Why Zero to One?

Anyone familiar with this blog is familiar with my notes from Peter Thiel’s startup course at Stanford. With over 350,000 readers, more than a million page views, and coverage in the New York Times and Forbes (to name a few), the notes have had a good run. But I’m happy to report that they are only the beginning: Peter and I have decided to write a book called Zero to One.

Why a book? For starters, we can make the notes considerably better. Substantively, we are revising, updating, and expanding on the best parts of the class. Everything else will be improved as well. The prose will be stronger and clearer, without losing the atmosphere of openness and experimental thinking that inheres in the notes format. The design and packaging, too, will provide an entirely different readership experience. In short, we can make a book worth owning.

More broadly, though, books remain important, whether digital or in print. Our view is that some degree of sustained attention, not just brief scanning, is essential for real thinking. Stepping back from the parade of distractions and seriously engaging with a text affords opportunity to think, plan, and create. As Peter has said, meaningful progress requires that we think about the future for more than 140 characters or 15 minutes at a time.

Zero to One will be published by Crown Business, a division of Random House, in March of next year. Stay tuned for lots more details—I’ll try and share as much as I can along the way. Meantime, you can sign up for updates or follow along on twitter/fb here. Or pre-order here!

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Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup - Class 19 Notes Essay

Here is an essay version of my class notes from the last class of CS183: Startup, class 19. Errors and omissions are mine.

The following three guests joined the class for a discussion:

  1. Sonia Arrison, tech analyst, author of 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity will Change Everything, and Associate Founder of Singularity University
  2. Michael Vassar, futurist and past President of the Singularity Institute for the study of Artificial Intelligence (SIAI)
  3. Dr. Aubrey de Grey, gerontology expert and Chief Science Officer at the SENS Foundation

Credit for good stuff goes to them and Peter, who gave the closing remarks. I have tried to be accurate. But note that this is not an exact transcript.

Class 19 Notes Essay—Stagnation or Singularity?

I. Perspectives 

Peter Thiel: Let’s start by having each of you outline your vision of what kinds of technological change we might see over the next 30 or 40 years.

Michael Vassar: It’s lot easier to talk about what the world will look like 30 years from now than 40 years from now. Thirty seems tractable. Today, we’ve gone from knowing how to sequence a gene or two to thousand-dollar whole genome sequencing. Paul Allen is running a $500 million experiment that seems to be going very well. This technological trajectory is both exciting and terrifying at the same time. Suppose, after 30 years, we have a million times today’s computing power and achieve a hundred times today’s algorithmic efficiency. At that point we’d be in a place to simulate brains and such. And after that, anything goes.

But this kind of progress over the next 30 years is by no means something we can take for granted. Getting around bottlenecks—energy constraints, for example—is going to be hard. If we can do it, we’re at the very end. But I expect that there will be a lot of turmoil along the way.

Aubrey de Grey: We have a fair idea of what technology might be developed, but a much weaker idea of the timeline for development. It is possible that we are about 25 years away from escape velocity. But there are two caveats to this supposition: first, it is obviously subject to sufficient resources being deployed toward the technological development, and second, even then, it’s 50-50; we probably have a 50% chance of getting there. But there would seem to be at least a 10% chance of not getting there for another 100 years or so.  

In a sense, none of this matters. The uncertainty of the timeline should not affect prioritization. We should be doing the same things regardless. 

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Some graphics credit for CS183

As I finish up the 19th and final set of CS183 notes, I’d like to take a moment and thank the people who have worked on putting the course together.

I’d also like to thank Founders Fund’s Scott Nolan and Michael Solana in particular. They have been working behind the scenes and were responsible for most of the visuals used in the course slides. I’ve borrowed heavily from those visuals in recent posts. It’s fair to assume that Scott and Michael are responsible for any and every nice graphic you might have seen on this blog. In my opinion their work has been no small contribution to the success of the course itself. So thanks, guys, both for doing the work and for letting me use it.

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Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup - Class 18 Notes Essay

Here is an essay version of my class notes. Errors and omissions are mine. Credit for good stuff is Peter’s. Thanks to Joel Cazares for helping proof this.

I. Traits of the Founder 

Founders are important. People recognize this. Founders are often discussed. Many companies end up looking like founder’s cults. Let’s talk a bit about the anthropology and psychology of founders. Who are they, and why do they do what they do?

A. The PayPal Origin

PayPal’s founding team was six people. Four of them were born outside of the United States. Five of them were 23 or younger. Four of them built bombs when they were in high school. (Your lecturer was not among them.) Two of these bombmakers did so in communist countries: Max in the Soviet Union, Yu Pan in China. This was not what people normally did in those countries at that time.

The eccentricity didn’t stop there. Russ grew up in a trailer park and managed to escape to the one math and science magnet school in Illinois. Luke and Max had started crazy ventures at Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Max liked to talk about his crazy attributes (he claimed/claims to have 3 kidneys), perhaps even a little too much. His came to the U.S. as sort of a refugee weeks after the Soviet Union collapsed but before other countries were formed. So he liked to say that he was a citizen of no country. It made for incredibly complicated travel issues. Everybody decided that he couldn’t leave the country, since it wasn’t clear that he could get back in if he did.

Ken was somewhat more on the rational side of things. But then again, he took a 66% pay cut to come do PayPal instead of going into investment banking after graduating from Stanford. So there’s that. 

One could go on and on with this. The main question is whether there is a connection—and if so what kind—between being a founder and having extreme traits.

B. Distributions

Many traits are normally distributed throughout the population. Suppose that all traits are aggregated on a normal distribution chart. On the left tail you’d have a list of negatively perceived traits, such as weakness, disagreeability, and poverty. On the right tail, you’d have traditionally positive traits such as strength, charisma, and wealth. 

Where do founders fall? Certainly they seem to be a bit less average and a bit more extreme than normal. So maybe the founder distribution is a fat-tailed one:

But that radically understates things. We can push it further. Perhaps the founder distribution is, however strangely, an inverted normal distribution. Both tails are extremely fat. Perhaps founders are complex combinations of, e.g., extreme insiders and extreme outsiders at the same time. Our ideological narratives tend to isolate and reinforce just one side. But maybe those narratives don’t work for founders. Maybe the truth about founders comes from both sides. 

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Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup - Class 17 - Deep Thought

He is an essay version of class notes from Class 17 of CS183: Startup. Errors and omissions are mine.

Three guests joined the class for a conversation after Peter’s remarks:

  1. D. Scott Brown, co-founder of Vicarious
  2. Eric Jonas, CEO of Prior Knowledge
  3. Bob McGrew, Director of Engineering at Palantir

Credit for good stuff goes to them and Peter. I have tried to be accurate. But note that this is not a transcript of the conversation.

Class 17 Notes Essay—Deep Thought 

I. The Hugeness of AI 

On the surface, we tend to think of people as a very diverse set. People have a wide range of different abilities, interests, characteristics, and intelligence. Some people are good, while others are bad. It really varies.


By contrast, we tend to view computers as being very alike. All computers are more or less the same black box. One way of thinking about the range of possible artificial intelligences is to reverse this standard framework. Arguably it should be the other way around; there is a much larger range of potential AI than there is a range of different people. 


imageThere are many ways that intelligence can be described and organized. Not all involve human intelligence. Even accounting for the vast diversity among all different people, human intelligence is probably only a tiny dot relative to all evolved forms of intelligence; imagine all the aliens in all planets of the universe that might or could exist.


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Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup - Class 16 - Decoding Ourselves

He is an essay version of my class notes from Class 16 of CS183: Startup. Errors and omissions are mine. Thanks to @1wu for some supplementary notes!

Three guests joined the class for a conversation after Peter’s remarks:

  1. Brian Slingerland. Co-Founder, President & COO at Stem CentRx;
  2. Balaji S. Srinivasan, CTO of Counsyl; and
  3. Brian Frezza, Co-founder, Emerald Therapeutics

Credit for good stuff goes to them and Peter. I have tried to be accurate. But note that this is not a transcript of the conversation.

Class 16 Notes Essay—Decoding Ourselves

 I. The Longevity Project

How much longer can people actually live? It’s a very open ended question. It may not be very easy to answer at all. But there is a sense that biotech may be well positioned to try. Biotech, on the wake of the computer revolution, seems quite exciting if we think that a whole series of problems—e.g. cancer, aging, dying—is close to being solved.


Even without the biotech revolution, life expectancy has been rising impressively. The rate has been something like 2.5% decade over decade. In the mid to late 19th century, expected lifespans were going up at a rate of 2.3 to 2.5 years with each passing decade. If you plot the data points corresponding to each country’s single demographic (typically women) with the longest life expectancy, you get a very straight line on a scattershot basis. This isn’t quite equivalent to Moore’s law, but it’s analogous. In 1840, life expectancy was just 45 or 46 years. For century and a half now, keeping people alive longer has been an exponentially harder problem.

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Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup - Class 15 Notes Essay

Here is an essay version of my class notes from Class 15 of CS183: Startup. Errors and omissions are mine.

Four guests joined the class for a conversation after the lecture:

  1. Danielle Fong, Co-founder and Chief Scientist of LightSail Energy;
  2. Jon Hollander, Business Development at RoboteX;
  3. Greg Smirin, COO of The Climate Corporation; and
  4. Scott Nolan, Principal at Founders Fund and former aerospace engineer at SpaceX (Elon Musk was going to come, but he was busy launching rockets).

Credit for good stuff goes to them and Peter. I have tried to be accurate. But note that this is not a transcript of the conversation. 

Class 15 Notes Essay—Back to the Future

I. The Future of The Past

Sometimes the best way to think about the future is to think about the way the future used to be. In the mid-20th century, it was still possible to talk about a future where the weather would be precisely predicted or even controlled. Maybe someone would figure out how to predict tornadoes. Or maybe cloud seeding would work. Transportation was the same way; people expected flying cars and civilian submarines. Robotics was yet another exciting frontier that people thought would be big.

But fast-forward to the present. Things haven’t really worked out as people thought they would in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Weather still kind of just happens to us. People have pretty much accepted that as inevitable. The prevailing sense is that trying to control the weather is dangerous, and we shouldn’t tinker too much with it. Transportation has been similarly disappointing. Forget flying cars—we’re still sitting in traffic. There has been some progress in robotics. But certainly not as much as everybody expected. We wanted the General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot from Lost in Space. Instead we got the Roomba vacuum cleaner.

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Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup - Class 14 Notes Essay

Here is an essay version of my class notes from Class 14 of CS183: Startup. Errors and omissions are mine. Credit for good stuff is Peter’s.

Class 14 Notes Essay—Seeing Green

I. Thinking About Energy

Alternative energy and cleantech have attracted an enormous amount of investment capital and attention over the last decade. Almost nothing has worked as well as people expected. The cleantech experience can thus be quite instructive. Asking important questions about what went wrong and what can be done better is a very good way to review and apply many of the things we’ve talked about in class.

A. The Right Framework

How should one think about energy as a sector? What’s an appropriate theoretical framework?

Revisiting the 2x2 matrix of determinate/indeterminate and optimistic/pessimistic futures may be useful. To recap, here are examples of those respective quadrants:

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Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup - Class 13 Notes Essay

Here is an essay version of my class notes from Class 13 of CS183: Startup. Errors and omissions are mine. Credit for good stuff is Peter’s entirely.

Class 13 Notes Essay— You Are Not A Lottery Ticket

I. The Question of Luck

A. Nature of the Problem

The biggest philosophical question underlying startups is how much luck is involved when they succeed. As important as the luck vs. skill question is, however, it’s very hard to get a good handle on. Statistical tools are meaningless if you have a sample size of one. It would be great if you could run experiments. Start Facebook 1,000 times under identical conditions. If it works 1,000 out of 1,000 times, you’d conclude it was skill. If it worked just 1 time, you’d conclude it was just luck. But obviously these experiments are impossible.

The first cut at the luck vs. skill question is thus almost just a bias that one can have. Some people gravitate toward explaining things as lucky. Others are inclined to find a greater degree of skill. It depends on which narrative you buy. The internal narrative is that talented people got together, worked hard, and made things work. The external narrative chalks things up to right place, right time. You can change your mind about all this, but it’s tough to have a really principled, well-reasoned view on way or the other.

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Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup - Class 12 Notes Essay

Here is an essay version of my class notes from Class 10 of CS183: Startup. Errors and omissions are mine.

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and Partner at Greylock Partners, joined this class as a guest speaker. Credit for good stuff goes to him and Peter. I have tried to be accurate. But note that this is not a transcript of the conversation.

Class 12 Notes Essay—War and Peace

I.  War Without

For better or for worse, we are all very well acquainted with war. The U.S. has been fighting the War on Terror for over a decade. We’ve had less literal wars on cancer, poverty and drugs.

But most of us don’t spend much time thinking about why war happens. When is it justified? When is it not? It’s important to get a handle on these questions in various contexts because the answers often map over to the startup context as well. The underlying question is a constant: how can we tilt away from destructive activity and towards things that are beneficial and productive?

A. Theater 

It often starts as theater. People threaten each other. Governments point missiles at each other. Nations become obsessed with copying one another. We end up with things like the space race. There was underlying geopolitical tension when Fischer faced off with Spassky in the Match of the Century in 1972. Then there was the Miracle on Ice where the U.S. hockey team defeated the Soviets in 1980. These were thrilling and intense events. But they were theater. Theater never seems all that dangerous at first. It seems cool. In a sense, the entire Cold War was essentially theater—instead of fighting and battles, there was just an incredible state of tension, rivalry, and competition.

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