The Future Is in the Quaking Swamps

There is a remarkable connection between two of my favorite thinkers—Peter Thiel and H.D. Thoreau. Each offers the same prescription for life, a prescription that we need more of today:

Live (and think) at the frontier, on the edge of discovery, not in the cozy establishment.

Favor radical discovery and exploration over incremental—and conventional—improvement.

Free yourself from the known, get lost in the hidden and unknown.

These passages are from Peter Thiel’s Zero to One and H.D. Thoreau’s essay Walking.

Thoreau: It is remarkable how few events or crises there are in our histories; how little exercised we have been in our minds; how few experiences we have had.

Thoreau: Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.

Thoreau: My desire for knowledge is intermittent; but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence.

Thiel: EVERY ONE OF TODAY’S most famous and familiar ideas was once unknown and unsuspected.

Thiel: The clearest way to make a 10x improvement is to invent something completely new. If you build something valuable where there was nothing before, the increase in value is theoretically infinite.

Thiel: You can’t find secrets without looking for them.

I think Thiel would agree that the best opportunities are “in the swamps.”

Thiel: As you craft a plan to expand to adjacent markets, don’t disrupt: avoid competition as much as possible.

Thiel: Indeed, if your company can be summed up by its opposition to already existing firms, it can’t be completely new and it’s probably not going to become a monopoly.

Thiel: Competition can make people hallucinate opportunities where none exist.

Both authors disparage the value of a conventional education (an attitude to which I am sympathetic):

Thoreau: In literature it is only the wild that attracts us. Dulness [sic] is but another name for tameness. It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in “Hamlet” and the “Iliad,” in all the Scriptures and Mythologies, not learned in the schools, that delights us.

Thiel: The best place to look for secrets is where no one else is looking. Most people think only in terms of what they’ve been taught; schooling itself aims to impart conventional wisdom.

Thiel: The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd but to think for yourself.

  Thiel: All Rhodes Scholars had a great future in their past.

In this next grouping, think of Thoreau’s “West” as “zero to one” and “East” as “globalization” or “one to N”

Thoreau: We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure…To use an obsolete Latin word, I might say, Ex Oriente lux; ex Occidente FRUX. From the East light; from the West fruit.

Thoreau: The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, thatin Wildness is the preservation of the World. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind. Our ancestors were savages. The story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a meaningless fable. The founders of every State which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source. It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the Northern forests who were.

Thiel: The act of creation is singular, as is the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange… the best paths are new and untried.

Thiel: The paradox of teaching entrepreneurship is that such a formula necessarily cannot exist; because every innovation is new and unique, no authority can prescribe in concrete terms how to be innovative.

Thiel: Indeed, the single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places

Thiel: There are two kinds of secrets: secrets of nature and secrets about people. Natural secrets exist all around us; to find them, one must study some undiscovered aspect of the physical world. Secrets about people are different: they are things that people don’t know about themselves or things they hide because they don’t want others to know. So when thinking about what kind of company to build, there are two distinct questions to ask: What secrets is nature not telling you? What secrets are people not telling you?Secrets about people are relatively underappreciated. Maybe that’s because you don’t need a dozen years of higher education to ask the questions that uncover them: What are people not allowed to talk about? What is forbidden or taboo?

Thiel: At the macro level, the single word for horizontal progress is globalization—taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere. China is the paradigmatic example of globalization; its 20-year plan is to become like the United States is today…The single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress is technology. The rapid progress of information technology in recent decades has made Silicon Valley the capital of “technology” in general. But there is no reason why technology should be limited to computers. Properly understood, any new and better way of doing things is technology… most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more. Without technological change, if China doubles its energy production over the next two decades, it will also double its air pollution. If every one of India’s hundreds of millions of households were to live the way Americans already do—using only today’s tools—the result would be environmentally catastrophic. Spreading old ways to create wealth around the world will result in devastation, not riches. In a world of scarce resources, globalization without new technology is unsustainable.

Thiel and Thoreau are great, but it is hard to top yet another author with a “T” surname.

The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.


Still round the corner there may wait

A new road or a secret gate,

And though we pass them by today,

Tomorrow we may come this way

And take the hidden paths that run

Towards the Moon or to the Sun.

The road doesn’t have to be infinite after all.

Take the hidden paths. – J.R. Tolkien


So where are the hidden paths? This is the million (or billion) dollar question. As many great creative thinkers have said, the hard part is to find the right problem/ask the right questions.

For now, I can offer one suggestion: journey inward. We spend so much time collecting information so that we can know more, but tend to spend very little time getting to know the knower.

Having spent many hours across several years developing a meditation practice, I can attest that inward exploration is equally difficult and rewarding.

The mindset that slowly develops with a consistent meditation practice is compatible with wildness and the existing on the frontier. You learn to look at the world with a fresh, open set of eyes. Meditation helps you develop what’s known as a “beginner’s mind,” a mind unencumbered by convention and accumulated baggage. I’ve noticed I use two words a lot more now: “why” and “no.” These two words, used liberally, are powerful. They’ve made me happier. I think they can do the same for you.



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