Answering the Contrarian Question

Whenever I interview someone for a job, I like to ask this question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

Peter Thiel begins the first chapter of Zero to One with the foundation of his work. Rooted in René Girard’s philosophy, Thiel poses his contrarian question to the book’s readers and sets the scene for the rest of the book.

The question begs to be engaged with, and we’ll get there shortly. But first, I need to give a brief rundown of Thiel’s philosophy.

At the risk of oversimplifying Thiel’s philosophy, I’ll take a crack at it:

  • Competition is for losers. Try to escape competition.
  • Copying what others has done is bad strategy.
  • We need technology, not incremental “progress”.
  • If you’re looking for opportunities, identify paradoxical or contrarian truths.

(By the way, you should read this book. You can get it on Amazon here.)

I’m convinced that there’s something to the contrarian question. Something that you and I must dive into.

Taking a Crack at the Contrarian Question

As you consider his contrarian question, you might be underwhelmed at its apparent ease. All we need to do is identify something we believe others disagree with. It’s easy enough to do that, right?

Apparently not. Let’s go to Thiel.

Most commonly, I hear answers like the following:
“Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed.”
“America is exceptional.”
“There is no God.”
Those are bad answers. The first and the second statements might be true, but many people already agree with them. The third statement simply takes one side in a familiar debate. A good answer takes the following form: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”

Answering the contrarian question requires more than taking a stance on a popular debate. It’s more complex than siding with LeBron in the Jordan vs. LeBron debate. Your belief needs to be a) true and b) different than what most people think. There is no “truth” in the NBA’s GOAT debate.

To answer the contrarian question, we need to look in unique places.

Where is my answer hidden?

My own answer to the contrarian question is that most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more.

Thiel, Zero to One

Answering the contrarian question is difficult. It requires intellectual effort and a sharp mind to find a truth that most people disagree with.

In other words, you need to find a secret.

In Thiel’s worldview, all successful people and companies are founded on a secret. They have a contrarian answer that they hold tight that drives their actions.

But to find that secret, you need to look where no one else is looking.

A Long Way to Go

As I set out to write this essay, I hoped that I would have come up with new ideas for a contrarian answer. I don’t know that I have, but I have new ideas on where to look and what to do next.

And here’s the thing about your contrarian answer…

According to Thiel, it’s rarely a good idea to tell everybody everything you know.

So who do you tell? Whoever you need to, and no more. In practice, there’s always a golden mean between telling nobody and telling everybody–and that’s a company. The best entrepreneurs know this: every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside.

I Probably Won’t Tell You My Answer Anyway

When I do have my answer to the contrarian question, there’s a very good chance I won’t tell you what it is. I would encourage you to only tell those people who need to hear yours.

But don’t let the fact that it’s a secret hold you back from looking.