“The motivation question is always important,” Thiel said. “I think [with] the great companies there’s always this mission part where there’s always a sense that if you didn’t do it, no one else would. If you aren’t working on this, this will not get built. That was true of the original Paypal vision.” Thiel said that in most companies, people tend to learn the wrong lessons. For example, if you were in a startup that failed in the 1990s, the lesson was that it was impossible, and that you needed to set your sights on something smaller and easier to execute.
Conversely, if you were a part of a company where everything works perfectly well, like Google or Microsoft, the lesson was that it was too easy, which might contribute to why these companies haven’t produced the volume or caliber of companies that we have seen come from PayPal. Entrepreneurs coming from these types of companies underestimate how difficult it is to build a company. “At this point Silicon Valley has become this magnet for talent from all over the US and all over the world. New York had that position for a quarter of a century, from say 1982 to 2007 or 2008. So, there is a way in which I think Silicon Valley is replacing New York as the place where people try to achieve great things, and I actually think that’s a very healthy shift,” Thiel said.
He admits that if the right offer comes along, the kind of offer that only three or four companies in the world could come up with, he would have to jump. But what is that? Five billion? Seven? Ten? It’s hard to know, because in Silicon Valley today, money has lost all meaning and value. It is an abstract construct that can be exchanged for homes and Teslas and handmade selvedge denim jeans flown in from Japan, but nobody really has any idea what constitutes “a lot” anymore.
A legacy from the communalist movement that I think is pernicious is a turning away from politics, a turning toward the self as the basis of political change, of social action. I think that’s something you see all through the Valley. The information technology industry feeds off it because information technologies can so easily be aimed at satisfying individual needs. You see that rhetoric leveraged when Google and other firms say, “Don’t regulate us. We need to be creative. We need to be free to pursue our satisfaction because that’s ultimately what will provide a satisfying society.”
That’s all a way of ignoring the systems that make the world possible. One example from the ‘60s that I think is pretty telling is all the road trips. The road trips are always about the heroic actions of people like Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady and their amazing automobiles, right? Never, never did it get told that those road trips were only made possible by Eisenhower’s completion of the highway system. The highway system is never in the story. It’s boring. What’s in the story is the heroic actions of bootstrapped individuals pursuing conscious change. What we see out here now is, again, those heroic stories. And there are real heroes. But the real heroes are operating with automobiles and roads and whole systems of support without which they couldn’t be heroic.