It’s not easy to challenge the status quo, Peter Thiel says, but it’s possible.
“Familiar tracks and traditions are like clichés: They are everywhere, they may sometimes be correct, but often they are justified by nothing except constant repetition,” the PayPal cofounder and “Zero to One” author told the graduating class during Hamilton College’s commencement on Sunday.
“If we choose to believe that we’re powerless to do anything that is not familiar, we will be right, but only in a sort of self-fulfilling way,” he said.
Thiel confessed during his speech that, from middle school through law school, he had been stuck on the competitive track (the outspoken entrepreneur is famous for comparing higher education to “the final stage of a competitive tournament“). It took losing a position as a Supreme Court clerk — “this is sort of the top prize you can get as a lawyer,” he said Sunday — to finally get off the track and try something new.
“Looking back at my ambition to become a lawyer, it looks less like a plan for the future and more like an alibi for the present. It was a way to explain to anyone who would ask — to my parents, to my peers, and most of all to myself — that there was no need to worry. I was perfectly on track. But it turned out in retrospect that my biggest problem was taking the track without thinking really hard about where it was going,” Thiel said.
He said he took the opposite approach a few years later when he cofounded PayPal: He and his cofounders consciously set “very definite, very big plans” to change the world by replacing the US dollar with a new, digital currency. Experienced bankers were certain PayPal would fail, he said. And while Thiel admitted that he ultimately failed at the greater goal of replacing the dollar, he proved the global financial industry wrong by creating a company that allows people around the world to move more than $200 billion a year.
“More importantly we learned that, while doing new things is difficult, it is far from impossible,” Thiel said.
“At this moment in your life you know fewer limits, fewer taboos, and fewer fears than you will ever in the future. So do not squander your ignorance. Go out and do what your teachers and parents thought could not be done, and what they never thought of doing,” he advised graduates.
Watch the full commencement speech below: