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.

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6 thoughts on “There is Such a Thing as Too Smart

  1. steve fox says:

    Interesting to note that Thiel is a German immigrant… his world view seems to be a blend of Nazi philosophy and Ayn Rand.

  2. Hakim says:

    Wallace:

    This is a superb column. While college is not for everyone, the collegiate experience (espeically at the elite universities and colleges) is about being part of networks where ideas are shared. Facebook is the direct result Mark Zuckerberg’s experience while a student at Harvard. Let’s hope that Thiel will use his enormous wealth to creat hybrid forms of education and practical experience.

  3. KRF says:

    Thanks for including the rest of the background on Mr. Thiel. Seems that a lot of Republican supporters are against higher education for everyone (but their offspring)…does Thiel even have children?

  4. As Hakim noted, the not completed college stays of Zuckerberg (and Gates) played a critical role in their eventual success. Each left when the fledgling idea they had developed in college was already on its way to being a success. Each also knew that if the venture failed, they could always go back. Jobs took a riskier path, although even he credited his love for design — particularly calligraphy — to his brief stint at Reed.

    My brother runs one of the largest and most innovative Community Health Centers in the country without benefit of college. He has already sent two children to Wesleyan. Thiel starts with the truism that not everybody benefits from college. But the subliminal message is that society shouldn’t do anything — especially levy taxes — to make access to college easier or to prepare children for higher education. Just one more brick in building the edifice of a two tier society.

  5. Lissette Ortiz says:

    When I heard that Mr. Thiel was awarding students to drop out from college, I thought it was an insult and an unrealist idea. This may seem reacheable for individuals who are coming from wealthy environment, h

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