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  • Writer's pictureBill Fischer

The Birth Of A Really Bad Idea: Peter Thiel And Knowing Less As A Life Strategy

2011 is the 100th anniversary of a really bad idea. In 1911,  the British Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s determination to learn less, rather than more -- about life, clothing and diet in extreme cold conditions -- led to his assuming that he was smarter than thousands of years of accumulated Eskimo knowledge, and also led ultimately to the death of his companions by starvation and exposure, as a direct result of his arrogance. Roland Huntford, who chronicled this [mis]adventure in his book The Last Place on Earth, characterized Scott’s willful ignorance as the result of hubris, plain and simple [according to Wikipedia,  the ancient Greek word “hubris” refers to: “... a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one's own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.”].

Roald Amundsen, on the other hand, who was leading a far smaller, less-endowed and negligibly branded team of Norwegians, and who was racing to the South Pole against Scott, not only beat the British team to then most extreme point on the planet, but his team gained weight, on average, despite the challenges that they endured. What did Amundsen have that Scott lacked? Humility; and an openness to the ideas of others, plus a willingness to put in long, lonely months, studying the Greenland Eskimos (at a time when learning from such aboriginal peoples were distinctly out of fashion), to learn about dress, diet, and living in the cold. One result was that while Scott's team was outfitted by Burberry, Amundsen's wore Eskimo clothing. One team looked better, the other team survived.

Amundsen's success in the race to the Pole symbolizes the power of both learning before doing, as well as learning from diverse sources. The importance of these success factors came to mind when I read about the initiative of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel to encourage bright young people to drop-out of university so that they can get right to work as entrepreneur-aspirants. Thiel is offering $100,000 apiece to 20 or so carefully selected young people in an effort to create more innovation by sponoring their pursuit of an entrepreneurial idea in Silicon Valley instead of going to college. The underlying message, apparently, is that knowing more about the world, and thousands of years of accumulated hunman knowledge, is no longer an advantage. It sure sounds a lot like Scott!

Mr. Thiel argues that there is an educational bubble in our society; I agree. He adds that the cost of education has risen to levels that make it unaffordable to many; I also agree.  He has been quoted as saying that: "Universities are like the General Motors of the 1970s. They’re incredibly dominant, incredibly arrogant and impervious to change.” I agree with this as well.  But despite all this agreement, to be honest, I can't envision embracing a life-strategy -- for that is what he is selling -- where willful ignorance is the preferred route into the future.

Mr. Thiel, himself,  has been incredibly successful, despite his undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford, and he has been characterized as a "people investor" for his interest in enlarging talent.  His Founders Fund is making interesting bets on the future and, to his credit, he is looking for opportunities to move "our civilization to the next level" rather than merely doing more of the same.  But, knowing things, appreciating nuances, reflecting on the historical record of our species, has got to be a huge advantage in building a better future for us all, and this can't be done anywhere near as effectively on the front-lines of a commercial start-up as on a university campus. Can universities and business schools be vastly improved? Of course! Is encouraging the best and brightest to drop-out and learn less the best way to do that? I don't think so, and I suspect that were it possible to query Scott about this, even he would agree that learning less is a bad life-strategy.

This post originally appeared on on June 28, 2011

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