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.