The Unwinding, by George Packer

The Unwinding is a book by New Yorker staff writer George Packer, who profiles various American lives over decades.

Peter Thiel was one of subjects. Here are some of the interesting parts about Thiel:

In a philosophy class his sophomore year, Mind, Matter, and Meaning, Thiel met another brilliant student, named Reid Hoffman, who was far to the left of him. They stayed up late arguing about things like the nature of property rights (this was how Thiel made friends, at Stanford and all his life). Hoffman said property was a social construct, it didn’t exist without society, while Thiel quoted Margaret Thatcher: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women.”

In 1992, Thiel’s friend and fellow law student Keith Rabois decided to test the limits of free speech on campus by standing outside the residence of an instructor and shouting, “Faggot! Faggot! Hope you die of AIDS!” The furious reaction to this provocation eventually drove Rabois out of Stanford.

After seven years at Stanford, Thiel left for a clerkship in Atlanta (he had interviews at the Supreme Court with Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy but wasn’t hired – the first setback of his life, and a traumatic one).

After seven months at the law firm, he quit and went to work as a derivatives trader – currency options – at Credit Suisse. It was mathematically challenging, and he lasted longer on Wall Street than at the law firm, but not by much. There was the same problem as at Sullivan & Cromwell: he was competing feverishly with his coworkers, and with little conviction in the socially designated stakes.

He wanted, he said, “to build constructive non-competitive relationships with people. I didn’t want to work with frenemies, I wanted to work with friends. In Silicon Valley it seemed possible, because there was no sort of internal structure where people were competing for diminishing resources.”

(Thiel and Levchin) began to spend time together, getting to know each other by trading puzzle challenges, mostly math puzzles. How many digits did the number 125^100 have? (Two hundred ten.) One of Thiel’s puzzles involved a hypothetical table in the shape of a circle: In a game in which two players took turns placing a penny anywhere on the table without overlapping the others, with the winner the last one to put down a penny that didn’t hang over the edge of the table, what would be the best strategy for winning? And did you want to go first or second? It took Levchin fifteen minutes to figure it out – the key was that the best strategy depended on disrupting the other player’s strategy.

Zuckerberg matter-of-factly described Thefacebook’s dramatic growth while making no effort to impress Thiel, and Thiel took that as a mark of seriousness.

Continue reading