Why I love ‘Zero to One’: The Contrarian Question

I am overwhelmed with Peter Thiel’s ‘Zero to One’. Do not confuse that with admiration. I am simply overwhelmed because I have rarely ever read a book that is so insight-heavy. The book’s title goes something like ‘Notes on Startups’. I feel you might as well replace that with ‘Notes on Modern Day Wisdom’ and that would be more apt. Peter Thiel mentions that this book is an exercise in thinking and I think its a very good one at that. So although I don’t completely agree with a few things and I am wary of his libertarian conservartism, this book is superbly exciting.

After the foreword, the book starts with this question “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

I remember very distinctly the moment I read this question. I sat quietly as I experienced an implosion inside me. I was commuting back from work and things blurred past me. I lost some sense of where I was in time and space. The last time I was asked this question was probably a decade ago in a class discussion. And this event itself was an exception because I went to a rather different school that occasionally takes the risk of asking students to think for themselves.

There is a famous Zen Koan (come again, whats that?) which essentially says- “Try to see the non-obvious.” It is a puzzle because it asks you to see something non-obvious. If its not obvious, then how can one see it? And therein lies the distinction. It is not non-visible, it is just non-obvious. This means it is something that is very much possible to see, not visible to most people and most importantly will take some effort for one to see, beyond the usual.

Can you imagine what a brilliant question this is? That our entire education system for all its grand claim of cultivating young minds, falls so highly deficient in this small little question? While the thought process that could develop an approach to this question is somewhat encouraged in the Sciences, I think we all should do a better job of encouraging it in everything else. And most of all in History.

“History is a set of lies agreed upon by the victors”- Napolean Bonaparte. I bring this up to argue for not focusing only on the victor’s perspective. I want to make a case for this not only on ethical grounds (what are those anyway?) but for some more useful reasons (More on this in a second).

A lot of our present is shaped by our interpretation of the past and Religion still has a stronghold of most people. So it is necessary to keep asking this question to make some sense of the perceptional chaos, that is the human legacy.

Coming back, in short, I was blown away by this question. When I reached back that day, I wrote furiously for a few hours as I had so many responses to this question. A few days later, after infusing some coherence into this huge thought-download, here I want to write about the one answer that I cannot keep simply to myself (and is also the least controversial).

So here’s something I have for what I have named the contrarian question:

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

People study success to understand what to do. But I believe that one should study failure equally and more to become the next successful person.

Experience is the best teacher but most of us are not good students.

At an individual level, some people are not able to handle failure and so they fail at failure. They fail at learning from it. They become timid in the face of future risks and adventures. Most are not able to study failure in a wholesome way to understand how to deal with it.

When we are trying something new, we tend to seek out those who have already succeeded and take advice from them, learn from them and sometimes copy them. Personally though I have always received the best advice from somebody who failed then succeeded. In short somebody who had tasted failure and learnt how to deal with that bitter taste. Figuratively, they fell down, but had picked themselves up, very well. They not only valued and appreciated what they had far more than someone who only knew success, but their advice was more useful, heartfelt and mature.

So this was the important truth. But why do I think that very few people agree with me on this?

Because basically, I do not believe that this inability to treat failure with the right framework is inherent. It is rather encouraged and nurtured over time due to the way our systems (educational and otherwise) of ‘paying attention/rewarding’ are designed.

In society and in our schools we idolize and worship the winner. We teach young minds that it is important to be at the top and our reward system is indifferent to the rest who tried, however well they may have done so. (*) This conditioning continues into our adult life when our society prizes only the successful and there is little or no appreciation for those who tried and how they did it. Maybe this is even more relevant in India where our society has not made the paradigm shift in appreciating failure. (Things are changing though, maybe…)

But this is not a clarion call to hand out more medals, awards, ‘A’ grades etc. Rather it is to hand out lesser of those and more importantly, pay less attention to them anyway. I’ll try to make myself clearer with an example.

When I graduated from high school, I put myself through the ((in)famous) grueling Indian engineering entrance exams. At the end of the exam session for that year, my school organized a counselling session with the previous year’s topper for some advice on navigating the complicated process of getting a seat in a good college after the results. This fellow had an All India Rank < 10 in the JEE (the largest, toughest exam). So on paper he had the best credentials to give such advice but in reality he was probably the least suited for the job. For one, he had no experience in navigating the messy and chaotic seat counselling process because he had gotten the top seat in the best college by filling up a simple form. He had no experience in resolving the confusions that come along when you have to choose between 2 ‘not-the-best’ options, make lists of pros and cons, all the while managing your inner confusions and others’ expectations. Because he had faced none of it and hence gotten over none of it. This is not to say that what he had achieved was not awesome, it was. Yet he did not deserve the position of the guide-post for the rest of the class for that. A far better person would have been somebody who would have juggled many options and converged on one choice. The decision process of someone like that would have been far more useful for all of us.

Our systems tend to reward people for their skills, advantages, intelligence but rarely for what they end up doing with those attributes. Intelligence, beauty, these are natural attributes that attract appreciation but it almost appalls me sometimes when we do not ask, “Great, you are gifted with some good stuff? So what have you done with that so far?” Or better still, “So you started ahead of everyone on the start line, but how far did you go from there?” But anyway this is for another blog post, another day :D.

It is people who have experienced a transition from success to failure or from failure to success that have the most to offer for good advice. So the next time you are wondering what to do and need some advice, pull out a list of the winners and losers. And if possible, before sounding them out, do examine how they got there. Because ultimately in which category they fall is vastly unimportant compared to how they got there.

It requires great luck and culmination of several factors to become successful. “Luck favors the prepared mind”, so they say. One important aspect of being prepared is being robust, and knowing what not to do is a great step in that direction. What not to do => know what didn’t work=> study failure. A lot of times that can be a great starting point for what should/could be done.

Maybe we are this way because of our history. When conquerors fought wars, there were clear demarcations between the winner and the loser/failure. And the losers were quite literally rooted out of existence. As I walked the aisles of British Museum a few years ago, I was surprised to learn that the ancient Greeks only rewarded and recorded the identity of the winner, rank 1, in the original Olympics. There were no runner-up positions. Maybe they didn’t want to do the paperwork (scrollwork, whatever).

2021 Edit after discussion with Matician’s co-founder Mehul Nariyawala :

In 2021 I had an enlightening discussion with Mehul about this blog post. He added a very subtle and important point as to why we are so averse to studying failure. (Thankyou so much Mehul for reading the post and giving these ideas such thoughtful consideration!). That subtle nuance is this: At the individual level it is our ego which prevents us from studying failure. Collectively these individual egos distort our perception of history and prevent us from learning important lessons from failure, both as individuals and as groups (teams, companies, communities, countries etc.).

It is not simply a matter of moral virtue. I firmly believe that technology is pushing us towards a future where the individual can only successfully survive technology’s rapid changes armed with an extensive analysis of failure. I talk about this in some more detail in a more recent blog post at ‘Future of Work: A Vision’.

I believe that our systems are obviously far more capable now and our minds are too (even though conventional media would like you to believe the contrary).  In essence failure is important and those who have failed and then succeeded tend to have the most authentic and useful advice.

P.S.: This book has technology as its underlying theme. But I cannot resist pointing out that this question essentially summarizes the entire job description of a financial investment manager.  And for all the nerd-aversion of wall street, asking this question constantly and coming up with good answers is what most successful investors do.

3 thoughts on “Why I love ‘Zero to One’: The Contrarian Question

  1. Pingback: Musings on a BITSian Life: Part 1, Basics | Quintessence

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