Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Compounding returns of intelligence"

This is from Stanford's CS183 course on startups. The lecturers include Peter Thiel, Max Levchin and Stephen Cohen of Palantir.

Stephen Cohen: We tend to massively underestimate the compounding returns of intelligence. As humans, we need to solve big problems. If you graduate Stanford at 22 and Google recruits you, you’ll work a 9-to-5. It’s probably more like an 11-to-3 in terms of hard work. They’ll pay well. It’s relaxing. But what they are actually doing is paying you to accept a much lower intellectual growth rate. When you recognize that intelligence is compounding, the cost of that missing long-term compounding is enormous. They’re not giving you the best opportunity of your life. Then a scary thing can happen: You might realize one day that you’ve lost your competitive edge. You won’t be the best anymore. You won’t be able to fall in love with new stuff. Things are cushy where you are. You get complacent and stall. So, run your prospective engineering hires through that narrative. Then show them the alternative: working at your startup.
This is a good argument, although for some personality types the security and comfort level at Google might lead to more learning than at a stressful startup. Maximizing intellectual growth is one of the main reasons I chose theoretical physics over finance or (exclusively working on) startups.


Andrew Gelman said...


I'm sure Peter Theil is a smart guy but he also seems to be a bit of a bullshitter, or at least to fit into the all-too-common pattern of overconfident rich person (see links here) in the George Soros mode (although with different politics).  How do you think this observation should affect how we think about Theil's advice?

steve hsu said...

Thiel is a big risk taker and has correspondingly strong opinions. I don't think he's in the category of "cautious, careful thinker" so, yes, you should weigh his advice carefully before accepting it. He made a very aggressive global macro call with his hedge fund a few years ago that, as far as I understand, went very badly. On the other hand he probably more than made up for it with his early Facebook investment ...

MtMoru said...

Total bullshit for all but silicon valley and mostly bullshit there too. Steve's own story is very very very rare when all business starters are considered.

Generally entrepreneurs start companies doing something their former employer did or all their former employer did and more.

Read the bios of the Forbes 400. Read the bios of former very rich men. It's all there dumkopfs.
There is also the case of the "intrapreneur" who inherited his family's business and expanded. Sam Walton is an example.

Thiel has had the intelligence to fund the Methuselah Mouse Prize and at least one other project along the same lines in Reno. How many of his other fellow money bags has he convinced?

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