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Exclusive Interview with Peter Thiel

Competition is a Zero-sum Game


Competition is a Zero-sum Game


PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel shares his desires and disappointments, his views on business, religion and the future of mankind, as well as his interest in the pursuit of immortality in this extensive interview.

Competition is a Zero-sum Game

By Sharon Wang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 567 )

The black Mercedes limousine has not yet come to a halt when the door opens and a foot steps eagerly to the pavement.

As always, Peter Thiel is in a hurry. For the 48-year-old PayPal co-founder, the future of humankind resembles a quickly deflating balloon. Thiel sees his mission as reinflating the balloon, keeping it afloat through technological progress and libertarian optimism. 

In a 2011 interview with the New Yorker Magazine, Thiel bemoaned that Americans have lost their belief in the future, a phenomenon that has become apparent in the collapse of science fiction.

 "The anthology of the top 25 sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, 'Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,' and in 2008 it was, like, 'The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun'," he told the magazine.    Thiel believes that this "failure of imagination" explains the many problems that we face today. Perhaps this is because no one is as gifted as he is in blending mutually contradictory characteristics.

 An Angel Investing in Innovation

As the co-founder of the third-party payment platform PayPal, Thiel is considered one of the most successful venture capitalists in Silicon Valley.   He has invested in many startups that became global leaders in their respective fields, such as the social networking site Facebook, Californian e-car maker Tesla, business networking service LinkedIn, digital music service Spotify, the world's first private rocket and spacecraft manufacturer SpaceX, online room sharing service Airbnb, online review site Yelp and Lyft, a ride-sharing service. The companies that Thiel has helped bankroll have a total market value of US$300 billion –more than the GDP of Singapore and Hong Kong.

Due to his stellar success in selecting promising startups, venture capitalists around the globe prick their ears at Thiel's every word.

Despite being a technology investor, Thiel also feels disappointment with the information age.

He once described Apple as "mostly a design innovator" and voiced doubts that social media will actually take human civilization to the next level. His thesis that we experience "technological stagnation" holds that the Western world has been on a downward trajectory in the fields of energy, medicine, transportation, city infrastructure and agriculture since 1973, due to a lack of technological innovation and progress.

Thiel posits that we live in an age of dizzying changes, yet living standards are stagnant due to a "strangely old" physical environment.

The math prodigy grew up in a highly competitive education system geared toward getting the best grades at school and excelling at extracurricular activities. In his youth, Thiel played chess competitively, making it to rank seven in the United States by age 12.

Nonetheless, he does not think much of competition today.

   Thiel says he was "tremendously influenced" by the theory of mimetic desire of French-born American anthropological philosopher René Girard, who believed that humans tend to desire what others seem to desire, which leads to rivalry and again sparks imitative behavior. Because of imitative behavior, languages are learned and culture is passed down from generation to generation, but imitation also turns people into blind followers who lose their originality and capability for independent thinking.

   In his interview with CommonWealth Magazine, Thiel remarked that creative people or people with Asperger's Syndrome, who do not fit in with society very well, are successful in Silicon Valley because "they are not as prone to the social cues as other people" and therefore less likely to simply replicate the ideas of others.

Crusader for Dropping out of College 

A self-professed libertarian, Thiel has firmly believed since his teenage years that liberty is the prerequisite for humankind to reach its pinnacle. To illustrate his worldview, Thiel likes to quote Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, who once said, "There is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women, and there are families." 

Thiel landed his most famous coup in 2004 when he invested US$500,000 for a 10.2 percent stake in the fledgling Facebook startup founded by then just 20-year-old Harvard University dropout Mark Zuckerberg, becoming the social networking site's first angel investor. The Facebook investment netted Thiel US$1 billion in cash. 

"If I fully believed in what Thatcher said, I would have never invested in Facebook," notes Thiel. "But the sentiment underlying Thatcher's comment …is that society forces conformity, stifling originality and creativity. So I think society is very ambiguous, very powerful, but not always good."  

Despite boasting a Stanford University doctorate in law, Thiel founded the Thiel Fellowship, which encourages young people to drop out from college or postpone their studies to found a startup. Every year, the foundation pays 20 students under the age of 20 US$100,000 per person so that they can stay true to Mark Twain's independence-minded motto "I never let schooling interfere with my education."

Thiel, who has read J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings about ten times as a child and whose favorite character is Aragorn, is crusading for a more diverse, non-conformist education system. The fellowship program helped trigger a broader debate about America's elite universities, which Thiel criticizes as too conformist for channeling promising young people into a narrow range of careers in law, banking and consulting. 

He calls the race for getting into an Ivy League university a "zero-sum tournament." Thiel, who has warned against an education bubble, has described debt-saddled graduates as "the last indentured people in the developed world." He argues that ambitious young people should not entrust their future to large institutions.

Rebel Sparking Controversy

The big fan of Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman has joined hands with Friedman's grandson Patri to found the Seasteading Institute, which plans to build floating cities in the sea outside the jurisdiction of any government. Thiel keeps investing in projects that transcend barriers to unfettered freedom in cyberspace, maritime space and outer space. 

Thiel, a Christian, does not think that religious belief and science conflict with each other. Therefore, he has invested in immortality projects to find a cure for aging and death. Thiel was the first major donor to bioengineering research projects by British aging researcher Aubrey de Grey, who believes that the first person to live 1,000 years has already been born. He has been quoting "Do not go gentle into that good night," a poem that Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote for his dying father, to explain his eagerness to fight death. 

Angel, crusader, rebel – with his multifaceted personality and interests, Thiel does not fit any stereotype. When asked how he keeps his imagination alive, Thiel remarks that reading books "that get you out of your day-to-day comfort zone" and intellectual conversations with friends stimulate him to think about new things. He particularly enjoys books that differ from his own views and past books about the future such as the 1967 political essay The American Challenge by French journalist Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, which predicted U.S. economic dominance in the world. 

Thiel points out while in hindsight many of the book's predictions turned out to be wrong, simply thinking about why these predictions did not come true is "very interesting. The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism," Thiel wrote in an essay six years ago. 

It is this sense of mission that drives Thiel in his constant push toward new frontiers.

Thiel shares his thought-provoking ideas with CommonWealth Magazine readers in the following interview :

CommonWealth : You said competition and capitalism are opposites. How do Karl Marx and Shakespeare inspire you on competition? 

Thiel : Conflicts happen. In Karl Marx's theory, conflicts happen because differences between people, differences between classes, the working class versus the bourgeoisie…it's differences that lead to conflicts. In Shakespeare, people have conflicts because they are similar, so the first line of Romeo and Juliet is "Two families alike in dignity." The Montagues and Capulets, the fighting families, they are undifferentiated, they are all very, very identical.

I believe that Shakespeare is basically right and Marx is basically wrong.

Conflicts happen when people want the same thing. So when two people want exactly same thing, I believe that's always the recipe for conflicts. When people want different things, they are not in conflict. When they want the same job, same health, or the same whatever, that's always the formula for conflicts. So the companies that conflict most are those who are trying to do the same thing. Or within a company, two people have the same job description. That's often the formula for conflicts.

If you are a crazy boss who likes to create conflicts for no reason at all, the formula is that you tell two people to do exactly the same thing. And before soon, those two people will be fighting each other.

I think it's always sameness that leads to conflicts, not differences. Intuitively, that's why people are so nervous about the clone. Setting aside bio-ethics, it will make 100 copies of you; you will be disturbed by that. Because those 100 other people will compete with you, they will drive down your wages, they will compete with you for the exact same thing. So cloning is an example where sameness intuitively leads to conflicts.

So I think one of the challenges is to avoid conflict. To avoid conflict you need to maintain difference. It's important in the startup context, because the world is very fluid and changes a lot, this is very dynamic, so you often have many different people trying to do the same thing or attracted to the same thing. As CEOs of startup companies, you have to constantly figure and define people's roles and responsibilities so that they don't converge and create conflicts.

Q: Competition is about identity anxiety. But many friends describe you as highly competitive. Your chess kit is decorated with a sticker carrying the motto "born to win." Yet you developed a theory that competition is for losers. What changed your mind?

A: Well, certainly I grew up in a very tracked, competitive sort of context, junior high school, high school, college, where everything's geared towards competing and winning at certain kind, getting the best grades at school, and extracurricular activities like chess play that has a super-competitive aspect to it. The personal version of the story was that in my 20's I end up in a big law firm in New York, in an insane competition…with all these talented people, they are all interchangeable, everybody can do everything that everybody else is doing, sort of ferociously competitive, but it's not really clear that it's going to lead to anything that will lead to much difference.

This led to the question: why would I be so attracted to that? And that's when I start to rethink a lot of these values. And of course I think all these competitive challenges have to do with being an entrepreneur, where when you are not so certain what to do, you look at other people, you copy. But I think that a temptation one should always try to resist is that, whenever you are just going to do the same thing, you are undifferentiated, and the way you succeed is by being different, in economic terms, get to monopoly, take monopoly profits. If you are doing something that no other people are doing, that gives you a sustainable advantage. So I think in part there's an autobiographic aspect to it, in part I thought how intense these competitions were, and how they often don't lead to the things you think they will lead to.

I do think competition makes you better. If you play chess competitively, you get to be a better chess player. Or if you spend all the time studying a test, you are doing better on that test. But then at some point these all become counter-productive, because it makes you focus too much on the people around you and you end up losing sight of what's important and valuable for you.

Q: Competition can derail your dreams. Could you give us an example where you've rethought your values? One of the anecdotes I can think of is that you founded Confinity and then you went to talk to Elon Musk from for a merger. What was your train of thought? What made you shift from competition to cooperation?

A: Well, Confinity and were doing very similar products, both are payment products, money-wired email, and again it's like out of Shakespeare, two companies four blocks apart on University Avenue, like the Montagues and Capulets in Verona.

Q: Who's Romeo and who's Juliet?

A: I don't make personal analogy. Both on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto, and you know, it was January, February 2000, we were very motivational, people working incredibly hard, but we were both running out of money, it was ultimately … one day, one of the sleep-deprived engineers built a bomb (for X.Com) and we treated as a joke. We contributed it to sleep deprivation. Definitely it was very motivational. But two are too fixated on this. And I think both companies were scared that we were running out of money.

We merged in March, 2000, which clearly created a market leader. There were a lot of challenges in the merging of the companies, like each had about 60 people so it's like you were hiring 60 more people without interviewing anybody. There were many challenges. But in retrospect, it was a good thing to do. We were able to raise a lot of capital in March 2000 as a combined company before the market crash. Over time, we had time to figure out a successful business model in the payment space.

I think, in general, technology M&A is quite tricky; it's done when there is real synergy between two companies, really big value, the PayPal combination with eBay in 2002 was quite valuable because three quarters of PayPal's business is on eBay, so it makes sense that they integrated. Today maybe it will make sense if PayPal is spun out because only about a quarter of PayPal's business is still on ebay.

So you need to have deep synergy, sometimes you can clearly create a market leader. But there are many cases in technology that synergy like that doesn't exist. So I think it's best to think of your company as a stand-alone business and scale on your own.

Q: Following your argument on synergy, at what point should a startup keep striving, and at what point should a startup consider an M&A?

A: There is no general answer to it. I would say that you are best off if you always have a long-term plan to be a stand-alone business. If the goal is to simply sell the company, it would probably end up badly. It's like saying: help me, buy me, I have no idea what I am doing. That's not even good as an M&A strategy. They worked best when there is a solid alternative plan to keep it as a stand-alone business.

So the PayPal's merge with eBay, we had a lot of negotiation. There was always a perception by eBay that we had no choice but to sell to eBay. So they did not offer us a very high valuation. Once we went public in February 2002, it was like an ultimate stand-alone plan, and eBay increased its offer significantly, and we sold to eBay in summer 2002.

 At the time Peter Thiel founded PayPal, he enjoyed playing chess as a form of mental stimulation.

Q: You are also noted for contrarian thinking. In contrast to the popular lean start-up thinking and focus on short-term growth even in Silicon Valley, you are a strong proponent of long-term planning. You think most of a tech-company's value will come at least 10 to 15 years in the future. Why?

A: Well, if you just do the math on these companies, we did such an exercise at PayPal in early 2001, and the value of the company is the sum of its discounted cash flow, so we make math on how much money you will be making in 2002, 2003, 2004. And then you have a discounted rate you attach. And it grows very fast, there's far more profit in the distant year.

The math basically suggested that, in 2001, 75% of the value of PayPal came from the year 2011 and beyond. And I think that the math is roughly true about all the tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, or any of the SAAS enterprise companies. They are growing very fast, so the vast majority, say, 80% or 85%, is coming from the year 2025 and beyond. That's just what financial math tells you.

This is very counter-intuitive, because people are so biased in just measuring the immediate: How fast you were growing last week, last month, last quarter, that pushes you to think very short-term.

We are always very focused on growth, that the company lasts. So, durability is harder to measure than growth, but I think it's at least equally important.

The really great technology companies are not just the first ones. It's often the last-movers. So Microsoft is the last operating system, they remained a monopoly for many years, maybe a bit stymied now, but it had many, many good years. Google is the last search engine that makes it so valuable. It's locked-in for decades. Facebook will be valuable when it turns out it would be the last social network. So it's always the last mover that matters at least as much as first movers.

Q: First movers, buzzwords, those are the red flags you wave at startups. What are the other red flags you avoid in startups?

A: In the silicon valley context in the 2004-2008 period, if you look at all the clean-tech executives, they sort of wear suits. The software executive wears a T-shirt with the company's logo on it. The clean tech executives look like bad sales people. And in retrospect, it was a very bad sign. But clothing is always very context-specific.

I suppose one category of things that I am always skeptical is all the buzzwords that I am allergic to.

Certainly one of the buzzword I took in the book is "disruption". Disruption gets your attention, but it does not necessarily get you success. So a disruptive elementary school, or disruptive people wanting attention is not generally helpful. Napster is a very disruptive company is the music space. It set out to destroy the whole music industry. One year the company won the cover of Time magazine; the next year it shut down. The name "Napster" nap in English is a verb that, kidnapper, it's kind of bad, it's disruptive and somewhat evil.

Q: You also read Christensen's "Innovator's Dilemma." You think disruptive innovation is much overated?

A: Well, Christensen's book "Innovator's Dilemma" is a very good book. But you have to remember that the book is put not in the perspective of a startup, but in the perspective of a very big company. So very big companies do need to worry about small companies that just get started, doing much cheaper things, and somewhat ultimately disrupt, which happened with Japanese car companies beating American car companies in the 1980; in the 60s, 70s, the Japanese cars were cheap and junky, but then over time they get better and better.

So disruption can be a challenge for large, existing companies. There are certain contexts where you can underprice and gain market share. But it's not always your bearing as a new company. Your goal is not to destroy existing companies. Your goal is to build a successful company. So if you are fixated on destroying other companies, you may succeed in that. Napster did succeed in damaging the music industry very badly, but it did not succeed in creating an alternative model for music content or music business. So you want to build business much more than you want to destroying existing business.

I think you are much better off thinking of ways to solve new problems, rather than just being disruptor for disruptor's sake.

Q: You said we have been mired in a tech slowdown since 1973, when the oil price quadrupled. Could you elaborate on that?

A: We've had a lot of progress in computers and information technologies. So it's not categorically there hasn't been technological progress. But there has been a lot less in many other areas.

Certainly, in the area of energy, there has not been enough innovation. You can just look at price, I always think, one way to measure innovation is by how much things cost. So oil today still costs more that it was in 1973. Even though there is some new way to recover oil, the price has gone up faster than inflation. Technological innovation in the energy space did not stay ahead of the curve. 

I often define technology as "doing more with less." So computers get a lot cheaper, Moore's law, you know, a cell phone has more computing power than the computer than sent Apollo to the moon in 1969. That's sort of the example of doing more with less.

In many other areas that's been less true where energy, biotechnology, medicine are where things cost more, even construction and building are not cheap because of regulatory issues.

We often talked about we lived in an age of dizzying changes; the world is so fast we can barely keep up with it. Cell phones distract us more and more from our environment that's strangely old. You see all these cool video games on cell phones while you are riding on a subway in New York City that is one hundred year old. Or in San Francisco, you have all the gadgets that is very new, but the city itself, the buildings, are 40, 50,60 years old, so there's always this big contrast.

Q: Why is that? In your own words, the present doesn't live up to the past expectations of the future. You said Apple is mostly a design innovator. Social media won't bring our civilization to the next level.

A: I don't want to be that negative about Apple. Certainly not on Facebook; I am on the board of Facebook. They are very successful companies at what they do. I don't think it's appropriate to expect them to solve all the problems in the world. Certainly one of those strange dynamics, in retrospect, in the past decade, Facebook has this incredibly high expectation of everything it could do. Very important innovation from social media solving the problem is the real identity on the Internet. But I don't expect any single company to solve all the world's problems.

In a similar way, when Steve Jobs died in 2011, a comedy site in the U.S. joked that the last person in America that invents things has died. It's not a critique of Steve Jobs. It's really critique of everybody else.

We have a website at founder's fund and we say, they promised us a flying car, instead we got only 140 characters. It's a little critique of Twitter, but. Again, it's unfair to blame Twitter, Twitter did build a successful company, it just needs a lot more than that for the civilization to reach the next level. 

We had a lot of specific success in Apple, Facebook, even Twitter. But there is a sense that it did not add up to dramatically improved living standard for the next generation. And this is reflected in the more pessimistic expectations of people.

Q: So you think technological progress will not widen the gap between the rich and the poor. How do you see the social inequality that's so prevalent in Western countries?

A: Yes, I think the longer history of technology has been one of the broad progress of people. Certainly in the mid 19th century, you have Luddites in Great Britain who want to destroy textile companies because they thought machines were depressing wages for workers and the solution is to spoil the machinery. I think that's somewhat misguided. I think over time people figure out more specialized skills that are quite valuable, so in general, the history of technology that has been improving living standard very, very broadly.

So you would not want to go back to the world of 1800. You wouldn't want to go back to the world of no polio vaccine, less quality food, much, much less healthy, and you can never travel more than 10 kilometers from where you were born for your entire life. So I think the progress of technology is generally a very good thing.

I think when people blame inequality on technology, I think it's a bit of scapegoat technology for globalization. There has certainly been an increase in social inequality, but I think it has more to do with globalization. 

It's worth noting that inequality, if you measure it by countries, it has gone up within the U.S., within Western Europe, but globally, I think inequality has not gone up because people in China who were very poor in the 1970s are wealthier today. So global inequality has actually gone down over the last 40 years.

So if you said technology is the lead cause of inequality, you would expect a global inequality not within countries. Therefore, I think a much more plausible explanation is that globalization, you have this labor arbitrage, where in emerging countries people get paid a lot less, a big incentive to outsource jobs and factories to those countries, and this really put the press on middle class wages like the car industry in the U.S., and all these classic industries that the U.S. did very well.

And I would say the only technological element of this is that because there's not been enough progress, when a worker loses his job in a car factory in Detroit, there are not enough new things for him to do. The computer industry is not big enough to absorb all these people. If you have enough innovation, I think it would not be as a big problem. So I think the pressure on the middle class wage drop is globalization, not technology.

Q: So you think technological progress and social equality are mutually inclusive?

A: I think that's been the history of the last 200 years. It's certainly conceivable that you could have technological progress without increasing equality. But I think one way to think about this is that technological progress is almost synonymous with growth in the developed world. It's how you gained productivity.

Q: In technology, it's not a winner-takes-all world?

A: I think if we had 4% growth in the U.S. or Western Europe, people would be generally better off. I think the real problem is stagnation. There's not enough growth. When there's not enough growth, it's not a winner-take-all dynamic, but it's a zero-sum dynamic. It's like: I take it from you, and it would make the politics in the U.S. and the Western Europe so acrimonious. People get ahead only by taking things from other people. There's a sense that the pie no longer grows that everything becomes so zero-sum.

But certainly, we have 4% GDP growth a year, then I think whether or not social inequality will increase or decrease, everyone would think that they will be better off, their kids will be better off. And then you will have a far more optimistic attitude. At the margin, I even suspect that if you have very fast growth that would slightly reduce inequality. Because the great fortunes that were made in the past wouldn't matter as much, because there will be room for people to make new forms of money or something like that.

But in a stagnant world, it becomes more like the middle ages, or a feudal society; what really matters is your inheritance, because it's so hard to create anything new. So I think a stagnant world ends up looking like a feudal world which is very unequal, whereas a dynamic and roomy world is one where things may not be perfectly equal, but there will be enough dynamism that people will be better off by creating new fortune, and I think things will not be incredibly unequal. 

Q: In an increasingly feudal world, people talked about tax reform. The French economist Thomas Piketty, who wrote the "the Capital", proposed as high as a 70%-80% capital income tax for people like you. What do you think of that?

A: They were doing that in France and it was not working well. They taxed about 75% and now they rolled it back. I think, you know, on the Piketty thesis, you need to differentiate a few things: The fact that there is more inequality, I think he is probably correct about that. The second question is what is the cause. And I don't think he is correct about the causes. He is not actually blaming technology, Piketty blames more the return on capital (ROC), but I think the cause is more general stagnation, general lack of growth. The causation is very hard to explain.

Even if we could agree on the fact of inequality and the cause, the third question has to do with what is the remedy. These are three very different things. The second is why I think is much debatable: A lot of people think it's technology, I think it's globalization, he thinks it's financial engineering. But then even if you could agree on the cause, you then have to answer what the remedy is. I am very skeptical that higher taxes is the remedy. I think higher taxes are likely to slow down growth into an even more stagnant society, which I think is a large part of the problem.

If you asked me what level of taxation can actually get rid of inequality, in France it's not happening, with the 75% it's still incredibly unequal, the wealthy people hide their money somewhere else, the middle class are stuck because they have no place to move, I think maybe if you have a communist revolution you will have equality, but that comes at the price of storming everything. Even Venezuela, quite far left at this point, is still very, very unequal. So you have to go further left than Venezuela to reduce inequality by political means, and I think at that point, you destroy the whole society.

Q: So you places more hope on technology than government, taxation, and politics to solve social problems?

A: I place more hope on trying to find ways to re-accelerate growth. That's the optimistic way we should try.

Q: You also invest in very audacious projects like the "Seasteading Institute," whose project leader is Milton Friedman's grandson. You also pursue some "immortality projects." You've also quoted Dylan Thomas "Do not go gentle into that good night, Rage, rage, against the dying of the light." Why are you against death?

A: Well, why are you not against death?

I certainly think there's a lot of problems we have not been working enough on. I think aging as a phenomenon is linked to every disease. If you are 30 years old, you have a one in a thousand chance to get a cancer the next year of your life. If you are 80 years old, you have one in ten chance to get a cancer the next year of your life.

This field is extremely understudied, I think the world needs asking: What causes people to age, are there systematic changes one could do to slow it or even to reverse it? I believe it's very understudied because we have this very defensive psychological mechanism dealing with aging and mortality. I think most people end up with schizophrenic combination acceptance and denial.

Acceptance. I am going to die, there's nothing I can do about it. Denial. I am not going to die anytime soon. So I am not going to worry about it. Acceptance is very pessimistic, denial is very optimistic. When you are very pessimistic, the future is going to be bad, there's nothing I can do about it. When you are optimistic, the future is going to be fine, I don't need to do anything about it. Extreme pessimism and extreme optimism are similarly demotivating. So I think instead of acceptance and denial, we should spend a little bit more time fighting death. And if we did that, we can do a lot more.

When I look at all these different areas, I keep thinking there's a lot more we could do, there's a lot of innovations that could happen. Nixon declared war on cancer in the 1970s and the progress is somewhat limited. There is no reason why cancer can never be cured or we couldn't come up with better solutions. One of 3 people aged 85 suffers from dementia, Alzheimer's, and it seems like an absolute medical urgency we should be doing a lot about. You don't see the people suffering. If you have dementia, you don't go in public, you want to hide.

We can always think of (death) as a disease, a specific ailment, rather than you take a pill and you live forever. In practice, it's always like you are 70 years old, you have lung cancer, you want a cure or not? Yes, of course you want a cure. You are 85 years old, you are at risk of dementia, are you going to do something to prevent that? Yes, of course. All the specific questions. The moral answer is to say yes, we should try to do things about it.

Peter Thiel, fourth from left, spoke to a group of hundreds of students in Taiwan, many of whom have made his book Zero to One their guide on how to start a business.

Q: But disease prevention is one thing, the pursuit of immortality is another. How do you reconcile your Christian faith and your pursuit for immortality?

A: That's a big, big question.

Q: You do believe in God, right?

A: I do. I think that… certainly the classic Christian account would have been that Christ himself is resurrected and lives forever. And that's the template for, the role model for everybody, so I think in a Greek world, a pre-Christian world, Aristotle, Plato, Greeks, it would seem that death as natural. It was natural to die. Whereas in Christianity, it's a critique of that. So I think the idea, immortality, I would say, it's not an anti-Christian idea, that comes from within Christianity itself. You can disagree with the history, but I would say it comes very much from within.

So in modern science, starting at the 17th and 18th century, a life-extension project was an important part of it, so you know, Francis Beacon, one of the early scientists, who died of cold when he tried to freeze a chicken, probably wanted to extend its life or something. The early scientists, some were Christian, some were atheists, but they felt they had to solve immortality because they were competing with Christianity.

Christianity said you can live forever. Science said you don't need Christianity, you could live forever because of science. But it all happens in this generally Christian context where immortality is taken as something real versus something that did not happen. For ancient Greeks, it's much natural to die, it's not something you should cure, whereas Christianity is always this attitude that death is unnatural.

I think science is not in conflict with Christianity, but deeply linked into it.

Q: Science and Christianity are both your faith?

A: Faith always has an irrational element to it, but I don't think science and Christianity are in conflict. I think they both involve true description of reality.

Q: As a board member as Facebook, you are not an avid user of Facebook, either. Is that somewhat irreconcilable?

A: Well, I am a moderate user of Facebook. I don't post or write anything on that, but it is definitely a way that people staying in touch with many people.

Q: You also mention people with Asperger's syndrome; do you think introverted people tend to succeed more easily?

A: It's a very strange phenomenon, certainly there are extreme versions that people become quite dysfunctional, autism is generally not a good thing for people to have. But there's probably a milder version of Asperger's where people are able to focus, and they are not as prone to the social cues as other people.

I do think that if we constantly look at the people around us, that's often very bad for creativity or originality, you would just want to copy the ideas of people around you. Often creative people, or Asperger people, they wear strange clothes, they don't fit in very well; I think it's because they are missing the imitation genes. We all have imitation genes, but somehow it's less expressed well in people with Asperger's.

For those who do not have Asperger's, my view is always that, be aware of how socially embedded we are and how influenced we are by the people around us, there's a good thing about it, it's how you learn things, it's how you learn language as a child, copying your parents, it's how culture gets transmitted. Still, there's many good things about imitation, about society, that I don't think we could do without it altogether.

But I think it's very sobering for us to realize how problematic it is, how much it happens. We always think of other people as sheep-like, herd-like, lamb-like, people who follow TV advertisements so easily. So I think it's always a good perspective to keep in mind.

Q: So you disagree with what Margaret Thatcher's words that "there is no society, only individual man and women." You don't sympathize with that as much as you did before?

A: Well, as a libertarian, I am still sympathetic to the sentiment that Thatcher expresses, but in reality, society is very real, it is very real phenomenon for every one of us. If I fully believe in what Thatcher said, I would never invest in Facebook. Society is not real, social network is fake, not real. But I think society is very real. But the sentiment underlying Thatcher's comment that I am still somewhat sympathetic to it is that society is not often a simply good thing, it forces conformity, stifling originality and creativity. So I think society is very ambiguous, very powerful, but not always good.

I don't think there's a formula to avoid imitation. That goes wrong with the fashion industry for example. When everyone tries to be different, the more people try to be different, the more alike they end up. They all end up similar in trying to be different. In many contexts this is also true. Hollywood celebrities try to be different and they end up more and more alike.

I think whether you copy other people or you are obsessed with other people and try to be different from them, I think it's too much focus on other people. I think a much better way is to have a very interesting idea of your own, maybe something transcendent, something meaningful.

Q: Some people have argued that the world is driven by youth.

A: There's definitely a lot of product adoption beginning with young users of course, but they are mainly consumer products. There are good or bad reasons. Maybe teenagers are generally imitative, that's a bad reason. The good reason is that maybe people are more flexible, they are willing to try new things. By the time you are 60 years old, you are set in your ways, it would be much slower to change what you do. Either are good or bad reasons that consumer products are driven by youth. It's why advertisements are often targeted towards youth.

It's certainly much less true in many other areas, like enterprise software.

Q: Speaking of being meaningful, what do you want to achieve with the Thiel Foundation?

A: There's always several things you want to achieve. The very narrow goal is for the 20 or so young people every year to achieve more than what they would have achieved in college, starting something new, something original, spend a few years on something new that could make the world a better place.

The broader result somehow led to a broader conversation with education and the nature of the education system. It's not entirely planned. It's a very small program aimed at 20 people a year. But it turns out a lot of parents and young people have a sense that the educational system is not delivering what it was promising. It fell short of expectations. So there was something about the Thiel fellowship that also helped trigger much broader debate about current education: The education bubble, what education is doing. I think it's an extremely valuable debate to have.

Education is one area that I think has a great amount of conformity at this point. In the U.S., it's incredible pressure to get into the same list of top universities. It ends up a zero-sum tournament, because the universities are not increasing their enrollments.

Q: You still think students in the U.S. are the last indentured people in the developed world, and even winners in the educational system are conformists?

A: You don't want to paint a single brush stroke at many different things. But certainly one of the challenges of getting into the very best universities, the ivy-league, after 4 years, most people end up in the same list of careers: law, banking, consulting, maybe medicine. And so it's like a sort of environment we pool all these people together and convince that they should do more or less the same thing.

I am certainly guilty to some extent at Stanford. I do wonder if given more different context people would try to do a variety of different things than these elite universities where people don't know what to do with their lives, the peer pressure is very powerful that channels these people into the so-called successful career tracks that end up being very, very conformist.

Q: If we could turn back time, would you still choose to go to Stanford?

A: It's a hard question to answer. If I knew everything I know now, it would be very different. Realistically, when I was 17 years old and got into Stanford, you didn't know what to do. I think it has changed some when I was 25 years old at Stanford, because the cost has gone up so much, people were asking questions about what to do, what all these mean, the dynamic is that most young people don't know what to do.

Q: Why?

A: Why is always the hard question to answer. I think it has something to do with junior and senior high school where you always do the same thing, trying to get the same score. There's almost no time left to develop a real interest in anything else. Some general anxiety.

I think there's a silver lining to the 2008 financial crisis. There's a sense of that all the set career tracks were performing less well. I think there's an opening to rethink these things in a way that people hadn't done 25 years before.

Q: You consider yourself a libertarian; who is your favorite philosopher and economist?

A: I am still a big fan of Milton Friedman; I met him a few times over the years. I think he is the single economist that has changed our way of thinking about the world in the last half century. I don't know if there any other strictly defined libertarians that I would rank that highly. My favorite philosopher is Rene Girard. Not really libertarian, but more on how imitation plays the role in the psychology, anthropology side, which influenced me tremendously.

Q: You said that the failure of imagination is at core of today's problems. How do you keep your imagination alive?

A: I think it's always really good to dedicate some time to learning new things. Occasionally, several times a year, I get together with some friends, read a book, discuss the book in-depth, that gets you out of your day-to-day comfort zone. I end up having a lot intellectual conversations with friends over dinner who always stimulate your ideas to think about new things.

The thing that's always dangerous for imagination is going into some formula for one sort or another. It's always tempting to get a formula; we are all very busy. We just don't have enough time to do anything new. So one should find a way to keep enough free time to be able to explore ideas, as you feel like you have 12 hours a day of work to do, you feel like all the stuff you have to do, you will try to do it as quickly, as efficiently as you can. By the end of the day you just want to sit in front of a TV.

Q: I know you hate TV.

A: No, I don't hate TV, I don't watch it much. But I think you will want to maintain a decent amount of time for creative things which is not quite set.

Q: What sort of books you have been reading? What impresses you most lately?

A: Well, I read cross sections of books, history, I did read the Piketty book; I need to understand the enemy, so, I think you often want to engage with books that you don't agree with, you want to think through what the author said.

Q: You are still a fan of Tolkien?

A: Yeah, the Tolkien series is probably still the one that influenced me most. I read it about 10 times or so as a kid.

Q: Who's your favorite character? Aragorn?

A: Yeah, I like Aragorn a lot.

And I do think the Tolkien book is very different from the fantasy books with dragons and so on, it's sort of just one magic spell after another, one adventure fighting monsters after another, it's repetitive. It's fundamentally a world that nothing changes over the long run.

But what's very interesting with Tolkien is that every moment happens only once, this is quite unique. The setting of the ring's book, Middle Earth, the elves are leaving, magic is leaving the world, and human beings are starting to take over, and we are faced with the question: What sort of job humans could do as they start to run the world.

There's always the sense that every moment happens only once in Tolkien, just as in technology.

Q: How do you see the Chinese Internet companies that imitate American companies?

A: If all the Chinese companies do is to copy American companies over the past 10 years, there's a lot of room to enhance their living standard. They might not have as much need to do new things. But in the developed world, we are at the frontier; the only way we improve our living standard is by doing new things.

There's a way that innovation is more critical for developed countries than the emerging world.

One of the questions with China that is still a very open question is that Japan has this development model in the 50s and 60s, super efficient in copying things and hit the wall, not able to do new things. So Japan hit the wall. I think China has a very similar… it's catching up, and it will continue to catch up. But for China to overtake the West, it will need much more innovation.  

Transcript compiled by Sharon Wang

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz