Courage, and Why it’s So Important for Entrepreneurs

This is Peter Thiel (pronounced “teal”), a Very Famous and Successful Entrepreneur and Venture Capitalist

Peter Thiel, serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist
Peter Thiel, serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist

You may remember Mr. Thiel from such movies as The Social Network, and famous lawsuits such as Bollea v. Gawker.

If you don’t know about Thielk, he’s a prominent venture capitalist and entrepreneur who invested early in Facebook and PayPal. He currently leads a company called Palantir. A Palantir is a device from The Lord of the Rings, which Thiel is an enormous fan of. So much so, he has drawn inspiration for the names of several of his other ventures.

Along with his business career, Thiel is known for his staunch conservative/libertarian political leanings. To many, this contrasts with the fact that he is gay. Thiel is also known for bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media mentioned above, which lead to Gawker’s demise. Thiel claims he did so to protect privacy rights from invasive media. His detractors claim it was petty revenge against Gawker for outing him. 

I’m not interested in weighing in on that, or on most of what Peter Thiel has said and done. So, why am I talking about Peter Thiel?

Well, whatever else he may be, he’s basically reached legendary status in the world of entrepreneurship. Possessing such status makes him a great source of entrepreneurial insight.

One thing more people are taking notice of is an unusual interview question he mentions as being his favorite in his book “Zero to One”. That question is “what is something almost everyone will disagree with you about?”, or something to that effect.

From my own readings about Thiel and this question, there are a few things I’ve learned he is looking for; original thought, self-awareness, and courage. 

Why Does He Ask This Question, and Why Does it Matter for Entrepreneurs?

Theil asks this question to gauge if you’re the type of person to get swept up in popular opinion. He also seeks to learn by extension if your thoughts are originally your own.

It stands to reason that if all of your opinions are popular, they’re likely coming from somewhere else. That’s not to say you can’t have original thoughts that are popular. But if all of your thoughts are popular, you’re likely just following crowds.

Original thought seems like an obvious trait any leader should have. If all you do is agree with everyone else, wouldn’t that, by definition, make you a follower? Leaders receive admiration, accolades, and of course, the big bucks because they think of the things others don’t.

Anyone can simply follow through on what others tell them, the unique individual that can produce the thoughts others follow through on is the one with the capability to build and lead a successful venture. A conviction strongly held in the face of powerful opposition is the most original of thoughts.

On the other hand, one can’t just rely on one’s own original thoughts to navigate the arduous road to success. Self-awareness, the second criteria Thiel judges for, is a pretty key part of success, generally speaking.

The Importance of Self-Awareness

Everyone has flaws, and self-awareness is an important part of learning what those flaws are so one can improve upon them. A lack of self-awareness often leads people to not only not understand what their flaws are, but also to not understand they can even have flaws in the first place.

Ever meet someone who thought they could do no wrong, that blamed everything that went wrong on someone else, or blind circumstance? Someone who never accepted responsibility?

Those people lack self-awareness, and no one likes people like that. 

Exceptions can be found of course, but for the most part these people don’t fit the mold of successful entrepreneurs because they can’t learn what they need to to be successful.

In order to respond quickly enough to the vagaries of entrepreneurship one needs access to more knowledge than one can possess on their own. So, while it remains important to have original thoughts, a simple fact of life is that you will need others to enlighten you on things you don’t know. You will have to rely upon the conclusions of others, to trust in their expertise. Self-awareness makes this possible by informing you about what you don’t know, so you can find those who do, and just as importantly, listen to them.

This question tests your self-awareness by judging just how contrary your opinion is to mainstream thought. What Thiel has said he has often finds is that people answer this question with opinions that are actually quite common, but that they believe aren’t. He concludes that people who so lack the ability to properly evaluate the popularity of their opinions do so because of a corresponding lack of self-awareness.

Lastly, Thiel is Looking for Courage.

In fact, he has said he considers it the most important quality for an entrepreneur to possess, more so than brilliance. It takes a lot of courage to stand by a conviction that isn’t widely shared.

I happen to agree with Peter Thiel, for whatever that’s worth. As I pointed out in one of my earlier posts, I mentioned how I learned self doubt is one of the hardest parts of being an entrepreneur.

Self doubt is a kind of fear, fear of the unknown, of the potential danger in failure, and is our minds way of trying to avoid the imagined consequences. This fear is often compounded by our environment; statistics on failure rates of startups, rejection from investors, people telling you your idea is no good, or that it’s more sensible to play it safe and follow a secure career path.

Overcoming the self doubt produced by the bombardment of fear inducing signals takes a lot of courage, making it a core factor in the outcome of entrepreneurial success.

Furthermore, Entrepreneurship comes with risk. You risk your finances and you risk spending your valuable time, which you cannot replace, on a venture that will fail. During the course of your entrepreneurial journey you will have to take risks as you will often have far less than perfect information. Entrepreneurship involves a lot of trial and error, and big mistakes can threaten or even doom your chances of success, yet you must risk them all the same.

Without courage, you’ll never be able to face those risks, and thus you’ll never grow and succeed in creating and running a successful business.

Why do We Struggle With This?

As for courage, we seem to struggle with it because society loves to enforce conformity. Mainstream thought is quick to suppress dissent for fear it will be invalidated, rather than find an opportunity to strengthen itself by overcoming challenges to orthodoxy, which is made evident by the proliferation of circlejerks and echo chambers, and something I speculate may be a byproduct of natural human loss aversion.

Humans are social creatures, being sociable protects us, lets us find strength in numbers and lets us depend on each other for the things we need that we can’t procure on our own. Social rejection as a product of having contrary opinions is a hard thing to deal with.

A common punishment in some more primitive societies was called outlawing. With this punishment, a person was placed outside of the protection of the law and anyone could do to them as they pleased. I think this practice is an indicator of how intrinsic the desire to belong among one another is. Without such a desire, the enforced separation from society isn’t as much of a punishment.

Considering we risk rejection for unpopular opinions, or worse, outright pariah status, it’s not hard to understand why summoning courage to have opinions that aren’t mainstream is so difficult.

Self-awareness, or the problem of not having any, is a weird sort of issue. It’s not something you can really choose, at least not right away, to have and practice, since it takes an awareness to have in the first place. It’s quite a conundrum. If we’re made aware of the need to honestly evaluate ourselves, which is a big if since we rely on others for that sort of thing, we can begin to make a good faith effort to do so, but only then.

We Probably Need a Lot of Reminders as Well

Since most lessons take some time to truly sink in. If we aren’t fortunate enough to have been taught the importance of self-awareness and reminded of it, what are we to do?

There’s a famous, though apocryphal story that underlines the challenges around self-awareness.

Supposedly, Socrates’ best friend went to the Oracle of Delphi and asked who the wisest person in the world was. The Oracle responded “Socrates.” Socrates was incredulous, exclaiming this could not possibly be true because there was so much he didn’t know.

Socrates, the great Greek philosopher. Self-aware, original thinker with no shortage of courage

He set off to prove the Oracle wrong, speaking with statesmen, philosophers, academics, generals, craftsmen etc, all among the best at what they did. Though they were incredibly knowledgeable about their chosen domain, they opted to speak with authority on subjects they had little to no knowledge in, and certainly no expertise. Hearing these men bloviate foolishly forced Socrates to accept that the Oracle was correct. He was the wisest person in the world, because only he was wise enough to know what he didn’t know.

That’s what self-awareness is, knowing what you don’t know, and that’s incredibly hard.

As for Original Thought, That’s a Harder One to Answer.

Maybe that means it, ironically and perhaps even paradoxically, requires the simplest answer. Sometimes, we’re just stupid.

Maybe that’s too harsh.

Maybe many of us are just born and/or made to be followers. Leaders, after all, do need people to lead, which is what makes followers important. So, some people need to be made to be bereft of the qualities of leadership, in order to make leadership possible.

One last thought, let’s not jump to extremes as we often do. I don’t think Thiel expects an opinion so truly original that literally no one else but you has it. If you have such a view, you may either be a genius of epic proportions, outright insane, or some combination thereof.

My Contrary Opinion-Finding the Courage to Share it

Since I have extolled the virtues of having unpopular opinions, it would be remiss of me to not offer one.

Here’s the thing about having unpopular opinions, there’s nothing courageous about simply having them.

You need to SHARE them so they can be exposed to scrutiny and give people the chance to reject them; call you stupid, say you don’t know what you’re talking about etc etc. Everything they say when they hear something that challenges their preconceptions. So, in the interest of putting my metaphorical money where my equally metaphorical mouth is, here goes nothing.

I’m of the opinion that this man:

Khabib Nurmagomedov, UFC lightweight champion and future hall of famer
Khabib Nurmagomedov, UFC lightweight champion and future hall of famer

Could beat up this man:

Hafthor Julius Bjornsson, winner of the 2018 World's Strongest Man competition
Hafthor Julius Bjornsson, winner of the 2018 World’s Strongest Man competition

In a fair, weaponless fight.

Why I Need Courage to Say This

The first man is Khabib Nurmagomedov, a Russian UFC champion and one of the greatest Mixed Martial Artists of all time.

The second is Hafthor Julius Bjornsson, a strongman competitor who counts a championship at the 2018 World’s Strongest Man competition among many other accolades and testaments to his pure physical strength.

Khabib is 5’10” and with a natural weight of ~180-190lbs and competes at 155lbs.

Hafthor is 6’9″ and had a competition weight of ~420lbs.

I’m not going to go down the rabbit hole into justifying this, because that’s not important. I’ll happily get into that conversation another time. Rather, it makes more sense for me to explain why this is controversial in case it isn’t obvious.

Size and strength are factors that contribute to success in physical combat. This is a nigh-universal truth that all but the most ardent holdouts agree upon.

There are of course a litany of David and Goliath examples of smaller, weaker combatants overcoming much larger, stronger opponents, but most people agree that due to the inherent advantages size and strength gives, there can be such a vastness in strength and size between opponents that cannot be overcome with technique and fight intelligence.

An outlandish but pertinent example would be a man fighting a hippopotamus. Not going to go well for the man, no matter how superb his technical abilities are.

How I Know I Need Courage to Express This Opinion

I probably have supporters for this opinion among MMA enthusiasts and people who train in combat arts. As well, I suspect I have detractors among that same group. In its totality, MMA enthusiasts are a minority of people as a portion of the overall population.

I strongly suspect outside of those circles, the overwhelming majority of opinions are that Hafthor would beat the brakes off of Khabib.

If these premises are true, and I think you’d be hard pressed to prove otherwise, the inescapable conclusion is that my opinion is not widely shared, relative to the overall population at least.

Am I an idiot? Do I not know what I’m talking about? If you feel that way, come take this hill I’ve so quixotically chosen to die on. If you are one of the few who agrees, come join me fellow Spartan as we defend our position to the death against naysayers and contrarians.

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