Peter Thiel on Entrepreneurship & What To Do With Your Life

December 10, 2012

During my self-education program in Silicon Valley, I was fortunate enough to be part of a panel discussion at Stanford University with Peter Thiel (Founder of Paypal and early investor in Facebook and Linkedin) where I got to ask him my questions on stage. I wanted to share some of the key take-aways I wrote down from his talk because I think it’s very interesting to know the perspective on entrepreneurship and career choices from arguably one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world.

The full video can be found here – I’m at 33, 37, 50 and 53 minutes.

Watch live video from Stanford BASES on

  • I asked him, “Muhammad Yunus and Thomas Friedman have said that the surest cure to poverty is entrepreneurship. What are some of the best ways to foster entrepreneurship in developing countries?”
    • He said it’s hard to build good businesses in countries with corruption and no law – this makes investors nervous. Anything to stop corruption is good.
    • Thinks new innovation should come from most forward-thinking countries (e.g. US) and others are about catching up / copying
    • Incentives in emerging markets right now are just to catch up
    • The issue investing in emerging markets is how to trust them (vs investing in Silicon Valley where you are close to your investments)
    • It doesn’t work to give the same living quality to everyone in the whole world
    • I asked him, if people have gone through 4 years of education and are drowning in debt but want to be entrepreneurial, what should they do? He said: He said to try and get out of debt ASAP and figure out ways not to mortgage even more of your future. He also said that in higher-paying jobs (e.g. finance, consulting, law), there is a social context where they spend a lot of money and don’t necessarily end up saving more than those with lower-paying jobs. Debt constrains your choices – you have to take higher-paying jobs as necessary.
  • Simply A/B testing your life and optimizing vs thinking about what problems there are, how you can solve them, and where the world will be in 5-10 years. Make goals and track against them
  • There is slow tech progress outside of internet/computers, e.g. energy (related to stagnant wages, etc) – society should think about what are the NEW things we can do?
  • How to get to a great world: have it be acceptable to be a founder and have a crazy vision to change the world – so that these stories are common instead of crazy
  • Have a definite plan: what you’re working on, something you love, a contingency plan
  • People in his class didn’t know what they wanted to do so they decided to be lawyers for 3 years to increase their options later, but they didn’t know what options or the probabilities
  • It’s better to have a plan for the future than none at all. In chess, you always have an idea of your next move.
  • Important problems that others aren’t working on > “want to be entrep”
  • Where do you want to be in 20 years? What do you want to learn to get there? NOT boosting resume. You don’t need anything more than college on resume. It’s not about the next credential or getting in somewhere
    • Don’t just think about the next 3 years – think about the next 30
    • It’s selfish to think that your death is the end of the universe
  • An interesting innovation to him is anything tech that creates an alternative credentialing system and he is looking at investments in this area, because education is 80% credentials and 20% learning
  • The future is within humans’ reach to change/influence, vs thinking only the markets, God, fate, etc change the future
  • More tech/innovation to free people up to do stuff they love
  • Shifting what the “sexy” career is from finance to other stuff. Finance was the “thing to do” but not so anymore, e.g. Facebook as a role model
  • Tech is anything where you do more with less – not just computers
  • A teacher is someone who is so scared they never left school and will advise you to do the same. Schools are not run by entrepreneurs
  • Do you need to productize? The most successful companies started with a well-defined problem that is focused and specific (FB started as an online Facebook for Harvard)
  • Ask yourself, why will the 20th employee join the company? Mission-driven startups with something cool/unique. To be cool, must be unique. If too many people are trying to solve something, it’s no longer cool
  • You shouldn’t invest in founders with big houses or that are dressed fashionably from head to toe
  • I asked him whether it was necessary to go to an Ivy league school to have entrepreneurial success – he said that we invest in / copy people like us and VC firms are dominated by males from Ivy league schools. He said what works best if you want Ivy representation on your team is to have a story/mission of why you’re doing what you’re doing and bring an Ivy person onto your team
  • People think about their future as an option portfolio – I’ll do this and then have a lot of options
    • Ask: 3 years from now, what are the specific things you’ll be doing? What will the options be?
    • People who did consulting/finance got sidetracked. He got out quickly. Some people moved up and up, eventually it didn’t work, their career blew up, and they never recovered. People incrementally optimize (e.g. bigger firm, new city, higher salary) and it doesn’t work out
    • The law firm track is risky too – it takes 8 years to find out whether you make partner and there is the risk of losing your soul, etc that is not included in the model
  • “Whatever you want to do, you should just start doing it right away”

On stage with Peter Thiel, Founder of Paypal


Start finding a great career

Get My FREE Guide to Finding A Great Career Fit

This free guide will help you kickstart your career search journey so you can find a career you love and make the impact you’ve dreamed of.

Start exploring career options

Get My FREE  Informational Interview Worksheet

This free cheat sheet will walk you through a proven process to discovering a career you'll love.


How to Find A Career You'll Love