Point of View Columns

There is Such a Thing as Too Smart

If you live long enough and pay attention you can learn why some old sayings stand the test of time. Most of us have at some point learned that it is better to be safe than sorry, that a bird in the hand is usually better than two in the bush and that looking before you leap is almost always a good thing. Billionaire Peter Andreas Thiel has suggested that young people in America forgo college and become entrepreneurs, thereby proving that there actually is such a thing as being too smart.

A little background – Peter Thiel is a German-born entrepreneur who has accumulated a multibillion dollar fortune as a venture capitalist and hedge fund manager. His most famous accomplishment to date is that he was the founder of Pay Pal. He is noted for his extreme libertarian views and has financed numerous initiatives that spread the gospel that the American government is too big and too intrusive. He has also been one of the major financial backers of Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign, which tells you something right there.

It is useful to point out that Mr. Thiel has not been able to explain how this same American government created an environment in which he was able to make several billions of dollars as an immigrant. I am not aware of many immigrants to Germany or France or Japan becoming billionaires. There is a lot that needs correcting in the United States but it does seem allow some people to become fabulously rich, Mr. Thiel included.

Not content with biting the institutional hand that has fed him, Mr. Thiel has now unleashed this outstandingly stupid idea that college is a waste of time and that young people in America should forgo college, or drop out, and become entrepreneurs. And, putting his money where his very busy mouth is, Mr. Thiel is actually awarding $100,000 grants to young applicants to the Thiel Foundation who come up with “winning” entrepreneurial ideas.

The word “winning” is in quotes, because $100,000 is rarely enough to start up a viable business. It is enough to entice some young, impressionable and ambitious young people to drop out of school. Pointing to the examples of famous college dropouts like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, Thiel is trying to be the Pied Piper that will lead young people down the road to success.

One of the problems in this world is that there is an assumption that if someone is wealthy then they must be very smart. The smartest wealthy people know that they have become rich because of a combination of applied intelligence, timing and good fortune. And then you have people like Peter Thiel who actually believe that a few billion dollars has made him so damn smart that he can put forward this very dangerous idea to very impressionable young people.

Unfortunately, zealots like Thiel who are absolutely convinced of their brilliance, do not let inconvenient facts get in the way. The fact is that most start up businesses fail. The fact is that most successful entrepreneurs have persisted through several failures before they achieve even a modicum of success.

The fact is that most people are not cut out to be entrepreneurs. The fact is that while higher education is severely overpriced, it provides skill sets which are indispensable to a successful career and a fulfilling life. It is important to learn biology, architecture, and history and computer science. It is equally important to appreciate art, literature and the diversity of cultures that make up this planet. It is hard to learn about any of these things as a nineteen year old entrepreneur.

Pointing to Jobs, Zuckerberg and Gates as role models is disingenuous at best, ignorant at worst. Bill Gates did indeed drop out of Harvard to start his computer software company. But it is important to know that through good fortune and timing Gates spent thousands of hours learning computer programming at the University of Washington as a precocious high school student. Gates’ father was a partner in a Seattle law firm that represented numerous venture capital companies.

Steve Jobs did drop out of Reed College with no thought of becoming an entrepreneur. After backpacking around India he did get some insight into the business that made him a success. But it was not a direct path.

Mark Zuckerberg did drop out of Harvard and Facebook has made him a multibillionaire. As this column is being written the stock of Facebook is dropping just one day after its less than glorious initial public offering. In any event, Mr. Zuckerberg will be a billionaire. How much better the world is because of Facebook is a matter of debate.

Encouraging young people to be more focused in their studies makes sense. Encouraging young people to build a range of skills and perspectives that will enhance their personal career agility makes sense. Encouraging young people to explore entrepreneurial alternatives makes sense.

But Peter Thiel should know better than to encourage young people to drop out of school or to forego higher education altogether. By the way, Mr. Thiel has undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford University – so much for practicing what you preach. And Mr. Thiel has to know that his personal genius alone did not make him a billionaire – hard work, timing and luck have all played a role in his personal narrative of financial success.

His message is deceptive, dangerous and shameful and another example of a wealthy denizen of the right wing of the right wing thinking that they know how the rest of the world should live their lives.