I took Thiel's class at Stanford and I can tell you that Thiel is kind of a nut. He has a lot of very smart, very on point things to say -- however he is either gravely misinformed or pretty much delusional in his views of broader academia and its role in the proliferation of technology. You can see this tangibly from his founders fund investments in the bio sciences sector. Thiel views everything through the lens of incentives and grossly "overfits" this methodology to academic research arguing that the incentive to publish and be peer reviewed is responsible for the break down of truly ground breaking research. So instead he throws money at equally delusional (but somewhat qualified) PhDs in advanced fields for which he seems to have little grasp for. You see the same patterns in the people selected here -- ideas that sound "cool" as if from a sci-fi novel but tangibly very distant from real markets and profits.
I doubt his fund gets deal flow from serious silicon valley technology firms.
The posts on this thread remind me of that quote, "To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing."
I would bet good money that none of the critics below have done anything of much weight or significance.
There are two kinds of criticism, the kind that builds and the kind that criticize just to criticize.
The difference is in the intent.
Critics who build are giving feedback because they want the hearer to reach their full potential and be better, "You are almost there, but I see a few things that you could do to really take this to the next level. Don't settle. Really take this thing to the ground and do it right."
Critics who criticize for the sake of criticizing usually have nothing really useful to say. They don't care about the individual or institution they criticize. They usually have nothing of value to add. They are like spectators at a football game, who cheer or boo because it's fun. For these people, disagreeing is not done with the intent to help, but only with the intent to disagree. It's a waste of energy.
The average tuition cost is approximately $16,000 per year. Plus assume another $10,000 in living costs, books, etc. $26,000 in total for a complete cost of $104,000 in a 4 year period. Some people choose to go more expensive by going to a private college and some people choose to go a little cheaper by going public but this is an average. Also, a huge assumption is that its just for a 4 year period. According to the Department of Education, only 54% of undergraduates graduate within 6 years. So for the 46% that don’t graduate, or take 10 years to graduate, this is a horrible investment. But lets assume your children are in the brilliant first half who finish within six years (and hopefully within four).
Is it worth it? First, let’s look at it completely from a monetary perspective. Over the course of a lifetime, according to CollegeBoard, a college graduate can be expected to earn $800,000 more than his counterpart that didn’t go to college. $800,000 is a big spread and it could potentially separate the haves from the have-nots. But who has and who doesn’t?
If I took that $104,000 and I chose to invest it in a savings account that had interest income of 5% per year I’d end up with an extra $1.4 million dollars over a 50 year period. A full $600,000 more. That $600,000 is a lot of extra money an 18 year old could look forward to in her retirement. I also think the $800,000 quoted above is too high. Right now most motivated kids who have the interest and resources to go to college think it’s the only way to go if they want a good job. If those same kids decided to not go to college my guess is they would quickly close the gap on that $800,000 spread.
There are other factors as well. I won’t be spending $104,000 per child when my children, ages 10 and 7, decide to go to college. College costs have historically gone up much faster than inflation. Since 1978, cost of living has gone up three-fold. Medical costs, much to the horror of everyone in Congress, has gone up six-fold. And college education has gone up a whopping tenfold. This is beyond the housing bubble, the stock market bubble, any bubble you can think of.
So how can people afford college? Well, how has the US consumer afforded anything? They borrow it, of course. The average student now graduates with a $23,000 debt burden. Up from $13,000 12 years ago. Last year, student borrowings totaled $75 billion, up 25% from the year before. If students go on to graduate degrees such as law degrees they can see their debt burden soar to $200,000 or more. And the easy borrowing convinces colleges that they can raise prices even more.
I think Thiel is grossly underestimating the value in college, especially for the students in this Fellowship.
Thiel argues (elsewhere) that college is only worthwhile if you have a good idea of what you hope to get out of it. I completely disagree. For most people, college is the time that you discover your interests and figure out what you want to do with your life.
Even for these students, who seem to know exactly what they want to do, college is invaluable. It's not a coincidence that most of the major tech companies of the world (Microsoft, Google, Facebook, etc.) were started while their founders were in college. In many ways, it is the perfect incubator: you have plenty of domain experts readily available to talk to, a good supply of smart tech people, and no requirement that your startup make any money yet.
So, IMHO, Thiel is doing a disservice to these students by paying them to drop out.
For most people, college is the time that you discover your interests and figure out what you want to do with your life.
Is there any evidence that attending college is the only avenue to accomplishing those ends? I personally think that it looks that way simply because most people go to college during the years that they "discover your interests and figure out what you want to do with your life." Building a startup strikes me as an equally valid way to explore possibilities, discover interests, and figure things out.
I'm certainly not arguing college is the only way, just the most common. I'm sure some people may figure things out through doing a startup, but in most cases (this Fellowship being an exception) they won't have as many resources at their disposal as they would at a college.
I think you overestimate the implied value of going directly from high school to 4 year college to potentially graduate school. Taking a year or two off in the middle of that to explore things OUTSIDE college, particularly if being paid $50k/yr to do it, seems perfectly reasonable. If you have great traction in what you're doing, stick with it -- otherwise you still have the option of going back to school.
I agree with you on this, but it seems like most (if not all) of the students in the article have zero traction thus far. Hence the overly abstract and idealistic descriptions of their projects. A fair amount haven't even started college.
The idea isn't that their projects are super impressive, but that they themselves are impressive (by having done some stuff), and will use 2y in the bay area to find and do awesome things. The article kind of misleads.
They will probably stick to their areas of interest (bio people, etc.), but their specific project is likely to be something new.
The "dropout of college mania" will hurt America in the long run. The most talented young people are pursuing gold rush ideas instead of investing in deep learning. College leads to grad schools and grad schools created phd's. If something is broke along the chain, the result will be catastrophic in the long run.
Historically, it seems academics have created the technologies and then "high school dropouts" would pickup on that technology, apply it to the real world, and make a fortune. Obviously some academics have been able to their ideas to market, Google is a notable example, but generally it does not seem to work out that way.
It is no wonder that the bright minds are starting to want to focus more on the business side so they too can make the fortunes. College is not necessarily an asset for that role. To see them return to school to create the technologies will require incentives that can compete on the level that running a major business offers, and I'm not sure where we'd even begin to make that happen. How do you compete with the American Dream itself?
Startups are the new graduate school. Well, in some people's eyes anyway. I can see some merit in that position, although I think there is a place for both.
That said, I'm a huge fan of this initiative by Peter Thiel. It just gives one group of people some more options, which is a good thing. And these folks can always go back to college later if they choose. Nothing says college is limited to 18-25 year olds right out of high-school.
There seems to be an implicit assumption in what you just said, that I strongly disagree with. You seem to be saying that startups are only capable of tackling "iPhone games" and "web apps that let you share photos of your cats". I see no reason whatsoever to believe that that is true.
Startups, especially the ones that manage to get VC funding, are not limited to the world of "a laptop, a cafe, a collaborator and a stack of "For Dummies" books."
Somebody in an earlier thread mentioned how "universities are the best source of scientific papers," etc. as part of his argument against Thiel's approach. But, while it's just one anecdote, I'm working on a startup (not funded by Thiel, or anyone but the founders) and we have subscriptions to a pile of relevant IEEE, ACM and AAAI journals that relate to the work we're doing, and that's not even considering how much research is available on the 'Net.
Personally I see no reason that startups can't (and shouldn't) be pushing the envelope technologically, with the caveat that certain fields would require huge capital investments for equipment and personnel, that might be beyond the reach of even deep pocketed investors. But not all fields fit that description.
I am, of course, exaggerating when I talk about all startups being web apps and iPhone games. On the other hand, an awful lot of the startups you'll find floating around the HN ecosystem do seem to fall into one category or the other.
Many startups do, indeed, work on bigger problems. Batteries, solar power, freaking space travel. But who starts these? Not people who picked startups over university, that's for sure. To work on big real-world problems, you generally need a pretty darn strong background in science and/or engineering before you can even get started.
I'm not sure I agree with you assertion. John Carmack is a notable college dropout who has been working on space travel.
Capital is the only thing holding anyone back from working on those things. The reason you may see more scientists and engineers having access to the necessary capital is because they generally have that extra special drive to focus on that subject matter which excites investors to bring forth the money to make it happen. Someone with the same drive, but without a degree, will probably go just as far – they are a very rare breed though.
Any random person who wants to just start a business, any business, can go to the coffee shop and start working away. They don't need capital from anyone. That is why people working on big problems are few and far between. You have to really want to work on space travel, or whatever, to put forth the extra effort to find the already rare investors.
Ok, I can (and do) agree that many startups fall into your category of "a cafe, a laptop and a stack of "For Dummies" boooks." But isn't that sort of thing the very thing Thiel was railing against recently? He was the one talking about "Why don't we have flying cars yet," no? So it appears that he, at least, thinks that some of the kids are going to lead something that results in some breakthroughs.
Note too, that these Thiel backed startups receive mentoring and advice and assistance from Peter and his network of connections. I'm sure some of them are able to put together teams of really talented people to complement the founder(s).
Reminds me of that great quote I heard about Rhodes Scholars:
A Rhodes Scholar: someone with a great future behind him.
The same type of lax logic can be observed in the world's infatuation with the dramatic rise of Japan in the 80s, dubbed the "Japanese Miracle". This logic can be seen, repeatedly, throughout human history, with more recent examples being Communism in the 60s, the "Asian Tigers" of the 90s, and the "New Economy" babble of pretty much every single human period. Indeed, I'm seeing the same kind of statements about China and India as the "New World Powers".
Here's the reasoning (if you want to call it that):
Look at that growth rate! If this keeps up - sooner or later they'll be stronger than America!
Start low enough (19 year olds anyone?), and any growth will look enormous (startups; this applies to you too). If they kept at the growth rate you claim we'd end up with India and China being greater in size and scope than the entire universe.
Look everyone! This kid got into MIT at 14 years old! Extrapolate that out a few years - he'll clearly be too awesome for us mere mortals to even comprehend!
I mean really, that's honestly how people think. They never check back on said prodigy 10 years later, who has become, just as one would expect, a moderately accomplished human being (reversion to the mean). Indeed many just plain flame out and disappear from sight (a sad fact).
Woo extrapolation! It works right? Come on, I mean it's not like these systems are complex at all!
Statistics guy just shakes his head in complete disgust
Feeling was implied I just gave it a cynical twist, and I quote:
Ritik Malhotra (19, San Jose, CA) Ritik began programming at age 8; started a popular web forum at the age of 12 that grew to over 32,000 members; and ran a web hosting and software consultancy business at the age of 13, garnering over a 600x return on his initial investment.
I wonder what he started with - $10?
Taylor Wilson (18, Texarkana, AR) became the youngest person in history to create nuclear fusion. Since then, he has produced the lowest-cost and lowest-dose active interrogation system for the detection of enriched uranium ever developed. As a Thiel Fellow, Taylor will focus on both counter-terrorism and the production of medical isotopes for use in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
I ... no ... I can't even address this.
Omar Rizwan (18, East Hanover, NJ) wants to change the world through the control and analysis of information.
Nothing big there. Just changing the world. Don't mind me.
Jimmy Koppel (20, St. Louis, MO) has a passion for software engineering – and a plan to make it much more efficient. Modifying software today often involves hundreds of thousands of small, similar adjustments that require a great deal of time and money. James will fix that problem by developing new tools to automate the process.
It's almost like software engineering is real work.
But hey, this kid is going to "automate the process".
Yoonseo Kang (18, Mississauga, ON, Canada) recognizes that society’s potential for innovation and abundance can only be achieved if knowledge and the factors of production are accessible for everyone.
Yeah, what's the deal with all these governments.
Who needs clean water, affordable food, stable electricity load, good laws, sewerage, and a safety net. People just need open hardware, and crowd sourced community blah blah blah - that'll solve all our problems. Right? RIGHT!
Noor Siddiqui (17, Clifton, VA) is inspired to galvanize people for the good of others. As a Thiel Fellow, she will work to give students across the globe access to upward mobility – and industries access to an untapped work force – with the goal of mobilizing one billion people in the next decade.
That's like MBA speak meets HR meets a Dilbert comic.
You can't make this stuff up. It's insane.
Clearly humble there. I mean, of course, no claims, apart from the MOBILISING ONE BILLION PEOPLE. But hey, that's just me little old me. What would I know?
revolutionize our country’s antiquated system using technology. As a Thiel Fellow, he will focus on Flashcards
I agree with your points in the large, but don't fault the kids. Youthful hubris, especially on the scale you've highlighted here, is ridiculous, hopelessly naive, indescribably arrogant, and... breathtakingly wonderful. That ill-founded self confidence will fail every single time - except when it doesn't, in which case the results are magnificent.
My own optimism is nearly spent, which often leads me to hopelessness. That's held at bay by listening to these kinds of kids talk about their ambitions. Don't worry, they'll figure out it's hard, and in a few years some of them will laugh at their former innocence (or blush at their swagger). In the meantime they'll have swung a hammer a few times at the infinite brick wall. Please don't wish them away.
But these kids are being set up to fail. They cannot, and will not, live up to these expectations.
Honestly, it feels like putting kids in a zoo and seeing what happens. It's a spectacle, and I'm sure some enjoy it, but it looks somewhat exploitative (like some aspects of Hollywood :).
When you state that sometimes > the results are really magnificent < you mean that hedgehogs (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hedgehog_and_the_Fox) are usually wrong, but when they are right - they are really right (computers/transistors/radio/internet/space/AI).
I agree. But usually they are very, very wrong. I, like you, want to be proven wrong (I practice double think - I like being a hedgehog too!)
Most of this is just bold claims without any backing. Every kid thinks they are the next Einstein, Jobs, or Gates. For the more technically oriented people, university provides the best environment for access to scientific papers and domain experts around. Hell, Thiel's own startup Palantir hires people "preferably with phd's." It's not the degree that matters, but what you learn during it.
Thiel has some form of political agenda and this is just a stunt to try and further it. I do not claim to know what his agenda is, but if I had to guess, I'd say his aim is to promote his libertarianism ideals.
Thiel is convinced that college in its current form has become a waste of time and talent for the smartest students. He agrees with the "signaling" model of education whereby the primary "benefit" of having a degree is just that it proves you were the sort of person who could complete a degree; this project serves as a test of that model.
If these kids do well, eventually "skip college and do something useful instead" might become a socially viable alternative to the default expectation that the smarter you are, the more time you should waste in college before you go out and try to do anything.
This is a startup blog. Their goal is to make everything feel amazing, so that more people become fascinated with "entrepreneurship", so that they can get more readers.
A few months ago, one of my colleague remarked that the main thing that tech blogs and new-gen incubators (ie ycombinator, thiel fellowship, etc.) did was make entrepreneurs out of people who wouldn't have created a company otherwise. I feel that there's some truth to that.
Offtopic: confluence, I'd like to get in touch with you, btw. Feel free to reach out through contact info in my profile :)
Respectfully, I met these people at their final event a month ago.
Taylor Wilson specifically is one of the most amazingly intelligent people I've met of any age. Yes, building a Farnsworth–Hirsch fusor is not amazing for a grad student or well resourced adult. Doing it successfully is still a great project for an individual, and his knowledge of nuclear engineering in general was at least at the same level as nuclear engineering grad students I've talked with.
Anyone can sound trivial in a 1 sentence mass market summary. "Invented a shopping cart, sold it to Yahoo, invests small amounts of money (less than a decent car) several in startups per year" "wrote bingo software for teachers, has a blog" "developed a website to share photos" "with a cofounder, developed a website to help people find things on the Internet".
I think you're right, it was just Clinton. Mind you there's only 1794 living Rhodes scholars in the United States and one of them is a former President, so it increases your chance of becoming PoTuS from one in eighty million to one in 1794, and that's not bad.
Anyway, the point of all this isn't to pick on Rhodes Scholars but to point out the unreliability of child prodigies. In fact, Rhodes Scholars tend not to be the child-prodigy types at all. The selection process includes not just academics but also sport, social service and character requirements, completely inaccessible to the kid who has spent his entire childhood locked in a room being drilled on calculus. Rhodes Scholars tend to be smart but well-rounded, sociable and a bit conformist, exactly the sort of people who grow up to be politicians.
A Rhodes scholarship is no guarantee of success, but if I could buy shares in someone's life I'd put my money into Rhodes scholars rather than teenage prodigies.
Regarding that quote about Rhodes Scholars--since no one has mentioned it yet, I will mention the phrase: "regression to the mean". If, from a diverse population, you select a subpopulation with high scores on trait X measured by some noisy test, and you then re-test them sometime later (so that the noise is generated by fresh randomness the second time), you will likely find that they score worse. This is because it is likely that the subpopulation you selected mostly benefited from the noise, and being lucky the first time is unrelated to being lucky the second time. (That's one way to characterize luck.)
The regression-to-the-mean effect is obviously proportional to the ratio of "noise" to "intrinsic qualities". If the amount of noise is close to zero, then the regression will be small; if the noise is gigantic or the intrinsic quality is zero, then the regression will be almost complete. To illustrate the second case, you might imagine a population rolling six-sided dice, and a silly researcher selecting all those who rolled sixes and being astonished that their average had dropped to 3.5 on the second roll. If you then imagine that each person had a private number from 0 to 50 that they added to their die rolls, then the test suddenly becomes much more meaningful.
With that in mind, we can hope to be more than simple-mindedly impressed or simple-mindedly cynical about Rhodes Scholars, child prodigies, Thiel Fellowship recipients, and so on. How much "noise" is there, and what can be done about it?
For example, suppose that they're looking for people who do amazing things. Suppose that most people who do amazing things do them because they're interested in them, and that there's a bunch of pseudo-randomness in what you happen to be interested in. Then... they'll pick a bunch of people who just happened to be interested in doing things that the scholarship people found amazing. What will these people be interested in doing next? there's a good chance it'll be completely not-amazing. (Yes, some people have a deep, established interest in some field that is unlikely to change--but even within a field or subfield, you will find interesting things that are amazing and interesting things that are not.) In that case, either they will look disappointing, or they will decide (probably due to feeling pressure) to try to work on amazing things even if they're not interesting. I doubt if it's impossible to pull off the second option, but it is (by stipulation) a significant mode change for these people, and some received wisdom says it's not likely to go well.
I hope that, instead, they are looking for people who have intense interests and great natural ability, and will try to shelter them from external pressure to produce "amazing" things, and that this press release is just crap they put out to please the media. Meanwhile, I guess there might also be successful people who thrive on that kind of pressure... I just identify most strongly with the first group. Also, it probably is a good thing to celebrate people's achievements. It just carries some danger with it...
Anyway, I've described one type of amazing youth for which their apparent amazingness depends significantly on a capricious factor (what they're interested in). I'm confident about my qualitative description, because I know myself and some other people that I think are of this type. How significant is the interest factor? how capricious is it? can interest be deliberately controlled to some extent? Are there other types of amazing youth? is their current amazingness also subject to significant amounts of randomness? This, at least, would enable us to judge how much disappointingness we'd expect simply from the regression-to-the-mean principle.
Do people do serious scientific investigation about this sort of thing? Seems like the Thiel Foundation had better, given that they're working in this exact field. But charity-style things probably don't have systematic incentives to perform well... maybe we can hope that Peter Thiel will apply the kind of ruthless determination to succeed that I feel he has [maybe they're in fact selecting youths who exhibit this trait, which certainly seems it'd be more deterministic than "interest"], and figure this stuff out. Maybe.
Your view is very biased. What if the successes are often random? What if in truth many people could be founders if in the right place at the right time? How many of those people with higher degrees go on to be successful? Even founders?
Hell, I can point you one successful founder who went through a degree and even a graduate degree: Peter Thiel. Yet you say:
"Of these 10, some go study medicine/law/engineering and disappear from the pool."
Yes, the world is very complex, and you probably know less than you think you do. As do we all. The most honest among us always remember "we do not really understand."
I don't think I quoted out of context. You seemed to be identifying people being taken out of the "successful pool." Here is the context:
"1000 possible billionaires are born everyday. Most die in the third world. The remainder come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Cuts that to about 100. Of those 100, few are located in places like Silicon Valley. Now you are around 10. Of these 10, some go study medicine/law/engineering and disappear from the pool. Down to 1-2. Most of these guys fail."
I will point out that Thiel is not completely anti-college. His position on the matter is that if you want to go to college, you should have a firm grasp of what you hope to achieve out of it, not because you are blindly following your peers or acting on advice from elders.
If you do have very specific goals in mind during your stay in college, $100K isn't going to sway you away anyway. Otherwise, it is probably a blessing to realize that there are other options available to you. Too many end up going to college simply because they do not see any other options or believe it is the only path to success and that is what Thiel is against.
If Thiel were to have children that decided to go to college, I am sure he would support their endeavours. It would not go against his worldview as long as they attended for the right reasons.
Most high school graduates have no idea what college can do for them and what they want to accomplish in life. Giving them $100K to do start-ups ain't helping. College -- for many -- is a time of exploration. A liberal art education provides the essential ingredients for a well-founded life. It's more than just getting in, learn the skills and get out to get a job. Further, college provides an environment where you meet and learn from your competitive peers.
Thiel and you probably seem to think that colleges are like vocational schools. But they don't.
Thiel and you probably seem to think that colleges are like vocational schools.
Quite the contrary. How often do you hear someone say something along the lines of "I'm going to school to get a good job"? If the majority of students actually believed it was just a life-improving experience with no expectations about future employment opportunities, there would be no problem. The reality is that most people do consider college to be essentially a vocational school and Thiel is working to put a stop to that mentality.
The fact is that if you only want a good job, there are much better avenues for finding that. Thiel is using his own money to demonstrate, to at least some students, that point. Again, if there were no expectations about employment in the process, the $100K wouldn't be all that interesting to the perspective student anyway because a "well-founded" life would be the goal, not money.
The fact that so many are keen to join his team speaks to the vocational-based mentality around the idea of college that has come to be.
It is, at best, equivalent to a salary anyone bright enough to graduate with a college degree could make straight out of high school. Perhaps often less, as the expenses of running a business can start to pile up even more quickly than that. The money alone isn't going to promote sway any more than the compensation out of any job would.
What it does gain someone, however, is the ability to work on their own ideas full time. Given that you are reading HN, I'm sure you can see how that can be appealing. If they have something amazing that they are ready to run with at that age, going to college at that juncture would have probably been a poor idea anyway.
College is not about finding a job or making money, so anyone who is interested in what college really has to offer is not going to find this offer by Thiel particularity appealing to begin with. Their sights are set on something much different.
It is, at best, equivalent to a salary anyone bright enough to graduate with a college degree could make straight out of high school.
Oh, bullshit. There are lots of people fitting the rather low bar of "bright enough to graduate with a college degree", who do indeed get college degrees, and who never even get close to earning $100K.
There are very, very few people who earn $100K just out of high
school regardless of what they do. I can think of two categories:
a) People who spent all their spare time in high school learning computer programming and who either have some really good contacts when they leave school or are amazingly good at hustling
There's a big difference between being paid $100K to start a business and being paid $100K to have fun with. Thiel is funding the former. Out of that money you will take living expenses, but most of the investment will go directly back into the business to make something of it. That is, after all, the goal.
Almost nobody makes $100K, degree or not, ever, in their lifetime (the top 5% earners begin at just shy of $90K, from what I recall). You also won't make $100K to spend as you please by taking his offer either. The realities are that you will probably take $20-40K of that money to spend on yourself, which is definitely not an income out of reach of anyone with just a plain old job. Heck, flipping hamburgers at McDonalds will pay that much on the low end.
It seems like a fantastic opportunity to me, but it's not a big money windfall. Not unless you can make something of your business.
My opinion, not at all official, even though I've helped out a tiny amount with the program as a mentor/judge:
The program basically cherry picks people who are already really successful and very likely to be successful no matter what. It then gives them a great 2y opportunity to work on cool stuff in lieu of college, which may work out for them, or may just be a great experience if they go back to college or take a job somewhere. Leaving college, instantly becoming part of a well-connected silicon valley network, etc. is a big advantage; while leaving MIT or Stanford may be somewhat debatable, leaving podunk u (especially if you're going into debt while there, and not getting much out of it beyond a curriculum you can get from the internet for free) is a more clear case.
There are basically two classes of people who don't belong in college now: the super high achievers for whom the opportunity cost of being in college is too high (Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook vs. Harvard, etc.), or people in marginal schools getting little out of it.
It's easy to take people from the margins of the first category and help them to be more successful (or just give them "parental cover" to drop out and follow their ambition). This is nice for them and for society. More importantly, it creates great examples to use in the debate over the latter. Not statistically valid examples, but politically valid.