Peter Thiel on Cain and Abel
A Theological Reading of Zero to One
The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 is a story about competition leading to envy and violence. It’s a story about scarcity, be it real or perceived, leading to enmity. Yet the story might have gone a different way. God tells Cain—whose sacrifice is rejected:
“Why are you distressed,
And why is your face fallen?
Surely, if you do right,
There is uplift.
But if you do not do right
Sin couches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master.”
Peter Thiel argues in Zero to One that the most successful people and companies are those who find a way to do something that nobody else can imitate, something with which nobody else can remotely compete. This imperative goes by different names: “Pursue a blue ocean strategy,” “Be a category king,” “Create a personal moat,” etc.
Influenced by literary theorist René Girard, Thiel’s point amounts to an injunction to transcend the Cain-and-Abel dynamic of fraternal competition. If you become so wholly you that nobody can imitate you, you won’t even be enviable. While the economic risk of competition in business (as in life) is that you will be forced to shrink your margins, the existential risk is deeper. People hate those who are similar to them, but not those who are incomparable.
At a strategic level, Cain and Abel are both condemned, so long as they are competing for divine love on the same axis. One is condemned to death, the other to murder.
But in God’s cryptic admonition to Cain, I hear a call for Cain not to compete, a call to walk away from the tournament for divine affection. It is a test that Cain fails, but one that we can hope, reading his cautionary tale, to pass in our own lives.
To read Thiel’s Zero to One as a business self-help book is to make a category error, to treat it as one book amongst others, a strategy book that competes with other strategy books.
Thiel says that monopolies pretend to be competitive while competitive companies pretend to be unique. The same is true of the book itself. It pretends to be another business book, but is actually a work of theology. Thiel is secularizing the Biblical insight that the human being is created in the divine image, that is, created to be a unique being. Cain fails to affirm his uniqueness and so looks to compare himself with Abel for validation. This basic sense of insecurity ensures a violent world. Many people and businesses can succeed in a narrow sense through imitation, but they fail to meet the human calling to be differentiated.
The subversive reading of Zero to One is that it’s not necessarily going to make you a good business founder, but it’s going to make you a more fulfilled person, win or lose, by taking you out of a tournament mindset.
Why do so many prodigies burn out? They can’t take the stress of competition. They don’t want to be Cain or Abel. What is the solution to the conundrum? To transform a desire to beat a competitor into a desire to find beauty in the game itself. Aesthetics moves us from asking “How can I win?” to “How can I appreciate?”
The desire to win and to compete isn’t going away any time soon. Neither is the desire for validation through comparison. But the extent to which we can be singular is the extent to which we can free ourselves from the stress of the game. To the extent that our doing this inspires others to do so, we are elevating the human condition.
In one reading of Thiel’s book, the appeal of the author as successful entrepreneur and investor, is just cover, just marketing for an argument that should not depend upon a popular, cultural conception of success. If it did, the book would be a self-contradiction. In fact, the loss is ours that we need the message, “Be unique,” to come from the mouth of a wealthy celebrity.
Pirkei Avot teaches that one can pursue a noble goal for the wrong motivation and eventually come to correct one’s initial motivation. Perhaps this is the undertow of Zero to One. The moral is not that you, too, can build the next Google or become the next Lady Gaga (Thiel’s examples). You can’t. But that in reading a book that pretends to tell you to become the next Google or Gaga, you can free yourself from needing to be anything other than what you want to be.
Paradoxically, this rejection of consensus may the best chance you have of being the next Google. But morally and spiritually speaking, that’s besides the point. Come for the start-up advice, leave for the Kingdom of Heaven.
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