PayPal co-founder talks innovation at SMU Tate Lecture

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Peter Thiel began his Tate Lecture in McFarlin Auditorium Tuesday night with a question: “Tell me something that is true that almost no one agrees with you on.”

The co-founder and former CEO of PayPal uses the same question in job interviews because the question shows how hard it is to escape conventional wisdom.

“We live in a world where courage is in far shorter supply than genius,” he said.

Thiel’s talk revolved around this central issue of what it takes to be an innovator and what our future will look like through the course of such innovation.

Success in innovation cannot be copied, he says, because you don’t want to start something that’s “interchangeable.” In a capitalist society, we think of competition as good, but Thiel says that all good businesses look for the monopoly, the thing no one is doing.

“I think all happy companies are different because they found something unique that differentiates them,” he said. “All unhappy companies are alike because they fail to escape the essential sameness that is competition.”

He talks at length about the same subject in his recent book, Zero to One, which he gave to every member of the nearly full auditorium.

“I thought his ideas on the nature of competition—that it is the opposite of success– was extremely relevant,” said sophomore Cameron Matson.

SMU alumna Elise McDonald also found Thiel’s thoughts on differentiating investments interesting.

“These are the investments that allow an individual, business, or institution to have the greatest impact on society,” she said.

To stumble upon the next great idea, Thiel says, one must strive to get away from conventional truths and mistruths and find the secrets.

“There are many secrets left,” he said.

The problem is we aren’t looking in the right places for these secrets.

“I think we are living in a society which is dominated by hatred… hostility, dislike of all things scientific and technological,” he said.

He relayed to the audience the history of innovation in society, and our growing reluctance as a society to venture into medicine and biotechnology.

“It’s hard to even motivate people to do anything about it,” he said.

Thiel contends that the best way for us to find the secrets of the future is to reconceive the notions of a developed world and a developing world. Instead, he suggests, we should ask the question: “How do we go about developing the so-called developed world?”

Thiel ended his talk with this question, and it stuck with audience members like senior Mary Anna Billingsley.

“Thiel’s theory that developed countries should abandon the title and become developing countries was interesting,” she said. “The United States is a superpower that should continue to keep moving forward by developing new technologies for the world to embrace.”

Season ticket holder Kathy Farrer had never heard of Thiel and has only used PayPal once. But she left with lots of questions and notions to contemplate.

“I think he has the golden touch,” she said.

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