Thiel’s Early Life and Education
Peter Andreas Thiel (b. 1967) was born in Frankfurt am Main in what was then West Germany.
Thiel’s father was a chemical engineer, who emigrated with his family to the US when Peter was only one year old, settling in Cleveland, Ohio.
A little later, the senior Thiel began a career working for a series of mining companies, which entailed frequent relocations for his family.
Peter Thiel was raised largely in South Africa and in South West Africa (now Namibia), until the age of ten. During this period, the boy had to change elementary schools seven times.
In 1977, the family relocated back to the US, this time settling in Foster City, California, a small city on the western shore of San Francisco Bay, adjacent to San Mateo.
The young Thiel was an avid reader, especially of science fiction and fantasy literature—his favorite authors were Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and J.R.R. Tolkien—as well as a fervent participant in the medieval-themed, role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons.
Thiel was also gifted in mathematics, winning a statewide competition while in middle school.
In high school, Thiel discovered the works of Ayn Rand and the political philosophy known as libertarianism. He has stated that he also admitted the optimism and the forthright opposition to communism of then-President Ronald Reagan.
In 1985, Thiel was valedictorian of his graduating class at San Mateo High School.
Thiel attended nearby Stanford University for his undergraduate education. He majored in philosophy and became involved in campus debates over the curriculum between traditional and multicultural perspectives, which were just getting under way at that time.
Against the background of this burgeoning controversy, Thiel co-founded a new student journal for the purpose of providing a forum for defending the traditional view of Western Civilization.
The conservative author and activist Irving Kristol provided funding for Thiel and his co-founder, who named their magazine the Stanford Review.
Thiel obtained his bachelor’s degree in 1989 and immediately enrolled in Stanford Law School. He received his JD in 1992.
After graduation, Thiel clerked for a Judge on the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
Next, Thiel worked briefly as a securities lawyer for the law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, in New York City, before taking a job in 1973 as a derivatives trader with the Swiss bank, Crédit Suisse, where he worked in the currency options department.
During the curriculum controversy at Stanford, President Reagan’s Secretary of Education William J. Bennett had weighed in on the dispute, strongly criticizing the university’s adoption of multiculturalism. In this way, Peter Thiel made Bennett’s acquaintance.
In 1993, while Thiel was still working for Crédit Suisse, Bennett tapped him to work as a speechwriter. This was Thiel’s first foray into electoral politics.
In 1996, Thiel resigned from Crédit Suisse and returned to California, in search of a more meaningful way of making a living.
Once back in Silicon Valley, Thiel picked up on the “dot-com” revolution going on around him. He decided to try his hand at a career as a venture capitalist.
Thiel raised $1 million from friends and family and established his first company, Thiel Capital Management. Right out of the gate he lost $100,000, when an online startup he had invested in quickly went belly up.
Nothing daunted, in 1998 Thiel invested in a start-up of his own. Together with his friends Luke Nosek and Max Levchin, Thiel founded a company called Confinity. In 2001, Confinity was renamed PayPal.
The following year, 2002, eBay purchased PayPal for $1.5 billion. Thiel’s shares netted him $55 million.
After less successful investments in a hedge fund and a “big data” analysis company, in 2004 Thiel parlayed a relatively small $500,000 investment in a new company called Facebook into an astonishing $1 billion only eight years later, in 2012.
Thiel has been involved in many other, less-well-known ventures over the years.
Politically, Thiel has been an outlier among the hi-tech moguls of our time, being virtually the only prominent conservative among them.
Thiel was a generous supporter of the re-election campaign of President Donald J. Trump in 2020.
For this reason, Thiel has been harshly criticized by many of his “woke” or “progressive” colleagues as well as the political pundits working for the legacy mainstream press, as well as the technology commentariat.
More recently, Thiel has supported Blake Masters, the co-author of his bestselling book Zero to One (see “Books Co-authored by Thiel” below), in his successful bid to obtain the nomination of the Republican Party for his run for the office of US Senator from Arizona in the general election in the fall of 2022.
We have already discussed many of the sources for Thiel’s libertarian political beliefs.
It is perhaps more interesting to know that, in addition, the French philosopher René Girard, whom Thiel became acquainted with while at Stanford, has had a considerable influence on his thinking.
Girard is famous, among other things, for his theory that human culture rests on a foundation of mimesis. The aspect of the theory that particularly intrigued Thiel was its critique of competition.
Thiel has stated that:
The big problem with competition is that it focuses us on the people around us, and while we get better at the things we’re competing on, we lose sight of anything that’s important, or transcendent, or truly meaningful in our world.
Books Co-authored by Thiel
Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, with Blake Masters (2001).
The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and Political Intolerance on Campus, with David O. Sacks (1996).
Selected Books About Thiel
Chafkin, Max, The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power (2021).
Davis, Anthony, Peter Thiel: Life and Times of the Founder of Paypal, Board Member of Facebook and Author of Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future (2019).
Holiday, Ryan, Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue (2018).
Martin, B.W., ed., Understanding Peter Thiel and René Girard: Fascinating Quotes from Their Books and Interviews (2020).
Mathis, Austin, Peter Thiel: A Biography of the Contrarian (2020).
Simmons, Mike, Peter Thiel: A Biography (2017).
Soni, Jimmy, The Founders: Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and the Company That Made the Modern Internet (2022).