Here is an essay version of my class notes from Class 4 of CS183: Startup. Errors and omissions are my own. Credit for good stuff is Peter’s entirely.
CS183: Startup—Notes Essay—April 11—The Last Mover Advantage
I. Escaping Competition
The usual narrative is that capitalism and perfect competition are synonyms. No one is a monopoly. Firms compete and profits are competed away. But that’s a curious narrative. A better one frames capitalism and perfect competition as opposites; capitalism is about the accumulation of capital, whereas the world of perfect competition is one in which you can’t make any money. Why people tend to view capitalism and perfect competition as interchangeable is thus an interesting question that’s worth exploring from several different angles.
The first thing to recognize is that our bias favoring competition is deep-rooted. Competition is seen as almost quintessentially American. It builds character. We learn a lot from it. We see the competitive ideology at work in education. There is a sense in which extreme forms of competition are seen as setting one up for future, non-competitive success. Getting into medical school, for example, is extremely competitive. But then you get to be a well-paid doctor.
There are, of course, cases where perfect competition is just fine. Not all businesses are created to make money; some people might be just fine with not turning a profit, or making just enough to keep the lights on. But to the extent one wants to make money, he should probably be quite skeptical about perfect competition. Some fields, like sports and politics, are incredibly and perhaps inherently competitive. It’s easier to build a good business than it is to become the fastest person alive or to get elected President.
It may upset people to hear that competition may not be unqualifiedly good. We should be clear what we mean here. Some sense of competition seems appropriate. Competition can make for better learning and education. Sometimes credentials do reflect significant degrees of accomplishment. But the worry is that people make a habit of chasing them. Too often, we seem to forget that it’s genuine accomplishment we’re after, and we just train people to compete forever. But that does everyone a great disservice if what’s theoretically optimal is to manage to stop competing, i.e. to become a monopoly and enjoy success.
A law school anecdote will help illustrate the point. By graduation, students at Stanford Law and other elite law schools have been racking up credentials and awards for well over a dozen years. The pinnacle of post law school credentialism is landing a Supreme Court clerkship. After graduating from SLS in ’92 and clerking for a year on the 11th Circuit, Peter Thiel was one of the small handful of clerks who made it to the interview stage with two of the Justices. That capstone credential was within reach. Peter was so close to winning that last competition. There was a sense that, if only he’d get the nod, he’d be set for life. But he didn’t.
Years later, after Peter built and sold PayPal, he reconnected with an old friend from SLS. The first thing the friend said was, “So, aren’t you glad you didn’t get that Supreme Court clerkship?” It was a funny question. At the time, it seemed much better to be chosen than not chosen. But there are many reasons to doubt whether winning that last competition would have been so good after all. Probably it would have meant a future of more insane competition. And no PayPal. The pithy, wry version of this is the line about Rhodes Scholars: they all had a great future in their past.
This is not to say that clerkships, scholarships, and awards don’t often reflect incredible accomplishment. Where that’s the case, we shouldn’t diminish it. But too often in the race to compete, we learn to confuse what is hard with what is valuable. Intense competition makes things hard because you just beat heads with other people. The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value. But value is a different question entirely. And to the extent it’s not there, you’re competing just for the sake of competition. Henry Kissinger’s anti-academic line aptly describes the conflation of difficulty and value: in academia at least, the battles are so fierce because the stakes are so small.
That seems true, but it also seems odd. If the stakes are so small, why don’t people stop fighting so hard and do something else instead? We can only speculate. Maybe those people just don’t know how to tell what’s valuable. Maybe all they can understand is the difficulty proxy. Maybe they’ve bought into the romanticization of competition. But it’s important to ask at what point it makes sense to get away from competition and shift your life trajectory towards monopoly.
Just look at high school, which, for Stanford students and the like, was not a model of perfect competition. It probably looked more like extreme asymmetric warfare; it was machine guns versus bows and arrows. No doubt that’s fun for the top students. But then you get to college and the competition amps up. Even more so during grad school. Things in the professional world are often worst of all; at every level, people are just competing with each other to get ahead. This is tricky to talk about. We have a pervasive ideology that intense, perfect competition makes the best world. But in many ways that’s deeply problematic.
One problem with fierce competition is that it’s demoralizing. Top high school students who arrive at elite universities quickly find out that the competitive bar has been raised. But instead of questioning the existence of the bar, they tend to try to compete their way higher. That is costly. Universities deal with this problem in different ways. Princeton deals with it through enormous amounts of alcohol, which presumably helps blunt the edges a bit. Yale blunts the pain through eccentricity by encouraging people to pursue extremely esoteric humanities studies. Harvard—most bizarrely of all—sends its students into the eye of the hurricane. Everyone just tries to compete even more. The rationalization is that it’s actually inspiring to be repeatedly beaten by all these high-caliber people. We should question whether that’s right.
Of all the top universities, Stanford is the farthest from perfect competition. Maybe that’s by chance or maybe it’s by design. The geography probably helps, since the east coast doesn’t have to pay much attention to us, and vice versa. But there’s a sense of structured heterogeneity too; there’s a strong engineering piece, the strong humanities piece, and even the best athletics piece in the country. To the extent there’s competition, it’s often a joke. Consider the Stanford-Berkeley rivalry. That’s pretty asymmetric too. In football, Stanford usually wins. But take something that really matters, like starting tech companies. If you ask the question, “Graduates from which of the two universities started the most valuable company?” for each of the last 40 years, Stanford probably wins by something like 40 to zero. It’s monopoly capitalism, far away from a world of perfect competition.
The perfect illustration of competition writ large is war. Everyone just kills everyone. There are always rationalizations for war. Often it’s been romanticized, though perhaps not so much anymore. But it makes sense: if life really is war, you should spend all your time either getting ready for it or doing it. That’s the Harvard mindset.
But what if life isn’t just war? Perhaps there’s more to it than that. Maybe you should sometimes run away. Maybe you should sheath the sword and figure out something else to do. Maybe “life is war” is just a strange lie we’re told, and competition isn’t actually as good as we assume it is.