Thoughts from the Thiel Summit

November 17, 2014 at 12:55am

Over the weekend, I boarded a plane to Las Vegas for the Thiel Foundation Summit, on what would be the first of my three trips across the country this month. I became part of the foundation's community over the past summer when I was introduced to some of the staff and visited the Thiel Capital office for lunch. Having heard great stories about the summit, I was excited for the old and new friends I would encounter at such a gathering of people with unique perspectives on their own entrepreneurial journeys. Here are some thoughts I'm taking away with me.

Our Time is Our Responsibility

The Thiel Summit brings together people from a range of ages and of current stages in life; high schoolers, high school dropouts, college students and dropouts, gap year adventurers, recent grads, Thiel Fellows, and more. I had numerous, incredibly fascinating conversations generated by variations on the same basic question: "What are you working on?"

I exchanged perspectives with some new friends who had taken a gap year and are now in my graduating class at a different university about value in university life. I believe that an important realization is that in college, your only responsibility is to make yourself better. There are resources available to us as undergrads that we otherwise would not have – access to leading thinkers of our fields, expensive lab and fabrication equipment, and a safe way to discover and explore diverse interests that shape how we approach our work. But with these opportunities comes the responsibility to be intentional with the way we use our time. Some would argue that opportunities are dropped in our lap, but our obligation is to, given all of these things, improve ourselves and improve the future.

A good moment of insight came from my conversation with a current fellow who described the challenge of finding something to spend time on given the freedom of the fellowship. I have a feeling people around our age often grapple with the question of what they want to accomplish with their lives, and once the realization comes that nobody is mapping out what we need to do for us, that there isn't a set checklist, we have to transition from reaction to action. This is difficult. A good piece of insight that I received is not to think of the Thiel Fellowship as an entity itself but to think of it as a push in the right direction on discovering what someone really does want to devote his or her time to. In a way, it's not an answer to a question, but a continuation of the answer-seeking process.

During the surprise Q&A with Peter Thiel, someone asked him what he thought the "most important human desire" was – a question he dodged with an answer to another fascinating yet different question. Possible awkward comedic value aside, I think the question, the answer to which isn't broadly applicable as life advice, is worth considering on a personal level. What desire motivates you as an individual? I think the way we approach this problem has the potential to shape and inform how we live our lives. I want to be motivated by the desire to enact change, to shape the world around me with my creative impulse. I think I enjoy meeting people who see the world as something in which they feel personally invested.

Confronting an Overwhelming Question

Listening to the keynote speakers at the summit prompted a lot of interesting thoughts as I heard the perspectives of awesome people who made and are making their impact through entrepreneurship. One topic that came up multiple times was the idea of learning agility as a trait of successful people. Agile learners adapt to changing constraints and have high tolerance for ambiguity.

As a recent anecdote, I've had people come to me with questions about the KPCB Fellowship application for the next class of engineering fellows. In particular, there was somewhat ambiguous wording in the coding challenge that led many people to question whether or not they could use arrays to implement their queue structures. Part of what's interesting to me about the situation is that a valid, optimal solution exists that doesn't use arrays at all. Framed in the context of the learning agility discussion, the various ways in which people responded to the ambiguity could be considered a data point. When I visited the MIT Media Lab's Fluid Interfaces group last month, I had a good discussion about how defining problems is more challenging than solving problems, and that it is a necessary transition to make when learning how to think in order to build lasting things. In reality, things are often not well defined; when I applied to KPCB Fellows last fall before I was in college, it was unclear whether I was even eligible. I think that even moreso than tolerating ambiguity, attempting to manage the ambiguity to work in your favor is an important way to handle situations resiliently and overcome unexpected obstacles.

With respect to recognizing and defining problems, I really enjoyed the keynote by Ivy Ross, the current lead on the Google Glass project. It stood out to me because I'm interested in her field – her father was an industrial designer and she worked in jewelry previous to tech. What she said about how growing up in a household with a strong design presence influenced her thought really resonated with me. I believe that as a designer I'm inspired to pay closer attention to the world around me, noticing potential opportunities for redesign or improvement that I had previously simply accepted as defaults. Ivy told the story of how she faced a dichotomy in her job where her boss asked her to iterate on pre-existing designs while in her studio wanted to create new things that were different from the norm. She made a great comment about how she thought her responsibility after graduating from school was to use her skills to fast forward the world into the future. Her story ended in applause when she described how, by building what she intuited, her side business gained popularity until one day her boss unknowingly asked her to make a variation on one of her own works.

Another way in which design thinking benefits an innovative mindset is the way it enables us to understand and empathize with each other. At the breakout session on the user experience design of wearable tech, we talked about how in creating deeply personal things that become extensions of our bodies, we really have to understand the rhythms of everyday life. We discussed viewing interactions as rituals that we conduct in our day to day, methodical and meaningful. Peter Thiel – replacing the important desire question with a question of uncommon emotion – opined that an uncommon human emotion which we should aspire to cultivate is sympathetic joy, or the feeling of happiness for another person for something that in no way benefits the self. I think that is a potentially profound way to view the ways in which we build things for each other.

A Story that Keeps Unfolding

The experience of being in Las Vegas, in particular, defied many pre-existing external notions of the city. Tony Hsieh's talk about the Downtown Project really drew my attention to the impact entrepreneurship can have on giving vitality to a community. I found it interesting to view a city on a macro level as a complex system in which the fortuitous collisions between people shape the future system state. Eating at some of the small restaurants in his presentation and sliding down the huge slide at Container Park really gave me the sense that I was in a place that had the potential for wonder.

Tony said that possibly the one quote we should remember from his presentation is that "a great brand/startup/x is a story that keeps unfolding." I'm hopeful to see what happens as the stories of all the people I encountered at the summit continuously unfold into new forms and new experiences.