Peter Thiel on Secrets

Peter Thiel is teaching a class at Stanford about how to start a technology company. One of the students is posting thorough class notes online.

In this instalment, Thiel takes the question of what kind of company to start and reframes it in terms of secrets.

Thiel’s point of view reminds me of the way I think about games in general. Quite often I go out and give speeches about game design or business, and I say things that some think are overly idealistic, or oblivious to the necessities of recipients’ situations, or just plain wrong. Certainly my advice usually runs counter to conventional wisdom. (Yet somehow, by following these principles, I seem to do okay.)

Thiel begins with the question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” and goes on to define secrets, in this context, as “unpopular or unconventional truths”. If everyone knew these things and believed them, they wouldn’t be secrets.

I recommend this write-up to anyone who wants to think unconventionally about game design.

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18 Comments

  1. justin
    Posted May 11, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing. It means a lot to me.

  2. Posted May 11, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Wow dude. That is way deep and applies to a heck of a lot of pursuits. Possibly all of them. Good find.

  3. Sami
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 2:14 am | Permalink

    A bit too much text for me, but seems interesting nonetheless.

  4. Colter
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 4:35 am | Permalink

    Wow, that’s a really good read. As a musician and a game designer, this is really relevant. Relevant to anyone who really wants to change the world.

  5. Posted May 12, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Absolutely amazing. Thank you for sharing this deep source of information. This article alone is a bit of a revealed secret to those searching for it.

  6. Posted May 13, 2012 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    Taking the analogy further:

    Remember what it felt like when you last discovered a truly wonderful secret.
    Excitement. Heart racing. Skin prickling with equal parts terror and intrigue.
    Feel that and you’ve found the work you need to do.
    The game you need to create.
    The business you need to start.
    Fear is a chemical response to the perceived presence of danger.
    Doing something new, changing the cultural consensus, is dangerous.
    If what you’re starting doesn’t terrify you just a little then it’s nothing dangerous.
    Nothing new.
    Not worth making.

  7. Posted May 13, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    Great read. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Posted May 14, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Totally Unrelated To The Contents Of Your Post…

    I just read the article about you in The Atlantic. Stopped playing video games since college (with the exception of the New Super Mario Bros. for Wii), but I’m really curious about The Witness. Looking forward to its release.

  9. Mark B
    Posted May 14, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Reading The Atlantic’s “the Most Dangerous Gamer,” article I thought it was kinda weird that you bought a Tesla Roadster. But reading:

    “At this point Tesla is probably the most successful cleantech company in the U.S. It builds very high-end electric-powered sports cars. There are different ways to frame the decision to cater to the luxury market. Elon’s take is that you needed rich people to underwrite the research and development required to make cheaper electric cars for the mid-market.”

    I’m guessing your 150k purchase wasn’t so much as you wanted a nice car (I’m sure that it helps) but that you wanted to fund the research to make electric cars more viable to your average consumer?

    • justin
      Posted May 14, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

      Thanks to people like Jonathan people like me can buy the Leaf by Nissan! I’m totally cooping that car in 2016 : D

      Also Jonathan Carmack has a Tesla so If people as smart and caring for the planet like this two support them it must be for a reason, like a really good reason beyond “OH its cool and fast and cost a lot of money and makes me looks like a celebrity”

      Also that same guy is using the money to reserch ways to go to space or civilian travel to space or something similar. The Tesla guys are awesome for alot of reasons. They are really caring and share their findings and tech and are open about serious things. Research the company and its founder. Those guys are freaking awesome! They don’t make money; they make a difference!

    • Jonathan Blow
      Posted May 14, 2012 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

      Mark B:

      It’s that, plus I get to stop contributing to the oil industry’s profitability (and stop giving it ammo with which to shoot down alternative fuels). And also, everywhere I drive it, it is an advertisement for electric cars, showing people they are not crappy golf carts, but in fact that they are crazily good vehicles.

      Look for this latter effect to be amped up in a few months when the Tesla Model S starts hitting the streets. It is a really neat car and it is half the price of the Roadster (so, still not cheap, but a good step in the right direction).

  10. Luke
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    I’ll admit I found Thiel’s talk a little trite – the essence seemed to be saying “think outside the box” and “challenge conventional wisdom” which isn’t exactly a big secret – you hear that kind of advice all the time. Our culture worships people who seem to embody that – Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, etc. and we quote them constantly – “think different”, “you can’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking that created them”, etc. I’m not sure the great innovators got their insight by repeating those quotes.

  11. Posted May 15, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Luke, I think you would be right if that’s all the article was saying. It’s useful to think outside the box, is an uncontroversial statement and trite. However I think the article had several more nuanced and interesting points.

    One was that people have a false believe that there is nothing outside the box anymore which has odd implications and may be limiting your thinking.

    Think outside the box has become trite because so many people say it without internalizing it or actually trying it. Examining why people don’t and how you can, is the opposite of trite, it’s substantive because it isn’t just a four word phrase, its a specific 14 page article. Maybe the net result of reading the article for you was just, that it’s good to think outside the box. I felt like it actually encourage me to try it by using specific examples of why it is still a useful way of thinking.

    • Luke
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      @Andrew: I guess I was looking for something a little more concrete or actionable going into the article – to me it had the vague feel of a motivational speech or a sales seminar (reminded me a little of reading Rich Dad, Poor Dad, which at the outset really drew me in and felt like important advice, but the more I examined and tried to apply it the more it seemed like repetition, emotionally-engaging anecdotes and plays to my desires, without much practical substance).

      It did get me thinking, and the point about people generally not believing there’s anything outside the box was interesting.

      I guess at a more fundamental level I wonder how effective “questioning conventional wisdom” is as an intellectual/analytical exercise to discover and create something new – if I look at Steve Jobs, Einstein, or even Jonathan Blow, it seems their work was informed by some kind of spiritual practice, mindfulness, or awareness of their own mental processes that maybe allowed them to “see the box” of their own and their profession’s thinking in a more direct or intuitive way, rather than in a purely analytical way.

      In reality it’s probably not so cut and dried – I imagine one approach can inform the other.

      • Posted May 16, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        That’s interesting, I wonder if the author could give you something actionable. I thought the example of the math proof was very interesting. I agree with the author that there is a common attitude that things that are possible have measurable progress which isn’t always the case. Sometimes you just have to grind away at something even when everyone thinks it’s not possible and then eventually someday you may succeed. The key part is that you know it is possible but that people don’t agree with you. You also don’t need to see instant progress to continue knowing it is true because it is a truth.

        I think an intellectual/analytical exercise can be effective because it changes how you see things and can trigger a more intuitive view. It’s just another source of input for how you think.

  12. Posted May 16, 2012 at 3:43 am | Permalink

    I have nothing to add to the discussion, but I enjoyed reading the linked article so much that I want to explicitly say thanks for posting it.

  13. Josh W
    Posted June 4, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Bizarrely as a business lecture, that seemed most compelling as a complete defeat of the unibomber’s philosophy. Took a while for someone to get around to it!

    Also interesting was the smidge of an idea that the marginalised will have access to a certain class of secrets than the comfortable and affluent don’t, because they’re life situation is an embodyment of common knowledge working against reality. Of course, that doesn’t mean they will be best able to articulate these secrets. That would require space and time to reflect.

    One of the lovely things about computer games of course is that if you’re computer savy enough, you can just go down some algorithmic or emergent effects rabbit hole from some set of mechanics. You’ve got a well of secrets in front of you.

  14. Dain Hedgpeth
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 1:30 am | Permalink

    Nice post, thanks for sharing. I find many essays from Y-Combinator’s Paul Graham similarly enlightening http://paulgraham.com/articles.html.

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