Tough act to follow

Peter Thiel called his friend and former co-founder Elon Musk "a negative role model." Plus, 7 other things worth reading today.

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Let’s talk about Peter Thiel and Elon Musk.

This week, Thiel was on stage in a debate at the UCLA Internet 50 conference, over the proposition: Innovation has stalled.

Thiel took the “pro” side, meaning, “yes, innovation has stalled.” Professor Robert Metcalfe, who teaches innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Texas at Austin, took the “con” side.

Afterward, most headlines were about a quick line in Thiel’s spiel, in which he described Musk as “a negative role model.”

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The whole thing went like this. Since he was arguing that “innovation has stalled,” Thiel had to address Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, as the exception that proves the rule.

“Elon is the counterexample,” Thiel began. “It’s a very weird thing where the go-to story is we have one person who helped develop electric cars and reusable rockets … But if you tell a young person, ‘Why don’t you be like Elon?’ it’s a negative role model where the basic response is, ‘Well that’s too hard, I can’t do that.’”

Thiel’s bigger point was persuasive and worth discussing.

It does seem true that while we’re seeing leaps and bounds in one area of innovation — information technology — everything else is falling behind.

As he put it:

“If we were to look just outside this hall today, one of the things we would notice would be all these fires burning in California.

From the point of view of 1969, the expectation would be that we would have developed all sorts of technologies to control the environment. Better firefighting technologies. We certainly would have figured out ways to bury transmission lines.

And we’re in a world where we can’t even control the fires. We’re going backwards. People are going to have less electricity. And we’re not even noticing this because we’re stuck, glued to our cell phones all the time.”

It’s interesting, though. Thiel and Musk go back decades — joined in perpetuity as part of the so-called PayPal mafia — the corps of early PayPal cofounders who went on to become billionaires.

They’re described as friends.

And Thiel has had a hand in developing (or being an early investor in) — many of the most successful and important infotech launches of our time—from PayPal to Facebook to Palantir.

He’s reportedly worth about $2.3 billion, which is far more money than I’ll ever see.

Should we read into the fact that it’s also about one-tenth of his former colleague Musk’s net worth (about $23.4 billion)?

Yes, Musk would be a frustrating role model, if you felt compelled to compare yourself to him. But truly, who would feel compelled to compare himself or herself to Elon—

Oh, right.

Innovation might be stalled. Siblingesque rivalry? That seems alive and well.

Here are 7 other things worth reading today:

  1. The Washington Nationals won the World Series! I feel like I’m back in DC. (ESPN)

  2. Twitter is banning all political ads. (The New York Times)

  3. Americans spent $500 million on pet costumes for Halloween 2019. (Business Insider)

  4. Wait. People supposedly have 5 hours of free time a day according to a new study? (The Washington Post)

  5. A Green Beret Special Forces soldier received the Medal of Honor for heroism in a 2008 battle in Afghanistan. (Task and Purpose)

  6. “OK Boomer.” I wrote this for Inc. yesterday, and then did a fun radio interview about it. (Inc.com, KCRW)

  7. Science says narcissists are terrible people, but they’re also happier than everyone else. (BBC)

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