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.

Zero to One: How to Build a Personal Monopoly

I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man. – Jay Z

Our society loves competition. We’re enamored with it.

Competition is deeply engrained in each one of us. We were ranked against our peers in standardized testing as 4th graders and fought hard to improve our high school class ranking because we were taught that it meant something. We do it all because we were taught to compete.

The irony of it all is that the more we compete, the less we gain. In all of our competition, we trap ourselves within a finite game.

What is a Monopoly?

Since our primary school days, we’ve been taught that monopolies are bad. Some of our teachers might have gone so far as to say that they are evil companies led by ever more evil people.

Peter Thiel thinks differently about that. In Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, he defines a monopoly as “the kind of company that’s so good at what it does that no other firm can offer a close substitute.”

This kind of monopoly is not evil. Instead, it’s a flourishing company. It’s a sign that somebody has innovated and made something truly incredible.

Thiel’s definition makes even more sense when we contrast it with perfect competition.

In our basic economics classes, we were taught about perfect competition. Generally held up as the gold standard, perfect competition does away with all profits. It’s perfectly competitive, and therefore nobody loses. Unfortunately, nobody wins either. Perfect competition is nothing more than a race to the bottom.

The goal of any company should be to escape competition. When you monopolize an industry (by becoming so good at what you do that nobody else can offer a close substitute), you have all sorts of new doors open up for you.

Becoming a Monopoly

Personally, I don’t aspire to build a startup any time soon. I suspect that most of you don’t either. What I am interested in is doing interesting things with interesting people. Maybe your goals are similar.

As I’ve contemplated how to do this, it’s become clear to me that the best way to do this is to become what I call a personal monopoly.

According to Thiel,

“Monopoly is the condition of every successful business…All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.”

Swap “business/companies” with “people” and you’ll see what I’m getting at.

“Monopoly is the condition of every successful person…All happy people are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed people are the same: they failed to escape competition.”

Now, I’m not saying that you have to become a personal monopoly to be happy. Nor am I saying that you are a failure if you choose the route of competition.

But, if you want to design a remarkable career, building a personal monopoly is your best chance.

2 Types of People

Within the Zero to One framework, there are two types of people. First, there is The Competitor. Second, The Monopolist. Let’s learn more.

The Competitor

If you want to be a Competitor, build a skillset that is general in nature. Competitors generally do things well, but they don’t do any one thing exceptionally well.

They’re mostly tasked with executing instructions and they don’t add anything new to the world. They don’t innovate. They do a great job of maintaining the status quo and adding more of what already exists.

The Monopolist

On the flip side, The Monopolist does one thing exceptionally well. So well, in fact, that no one else offers a close substitute.

They develop a monopolistic skillset. That is, something that is so much better than others in their same line of work that nobody else even comes close. Because of their skillset, they escape job competition.

As a result of no longer needing to place their energy and focus on their competition, they navigate their way into interesting opportunities. They may even find that an organization they admire creates a role specifically for them, just to have them on their team.

Building a Monopolistic Skillset

I don’t want you to believe this is easy. Becoming a personal monopoly is difficult. Building the skillset required to have this type of career takes years of focused attention.

But there are a few nuggets of wisdom that Thiel shared in Zero to One that are worth considering.

Think From First Principles

Indeed, the single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.

Successful people think different than unsuccessful people. They simplify problems by breaking complex issues down to their understandable and foundational parts. If you want to be successful, apply first principles thinking to difficult problems.

Don’t Be Common

The lesson for entrepreneurs is clear: if you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.

The same thing can be said for your career. If you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t have the same skill sets as those you’re in competition with. This will ensure that you stay in competition until the day you retire.

Start Small and Monopolize

What’s something small within your industry that you could learn to do better than everyone else? Bill Belichick built his personal monopoly by noticing things others didn’t on film and building game plans around other coaches’ blind spots. What will you do?

Scale Up

Once you dominate that niche market, how can you scale that up? How can your skillset become more valuable as the market for it gets bigger?

Don’t Disrupt

“Disruption” is a huge buzzword in the tech space. Thiel recommends not seeking to disrupt. Did you actually like that disruptive kid in Mrs. Smith’s 3rd grade classroom? No, of course not. You wanted nothing more than for him to stop talking.

In other words, don’t seek to compete with others just because you think you should. The beauty of starting small and scaling up is that you may never need to disrupt anybody. Nobody needs to know that what you’re actually doing is becoming so good they can’t ignore you.

And when you’re so good they can’t ignore you, you’ll have built your personal monopoly.