Peter Thiel on conventions, secrets, and mysteries

I spent last weekend at the Effective Altruism Summit. I have a bunch of blog posts I want to write about it, but first here’s a very quick reaction to Peter Thiel’s keynote address.

Peter Thiel has this idea of conventions, secrets, and mysteries. These class notes from a class Thiel taught at Stanford explain the concept well:

How hard it is to obtain the truth is a key factor to consider when thinking about secrets. Easy truths are simply accepted conventions. Pretty much everybody knows them. On the other side of the spectrum are things that are impossible to figure out. These are mysteries, not secrets. Take superstring theory in physics, for instance. You can’t really design experiments to test it. The big criticism is that no one could ever actually figure it out. But is it just really hard? Or is it a fool’s errand? This distinction is important. Intermediate, difficult things are at least possible. Impossible things are not. Knowing the difference is the difference between pursuing lucrative ventures and guaranteed failure.

A major idea between Thiel’s talk seemed to be that too many people think there are no secrets, only conventions and mysteries. This struck me as rather misguided. I dunno, maybe it’s true among venture capitalists who think they can only blindly make bets, but I suspect that among startup founders, for example, the bias is towards confusedly expecting secrets to come easy. People aren’t naturally good at working through the reasoning of, “if I figured this out so easily, probably someone else has thought of it before.” Still, I think the framework of conventions, secrets, and mysteries is a good one.

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