the brilliance of the thiel fellowship.

A pretty cool documentary airs tonight on CNBC, 20 under 20: Transforming Tomorrow. It follows the selection process for the inaugural class of the “Thiel Fellows”. I saw an early version and really liked it. Edited together in the style of a reality tv show, it manages to transcend the banality of that format to actually deliver substance.

As background, Peter Thiel, the cofounder of PayPal, started a fellowship program that grants $100K over a 2 year period to selected young adults under the age of 20 to do whatever they want. While the fellowship is not just about getting kids to skip/drop out of college, that is ostensibly its driving force. The kids are really phenomenal and its worth tuning in just to get to know them a little bit.

More than hyping the documentary a bit, I also wanted to highlight what I see as the hidden, under-appreciated  brilliance of the Thiel Fellowship itself. Peter has spoken at length that about the “higher education bubble”: This idea that everyone needs to go to college as a sacrosanct ideas has led to over $1 trillion in student loan debt and other negative side-effects. I don’t want to get bogged down into whether Thiel is right or not (I discuss in my book), but I do want to dwell a bit on what he’s done as a result of his belief.

I’ve come across a number of people who have strong views about what needs to change in the world. While I haven’t met Thiel personally, he’s clearly one of them. What he’s done here w/the Fellowship is Silicon Valley entrepreneurship at its best. Instead of just talking, he took a few million dollars and started a program that jumpstarted a massive conversation. From day one the Fellowship was immediately controversial and received massive headlines around the world. Thiel’s team found a creative way to get massive leverage.  A few million dollars got people to actually discuss a topic that from a point of view that would, even quite recently, been considered heresy. He got a 10X, maybe 100X impact for his investment. Like the young fellows, it’s a brilliant tactic.

PS – Some all-time great lines: the selection committee talking about the role of humility in a teenager who achieved nuclear fusion and Elon Musk talking about college girls. Good stuff.

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