What makes Zero to One a masterpiece?

Zero to One Peter Thiel

Whenever someone shows interest in writing nonfiction, I suggest studying Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters. The book will long outlive its authors. I’m sure of it.

Zero to One is timeless because it presents profound, actionable ideas supported by a strong philosophical foundation. Peter Thiel is also a giant of our time. But it takes even more than that to write a masterpiece: great presentation and execution must make the content shine. Thiel and Masters did that, making Zero to One into a fun, elegant, and accessible reading experience.

Here are some of my favorite parts of that experience.

Irresistible questions

When you read a good question, can you stop yourself from trying to answer it? Probably not.

Peter Thiel excels at asking questions. The most famous is his “contrarian question,” which opens Chapter 1: What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

If a sentence can be a cognitive tool, then that question is one of the most useful tools ever verbalized. It helps leaders build companies, make decisions, and find talent. On a personal level, it unlocks a universe where your weirdness can be an asset. It helps define what distinguishes you, and it can even shine light on your purpose, path, or place in the world. It’s also a powerful opening move for the book—fitting for a chess master.

Besides the contrarian question, Thiel asks many other incisive questions:

  • How much of what you know about business is shaped by mistaken reactions to past mistakes? (22)

  • What happens when a company stops believing in secrets? (100)

  • What would the ideal company culture look like? (118)

  • Why did cleantech fail? (153)

If you don’t want answers, the book isn’t for you. But for everyone else, these questions initiate a dialogue with one of the most effective and interesting philosophies, and people, in the world.

Pristine definitions

Definitions are the backbone of coherent writing. Your readers need to know precisely what you mean when you use key terms: that’s how you avoid misunderstandings and minimize friction in communication. Often, the one-size-fits-all dictionary definition doesn’t quite hit the spot; that’s why the best writers build their own definitions to fit their specific context. Thiel understands all this. Zero to One is filled with sleek definitions of terms we use all the time, but probably haven’t defined for ourselves. 

A few examples:

  • Technology: any new and better way of doing things. (8)

  • The value of a business: the sum of all the money it will make in the future. (44)

  • A great company: a conspiracy to change the world. (106)

  • (A company’s) secret: a specific reason for success that other people don’t see. (165)

Even though most people don’t use these definitions, they’re intuitive, and for that reason they feel fresh and insightful. That’s how you know it took a great deal of thought and experience to develop them.

Mastery of metaphor

If Aristotle is to be believed, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.” 

Sadly, nobody heard that in school. Because of how metaphor is mistreated in classrooms, many people think of it as an exotic ornament, a flourish for special occasions. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Metaphor is inseparable from language itself, as I’ve explained in this tweetstorm.

Thiel has mastered metaphor in a subtle and down-to-earth way. Specifically, he uses metaphor to maintain a firm grasp on abstract concepts as he’s handling them.

For example, watch how he handles the abstract idea of competition:

“More than anything, competition is an ideology—THE ideology—that pervades our society and distorts our thinking. We preach competition, internalize its necessity, and enact its commandments; and as a result, we trap ourselves within it—even though the more we compete, the less we gain.” (35)

There are two strong metaphors in that bold section: 

First, Thiel compares competition to a religion—complete with commandments and preaching. By doing that, Thiel is suggesting that competition is optional. You can choose to compete, or you can choose not to. Just as you have the option to reject any religion, you have the option to reject the religion of competition. Instead, you can choose to start your own religion (i.e. build your own monopoly), which is what the book aims to help you do.

Next, in case you don’t already feel pressured to abandon the religion of competition, Thiel applies a bit more pressure. He calls competition a “trap.” A prison. This makes things personal: no one wants to live behind bars. Voila! Thiel has placed the reader in a predicament, and the easiest way out is to keep reading.

Here’s another example of how Thiel uses metaphor to grapple with a complex idea:

“A startup is the largest endeavor over which you can have definite mastery. You can have agency not only over your own life, but over a small and important part of the world. It begins by rejecting the unjust tyranny of Chance. You are not a lottery ticket.” (81)

Once again, two beautiful metaphors are working together here. 

First, there’s the personification of Chance. Chance isn’t a mere idea; it’s a tyrant. No one wants to be subject to a tyrant.

The second metaphor is the lottery ticket, which Thiel uses in a delightfully backwards way. Don’t think of yourself as a lottery ticket, Thiel urges. Don’t think of your life as a game of chance. He even doubles down on the idea 10 pages later with an echo of the lottery ticket metaphor: “Life is not a portfolio.”

Good metaphors ease communication and make reading more fun. That alone can make a book endure. But also, mastering metaphor has an even bigger benefit: it makes your style much harder to copy. This matters because (as every good entrepreneur knows), the harder it is to copy what you do, the easier it is for you to win.

POP writing

If you’re familiar with my work, you’ve seen this Venn diagram. Here’s the full explanation. Right now, I’ll simply note that Zero to One hits the bullseye. It’s full of personal stories, including vulnerable ones. It’s brimming with paradigm-shifting observations. And above all, playfulness prevails, from the most granular level (phrasing and word choice) to the big-picture elements of imagery and storytelling. That’s POP writing at its best!

Word choice

Everyone knows word choice matters; unfortunately, many writers make the mistake of flaunting outlandish language only because they can. 

When Thiel uses a special word or phrase, he does so purposefully: to conjure strong emotion for a moment, without breaking rhythm.

  • “…the lingering nimbus of Steve Jobs’ personal charisma…” (52)

  • “You can still visit the Bay Model in that Sausalito warehouse, but today it’s just a tourist attraction: big plans for the future have become archaic curiosities.” (66)
  • “A huge board of directors will exercise no effective oversight at all; it merely provides cover for whatever microdictator actually runs the organization.  (113)

  • “We have let ourselves become enchanted by big data only because we exoticize technology.” (140)

Surprises

To keep things exciting, great writers make a point of surprising you. Thiel doesn’t shy away from controversial or intimate content that you wouldn’t find in any other business book. Perfect example: Thiel’s bombs.

  • “Of the six people who started PayPal, four had built bombs in high school.” (173)


  • “You might expect the Unabomber’s writing style to have shown obvious signs of insanity, but his manifesto is eerily cogent.” (95)
  • “Our focus was defeating X.com. One of our engineers actually designed a bomb for this purpose; when he presented the schematic at a team meeting, calmer heads prevailed and the proposal was attributed to extreme sleep deprivation.” (42)

A collaborative writing process

In our world of Personal Brands and Internet Fame, it’s easy to get the impression that creative people do their best work alone.

They don’t.

Creative people do their best work with creative teams, ideally small ones. Peter Thiel and Blake Masters are one such creative team: Zero to One began in the form of detailed class notes, taken by Masters during Thiel’s Stanford course. After the notes circulated widely beyond the class, Thiel and Masters worked together to mold them into a book. Blake Masters’ outside perspective, paired with his strong writing skills, made the book better than if Thiel had written it in isolation. In fact, collaboration might be the only way for a book like this to get written at all.

Zero to One is more than the sum of its parts

Zero to One is more than a book—it’s an inspirational experience. I think that’s why Nassim Taleb, another modern titan, recommends reading Zero to One “twice—or, to be safe, three times.”

I agree with Taleb. This book is worth re-reading. More importantly, it’s worthy of preservation. Its role in building the most transformative companies of our time should do the trick.

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I’m happily indebted to my friend Pavel Brodsky and my team at writing.coach for their essential contributions to this essay.

This essay is the 2nd in a series. Here’s the 1st one, starring Paul Graham. Want the next in your inbox? Sign up below.