Billionaire Peter Thiel Explains Why You Should Follow Your Passion Instead Of Going To College

by Kevin Smith

Peter Thiel talks fast and he's deliberate with his words. A man in his position doesn't want to be misinterpreted.

A conversation with him is full of pregnant pauses because he's thinking -- always thinking -- and though it's clear that he's fully present in the moment, it's obvious that there's a lot swirling through his mind. But when he asks me how my day is going, it feels as if we've met before, even though we haven't.

The successful billionaire entrepreneur, venture capitalist and now break-out author is polite, calm and collected.

We're discussing his new book, "Zero to One," an adaption of his Stanford University course: CS183: Startup. Despite the book only being on shelves for a week, it already has a full five-star rating on Amazon and Thiel remains very grounded.

As a famed contrarian, libertarian and openly-gay man, Thiel revels in the fact that he, by nature, goes against the grain. "I think it's important for people to try to think for themselves," he says.

Thiel rose to legendary status after the sale of Paypal (for $1.5 billion dollars to eBay) in 2002. Paypal, the online money service, is now practically engrained in the fabric of the Internet.

After Paypal, he went on to start Palantir Technologies, a computer software and services company that specializes in data analysis.

Since then, Thiel made headlines as the first investor in Facebook (which later made him a billionaire), and for encouraging kids to drop out of college, incentivizing them with seed-funding to chase after their real dreams.

I think what's very dangerous about college is the enormous amount of debts people are taking on [to finance their education]. What you're learning and what it's good for become much more common questions... It's important that we answer these questions before we [get into debt].

Thiel is a huge advocate of individuals, particularly young people, following their dreams and passions, but he stresses that, "you have to believe that you can figure something out that other people haven't."

It's important that in this pursuit you develop something that pushes the frontier of knowledge forward.

In following our passions, we have to be mindful of obstacles, like debt, and of doing things just because they seem cool or in-style. It means shaking what Thiel calls "herd-like" behavior. He encourages those he talks to, to ask contrarian questions.

What great thing can you do that no one else is doing? What do you know to be true that no one else will agree with you on?

It's safe to say that Thiel knows a thing or two about creating and fostering successful businesses. One of the themes his new book touches on is the distinction between copying an existing idea and innovating something completely new.

However, innovation often comes from taking an existing idea and changing it just slightly. When we asked Thiel what margin of improvement he would consider to be innovative versus just another competitive step, he said,

You sort of know it when you see it. The vague metric I came up with was that it's when you do something that's 10 times better. [For example], Amazon was different from a normal bookstore because it had 10 times as many books than any bookstore. With PayPal you could send money and pay over 10 times faster than with a paper check. A zero-to-one company is doing something no one thinks is important but is changing how we do things.

As our conversation nears an end, we pose one final question to Thiel: Do you have anything to say to the Millennial generation? He pauses, huffs a little bit, and pauses again.

I am Gen-X, and one of the strangest things to happen all the way from the [baby] boomers, to the Gen-Xers -- and all the way down to Millennials -- is that we've gotten more and more tracked as a society. Even more so today. I think a lot of Millennials have been pushed to compete all their lives for these educational prizes and I think it's important to somehow break from that and to think about what's valuable, what's important and to not always be defined against your peers, which I think has been set as a standard for the Millennial generation.

Photo Courtesy: Zero To One Book