The following is the full transcript of Peter Thiel’s commencement address at Hamilton College on Sunday, May 22, 2016.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Peter Thiel’s 2016 Hamilton College Commencement Address
Peter Thiel – Entrepreneur
Thank you. Thank you so much for the kind introduction. It’s a tremendous honor to be here. Like most graduation speakers my main qualification would seem to be that I am one of the few people who are even more clueless about what is going on in your lives than your parents and your professors.
Most of you are about 21 or 22 years old. You’re about to begin working. I haven’t worked for anybody for 21 years. But if I try to give a reason for why it makes sense for me to speak here today, I would say it’s because thinking about the future is what I do for a living. And this is a commencement. It’s a new beginning. As a technology investor, I invest in new beginnings. I believe in what hasn’t yet been seen or been done.
This is not what I set out to do when I began my career. When I was sitting where you are, back in 1989, I would’ve told you that I wanted to be a lawyer. I didn’t really know what lawyers do all day, but I knew they first had to go to law school, and school was familiar to me.
I had been competitively tracked from middle school to high school to college, and by going straight to law school, I knew I would be competing at the same kinds of tests I’d been taking ever since I was a kid, but I could tell everyone that I was now doing it for the sake of becoming a professional adult.
I did well enough in law school to be hired by a big New York law firm, but it turned out to be a very strange place. From the outside, everybody wanted to get in, and from the inside, everybody wanted to get out.
When I left the firm, after seven months and three days, my coworkers were surprised. One of them told me that he hadn’t known it was possible to escape from Alcatraz. Now that might sound odd, because all you had to do to escape was walk through the front door and not come back. But people really did find it very hard to leave, because so much of their identity was wrapped up in having won the competitions to get there in the first place.
Just as I was leaving the law firm, I got an interview for a Supreme Court clerkship. This is sort of the top prize that you can get as a young lawyer. It was the absolute last stage of the competition. But I lost. And at the time I was totally devastated. It seemed just like the end of the world.
About a decade later, I ran into an old friend — someone who had helped me prepare for the Supreme Court interview, whom I hadn’t seen in years. His first words to me were not, you know, “Hi Peter” or “How are you doing?” but rather, “So, aren’t you glad you didn’t get that clerkship?” Because if I hadn’t lost that last competition, we both knew that I never would have left the track laid down since middle school, I wouldn’t have moved to California and co-founded a startup, I wouldn’t have done anything new.
Looking back at my ambition to become a lawyer, it looks less like a plan for the future and more like an alibi for the present. It was a way to explain to anyone who would ask — to my parents, to my peers and most of all to myself — that there was no need to worry. I was perfectly on track. But it turned out in retrospect that my biggest problem was taking the track without thinking really hard about where it was going.
When I co-founded a technology startup, we took the opposite approach. We consciously set out to change the direction of the world: very definite, very big plans. Our goal was nothing less than to replace the U.S. dollar by creating a new digital currency.
We had a young team. When we started, I was the only person over 23 years old. When we released our first product, the first users were simply the 24 people who worked at our company. Outside, there were millions of people working in the global financial industry, and when we told some of them about our plans we noticed a clear pattern: the more experience someone had in banking, the more certain they were that our venture could never succeed.
They were wrong. People around the world now rely on PayPal to move more than $200 billion every year. We did fail at our greater goal. The dollar’s still dominant. We didn’t succeed in taking over the whole world, but we did create a successful company in the process. And more importantly, we learned that while doing new things is difficult, it is far from impossible.
At this moment in your life you know fewer limits, fewer taboos and fewer fears than you will ever in the future. So do not squander your ignorance. Go out and do what your teachers and parents thought could not be done and what they never thought of doing.
Now this is not to say that we should assume there is no value in teaching and tradition. And here we can take inspiration from a graduate of Hamilton College, the illustrious Ezra Pound, Class of 1905. Pound was a poet, and he was also a prophet of sorts, and he announced his mission in three words: “Make it new”. When Pound said make it new, he was talking about the old. He wanted to recover what was best in tradition and to render it fresh.
Here at Hamilton, in America and that part of the world called the West, we are all part of an unusual kind of tradition. The tradition we’ve inherited is itself about doing new things. The new science of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton discovered truths that had never been written down in books. Our whole continent is a new world. The founders of this country set out to create what they called a new order for the ages. America is the frontier country. We are not true to our own tradition unless we seek what is new.
So how are we doing? How much is new today? It is a cliché to say that we are living through a time of rapid change, but it is an open secret that the truth is closer to stagnation. Computers are getting faster and smartphones are somewhat new. But on the other hand, jets are slower, trains are breaking down, houses are expensive and incomes are flat.
Today the word technology means information technology. The so-called tech industry builds computers and software. But in the 1960s, technology had a more expansive meaning and meant not just computers, but also airplanes, medicines, fertilizers, materials, space travel — all sorts of things. Technology was advancing on every front and leading to a world of underwater cities, vacations on the moon and energy too cheap to meter.
We’ve all heard America described as a developed country, setting it apart from countries that are still developing. This description pretends to be neutral. But I find it far from neutral. Because it suggests that our tradition of making new things is over. When we say that we are developed, we’re saying, that’s it. That for us, history is over. We are saying that everything there is to do has already been done, and now the only thing left is for others in the world to catch up. And in this view, the 1960s vision of a fantastic and far better future was just a mistake.
I think we should strongly refuse this temptation to assume that our history is over. Of course, if we choose to believe that we’re powerless to do anything that is not familiar, we will be right, but only in a sort of self-fulfilling way. We should not, however, blame nature. It will only be our own faults.
Familiar tracks and traditions are like clichés — they are everywhere, they may sometimes be correct, but often they are justified by nothing except constant repetition. Let me end today by questioning two clichés in particular.