How to Discover Secrets

Throughout the book Zero to One, the central contrarian question that Peter Thiel addresses is, What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

Everyone of today’s most famous or familiar ideas was once unknown or unsuspected, be it in the field of science, or business. Today the Pythagoras Theorem is a part of elementary mathematics, but the relationship between a triangle’s sides was a secret for a millennia. Pythagoras had to work on it very hard before discovering it.

Thiel talks about three kinds of human goals:

  1. Easy: Goals that can be satisfied with minimal effort. Conventions.
  2. Hard: Goals that can be satisfied with serious effort. Secrets.
  3. Impossible: Goals that cannot be satisfied, no matter how much effort you put. Mysteries.

Knowing conventional truth is important, but this knowledge doesn’t give you an edge. Conventional truth is what you were taught in schools and colleges. But to build the future, you need to satisfy the hard goals. You need to uncover secrets.

Learning to build a chat app maybe hard work for you, but it’s something that has already been figured out (by humanity), documented, and shared. It maybe hard for you on a personal level to achieve it (especially if you are prone to procrastination), but it’s an easily achievable goal nonetheless—one without many unknowns. The actual hard goal is to turn a simple internet messaging app into a WhatsApp, or to find an entirely different way to build a chat app-one which is at least 10x better than the current method.

A secret is something important yet unknown, hard but doable, and not impossible.

However, most people behave as if there are no secrets left to find-that all the problems in the world are either solved, or impossible to solve. Others simply believe that it’s not their job to solve them.

Thiel mentions four social trends that are responsible for our disbelief in secrets:

  1. Incrementalism: We are taught that the right way to do things is to proceed one step at a time, one day at a time, one pay check or one grade at a time. In school you would easily get an A for doing exactly what you were asked for-as long as you do it a tad bit better than others. It’s very likely that you won’t be rewarded for doing something that isn’t part of the syllabus, not matter how well you do it.
  2. Risk Aversion: People are genuinely afraid to take risks because they are afraid to be proven wrong. By definition, a secret hasn’t been vetted by the mainstream, and is most likely an unpopular opinion. Not many people would agree with it, or support it. The pursuit of secrets leads to a lonely life. The prospect of being lonely but right is itself hard. The prospect of being lonely and wrong can be unbearable. It’s safer to steer far away from this route.
  3. Complacency: If your goal is to cash in, then you can do it in various other ways. Why look for secrets if you can comfortably “collect rents” from what has already been done. Innovation is not easy, and you know that very well. Trying to build something new is tremendously hard, and if you can find a way to bypass all that pain and hard work, and still get through, then why not! “Social elites have the most freedom and ability to explore new thinking, but they seem to believe in secrets the least.” Getting into an elite school isn’t about being set for life. Instead it’s a way to get access to talents and resources, and start looking for secrets. But most people see it as their ticket to a secure and complacent life.
  4. Flatness: Since we are all so well connected, a person looking for secrets might be thinking, “If it were possible to discover something new, wouldn’t someone from the faceless global talent pool of smarter and more creative people have found it already?” This doubt can deter a person from even getting started “in a world that seems too big a place for any individual to contribute something unique.” Globalisation makes us perceive that the world is homogenous and “flat,” when in fact, it might not be so.

But how can you be sure that there are secrets out there to be discovered? Thiel argues that “a world without secrets would enjoy a perfect understanding of justice.” A wrongful practice persists only when most people don’t perceive it to be unjust. Take slavery or civil rights violation, for example. They persisted because most people believed they were OK.

“Every injustice involves a moral truth that very few people recognise early on.” Only a small group of abolitionists knew that slavery was evil. Similarly, only a small group of people knew that markets aren’t always efficient, and shorted the housing market in 2008. (Read The Big Short, or watch the movie to learn more.)

To say that there are no secrets left today would mean that we live in a society with no hidden injustices.

Having said that, it’s highly unlikely for you to stumble upon secrets without ‘trying’. “You will never learn about any of them unless you demand to know them, and force yourself to look.” Prof. Andrew Wiles worked on Fermat’s Last Theorem for 9 years to get to a solution. One not only needs brilliance, but a faith in secrets as well. Sometimes you might go out looking for India, and discover America instead, but you have to go out searching nonetheless. “There are many secrets to uncover, and they will only yield to relentless searchers.”

It’s true in businesses as well. Great companies can be built by solving unsuspected problems about how the world works. Airbnb and Uber are great examples. They all look very obvious in hindsight, but “if insights that look so elementary in retrospect can support important and valuable businesses, there must remain many great companies still to start.”

“The best place to look for secrets is where no one else is looking.” Do a 180 and try asking, what is conventional wisdom, and what is the opposite of it? What is so commonplace that people have become oblivious to it? What common problem is prevalent that nobody’s bothered about? What is not being taught in schools? What is not being said, written, or tweeted by successful people? What is hidden from plain sight?

In the chapter The Hound of Silence from the book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert talks about silent evidences, which can be great sources to look for secrets.

Silver Blaze hadn’t been missing for long when Inspector Gregory and Colonel Ross identified the stranger who had sneaked into the stable and stolen the prize racehorse. But as usual, Sherlock Holmes was one step ahead of the police. The colonel turned to the great detective:

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

It seems that a dog lived in the stable, that both of the stable hands had slept through the theft, and that these two facts had allowed Holmes to make one of his indubitably shrewd deductions. As he later explained:

“I had grasped the significance of the silence of the dog. . . . A dog was kept in the stables, and yet, though someone had been in and had fetched out a horse, he had not barked enough to arouse the two lads in the loft. Obviously the midnight visitor was someone whom the dog knew well.”

Although the inspector and the colonel were aware of what had happened, only Holmes was aware of what hadn’t happened: The dog hadn’t barked, which meant that the thief was not the stranger whom the police had identified. By paying careful attention to the absence of an event, Sherlock Holmes further distinguished himself from the rest of humankind.

When the rest of humankind imagines the future, it rarely notices what imagination has missed-and the missing pieces are much more important than we realise.

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