agree with you on?” He suggests that answering this deceptively tricky question is the key to any future of progress—and to building a great business.

The book illustrated that there are two modalities for progress in our world: 1) Globalization: horizontal growth and is primarily oriented in copying things that work, and 2) Technology: doing new things; going from zero to one.

Here are a few quotes from the book about thinking differently:

  • Most important question for contrarian thinking: What important truth do very few people agree with you on?
  • The single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.
  • Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.
  • Ask yourself: how much of what you know about business is shaped by mistaken reactions to past mistakes?
  • The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd but to think for yourself.
  • Higher education is the place where people who had big plans in high school get stuck in fierce rivalries with equally smart peers over conventional careers like management consulting and investment banking.
  • A definite view, by contrast, favors firm convictions. Instead of pursuing many-sided mediocrity and calling it “well-roundedness,” a definite person determines the one best thing to do and then does it. Instead of working tirelessly to make herself indistinguishable, she strives to be great at something substantive—to be a monopoly of one.
  • Every injustice necessarily involves a moral truth that very few people recognize early on: in a democratic society, a wrongful practice persists only when most people don’t perceive it to be unjust.
  • The actual truth is that there are many more secrets left to find, but they will yield only to relentless searchers.
  • Secrets about people are relatively underappreciated. Maybe that’s because you don’t need a dozen years of higher education to ask the questions that uncover them: What are people not allowed to talk about? What is forbidden or taboo?
  • Along with the natural fact that physical frontiers have receded, four social trends have conspired to root out belief in secrets… First is incrementalism. From an early age, we are taught that the right way to do things is to proceed one very small step at a time, day by day, grade by grade… Second is risk aversion. People are scared of secrets because they are scared of being wrong… Third is complacency. Social elites have the most freedom and ability to explore new thinking, but they seem to believe in secrets the least. Why search for a new secret if you can comfortably collect rents on everything that has already been done?… Fourth is “flatness.” As globalization advances, people perceive the world as one homogeneous, highly competitive marketplace: the world is “flat.” Given that assumption, anyone who might have had the ambition to look for a secret will first ask himself: if it were possible to discover something new, wouldn’t someone from the faceless global talent pool of smarter and more creative people have found it already?
  • Our task today is to find singular ways to create the new things that will make the future not just different, but better—to go from 0 to 1… The essential first step is to think for yourself. Only by seeing our world anew, as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first, can we both re-create it and preserve it for the future.

Smart Parent angle. Parents and teachers should carefully consider this advice. Typical parenting and teaching strategies promote risk mitigation and conformity but Thiel and Cowen suggest that it is more important than ever to encourage young people to think for themselves. If it’s true that, “Courage is in even shorter supply than genius,” how do we raise courageous children with an orthogonal worldview?

The Smart Parent series suggests 10 tips:

  1. Choosing a school where critical thinking is valued
  2. Modeling creative work and service
  3. Advocating that every learner is unique
  4. Go outside, raise a wild child
  5. Dropping everything and exploring the world
  6. Talk about the world at the dinner table
  7. Build a portfolio of creative work product
  8. Abandoning gender stereotypes
  9. Find a mentor
  10. Promote powerful learning experiences

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Dave Nestoff

An outstanding article, Tom. What really rings true is the fact that education inadvertently pulls kids and their ideas back to the mean. But with the diversified mix of technology and outside learning channels, there is definitely hope.

Contrarian thinking is one thing we've found to be central to the one-on-one learning experience. It's not about a teacher cramming knowledge to students or hitting a baseline of comprehension to pass a test. At it's core, it's about understanding WHAT makes a student tick. That's what unlocks the potential, the curiosity, and the confidence.

Because without confidence, it's nearly impossible to go against the current. I certainly enjoy reading, thanks again!


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks Dave. I listed to that part of the podcast 3-4 times because I thought it was so interesting. Very interesting implications for parents, teachers, and policy makers

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