Zero to One


Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, financier of Facebook, and clearly one of America’s leading intellectuals, criticizes our higher education system for serving other, less productive functions than fostering learning (nurturing conformity and perpetuating prestige, for starters).

In his provocative book, Zero to One, Thiel posits that the college and university system itself and the debt-laden students it produces stifle creativity, risk taking, and entrepreneurialism.  Graduates accept jobs that help pay the bills rather than take ones that are risky and initially low pay, but could create more value for society.

Thiel points out that baby boomers speedily dismiss his thesis, seeing the college degree as the requisite ticket to professional, personal, and economic prosperity.  That was then, and this is now.  Theil’s perspective resonates with the millennials living in the era of “is college really worth it?”

In a piece in the New York Times from last November, Thiel speculated many of the truly creative people in the Silicon Valley seem to have some kind of Asperger’s syndrome—bad at taking social cues, but innovative as heck. Thiel goes on to ask, “What does it say about our society when they are the innovators, and normal people basically learn to conform?” David Sacks, Thiel’s colleague at PayPal, argues, somewhat tongue in cheek, that creative people do not possess the “imitation gene”—hard-wired to eschew herd-like behavior.

Calling higher education overvalued, Thiel sees the education bubble bursting soon with life thereafter having “no single track, no single path” to success.  Will colleges and universities be ready? Bill Gates, Thiel suggests, would have missed the personal computer train entirely had he stayed in school at Harvard.  The once aberration from the college path, the geeky college dropout, will become more common, Thiel continues.

Still, Tom and David Kelley, brothers and part of the founding team at Stanford’s Design Thinking school (, argue in their book Creative Confidence that each of us is creative, and creative thinking can be directly elicited from learners by fostering self-efficacy using methods based on Albert Bandura’s concept of guided mastery.

Thiel, famous for his provocative quote at Yale, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters,” suggests that the innovation once spoofed in The Jetsons, in real life often stumbles and fails to improve authentic life-changing technology.


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Bob Pacheco has more than 30 years of experience as a consultant and educator, from elementary through graduate schools. Dr. Pacheco served as the Assessment Chair of the Research and Planning Group for eight years.