This fall, Peter Thiel will celebrate his 54th birthday. He has already lived more lives than most mortals can imagine. He has been a Wall Street lawyer, a hedge-fund trader, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and a fabulously successful venture capitalist. The team he led at PayPal, the online-payments company he co-founded in 1998, is so influential in the Valley that its alumni are known as the “PayPal Mafia.” Zero to One, his provocative 2014 manifesto on innovation and start-ups, has sold more than 3 million copies globally. He was the most prominent tech titan to back Donald Trump in 2016 and remains a lavish supporter of Trumpish Senate candidates. Ambitious to avoid death, or at least postpone it, he has flirted with ideas for freezing brains for future reanimation and for transfusing the middle-aged with the blood of the young.
Thiel is, in other words, a gift to a biographer. Yet he also presents challenges. For one thing, he is a fierce guardian of his privacy: After the scurrilous blog Valleywag outed him as gay, Thiel financed a lawsuit that bankrupted its parent company, Gawker Media. For another thing, the profiler must decide which Thiel is the salient one—which of his many and varied pursuits cut to the essence of his character. And because biography aspires to capture not just the figure but the landscape—the life, but just as crucially the times—the author must also judge which of Thiel’s projects matter to the rest of us. Max Chafkin, a Bloomberg journalist, wrestles with these choices in The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power. The title hits the mark. The subtitle causes difficulties.
In the first part of his book, Chafkin presents Thiel’s immigrant roots as the key to his contrarianism. The young Peter’s German parents moved from Frankfurt to Cleveland, then to South African– controlled Namibia, then back to Cleveland, then eventually to California. Thiel bounced between schools, including a German-language Grundschule in the desert town of Swakopmund, unsurprisingly emerging as a self-contained loner. When the family settled in a San Francisco suburb, Thiel remained aloof from his peers, seeking solace in academic superiority. He immersed himself in science-fiction and fantasy novels, later bragging that he had memorized the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Chafkin writes. Slender and small as well as brainy and haughty, he was a target for bullies. In high school, his classmates amused themselves by stealing for sale signs from neighborhood front yards and planting them outside Thiel’s house.
Upon enrolling at Stanford in 1985, Thiel fit in no better. The residence halls had sundecks filled with half-dressed students. Thiel rose early, dosed himself fastidiously with vitamins, and achieved a perfect grade point average his first semester. Perhaps inevitably, the bullying continued. Chafkin unearths a story about a roommate who, following an argument with Thiel, taped a mock commemorative sign to the ceiling: under this spot, peter thiel first said the word fuck. Only at the end of the semester did someone point out the sign to its victim. Mutely, Thiel moved his desk into position, climbed up, tore the sign down, and went home for the summer.
Thiel eventually figured out a way to get even with his persecutors. He bulked up by lifting weights, and found a circle of friends who were similarly outside the hedonistic mainstream. He joined the College Republicans and discovered the libertarian writings of Ayn Rand. He co-founded a combative conservative monthly, The Stanford Review, which ripped into the liberal consensus on campus. A typical Review diatribe denounced a faculty plan to add nonwhite authors to a course on Western culture. Another railed against supposedly Marxist professors—years later, Thiel would insist that universities were “as corrupt as the Catholic Church of 500 years ago.” His provocations were especially caustic, one imagines, because they came from a place of pain. Hard-edged conservatism was not just an under graduate game. It was a survival strategy.
Thiel’s conservative awakening converged with a subtler discovery. He came under the influence of the Stanford philosopher René Girard, who placed the imitative instinct at the center of human behavior. In Girard’s telling, imitation generated conflict, as people fought for the same things—the same jobs, schools, and material possessions—even though such trophies would fail to make them happier. Life, Thiel eventually would come to realize, could be cast as a struggle to escape the false siren of copycat cravings. To be free, you had to carve your own path. You had to be a contrarian.
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