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The Contrarian summary

Max Chafkin

Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley's Pursuit of Power

3.4 (137 ratings)
24 mins

Brief summary

'The Contrarian' by Max Chafkin showcases Peter Thiel's journey from co-founding PayPal to becoming a billionaire venture capitalist. It explores his unconventional approach to business and highlights his belief that going against the grain is the key to success.

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    The Contrarian
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    Peter Thiel was a smart kid who loved fantasy.

    Peter Thiel was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1967. When Peter was one, he and his parents, Kraus and Susanne, migrated to the US. They settled in Ohio, where Kraus worked as a chemical engineer.

    Kraus was later hired by a mining company; the family spent two and a half years in South Africa and Namibia before returning to the US. This time, they made their home in Foster City, California. The Thiels weren’t rich. They lived a modest life and worked hard.

    After changing schools endlessly in Africa, Peter was enrolled at Foster City’s Bowditch Middle. He began to flourish academically – and withdraw socially.

    The key message here is: Peter Thiel was a smart kid who loved fantasy.

    At school, Thiel excelled at everything academic. He was placed on a “gifted and talented” track and told that he was headed for great things. Unlike other academically gifted students, who were vaguely ashamed of being nerds, Thiel embraced his smarts. In his friends’ yearbooks, he boasted about his achievements and test scores.

    He was also a brilliant chess player. At one point, he was among the best under-13 players in the whole country. He kept a sticker on his chess set that boasted, “born to win.”

    This haughty attitude meant that he wasn’t well liked at school. But he didn’t seem to care – according to one classmate, he walked around with an expression that said, “Fuck you, world.”

    There was one thing, though, that the young Thiel cared for deeply: the world of fantasy. He played Dungeons & Dragons, read the science-fiction novels of Isaac Asimov, and recited whole paragraphs of J.R.R. Tolkien. In their different ways, all of these passions would influence him.

    When he played Dungeons & Dragons, he was nearly always the narrator. This meant that he was able to create the fantasy world for his friends off the top of his head – shaping reality for other people, just as he would try to do later in life. And Asimov’s sci-fi novels introduced him to a futuristic vision with humanoid robots, moon settlements, and immortality. He’d be drawn to this futurism, again and again, in later years.

    The idea of shaping destiny, for oneself and others, was a powerful thread in the fantasy worlds that Thiel lived in. His senior-year quote, from the animated version of The Hobbit, said it all: “The greatest adventure is what lies ahead. / Today and tomorrow are yet to be said.”

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    What is The Contrarian about?

    The Contrarian (2021) is a biography of controversial venture capitalist, tech investor, and PayPal founder Peter Thiel. It explains how Thiel’s politics have informed his career – and how he became one of the most powerful people in the US.

    Who should read The Contrarian?

    • People looking for gossip on Silicon Valley
    • US politics junkies
    • Those interested in the intersection of tech and power

    About the Author

    Max Chafkin is a tech reporter and features editor at Bloomberg Businessweek. His work has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Fast Company, Vanity Fair, and Inc. 

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