Thiel Fellowship Essay #1: Uncommon Wisdom

(For more on my decision to apply for the Thiel Fellowship see: Why I’m Stopping Out Of Stanford and Applying For The Thiel 20 Under 20 Fellowship)

Tell us one thing about the world that you strongly believe is true, but that most people think is not true.

I believe underneath every art is an undiscovered science. And beneath that assertion I believe there is a more fundamental truth that the universe is an evolving set of patterns.

Most people see a chaotic reality of luck and fortune, filled with unknowable complexity and mystery. They move around the world unaware of what pushes and pulls them, or why they do things.

Furthermore, many people relish the uncertainty and think reality is too messy to possibly have any pattern or order to it. They take pleasure in people being unable to describe what they do, believing they are above any pattern or classification. As if to be described was to be devalued, crippling their identity, which stood tall on the grounds they were one of a kind, like a snowflake. They describe their understanding of reality as an intuitive knowing. But ironically intuition is yet another pattern unaware of the process of its own creation.

In today’s interconnected world where unmet challenges pose increasing global risks, there is danger in ignoring that intuitive competence is based on a pattern. By denying this truth, we hinder discovery and delay the progress that would result from dissemination. Denial causes stasis around current levels of performance because it is difficult to improve something you can’t define. But it can be even more damaging to the next generation because the honest path towards skill acquisition is concealed. For example, athletes frequently misattribute their triumph to their belief in god or a lucky charm, when their emphasis should be on their ability to maintain focus, develop supremely high self-confidence, and prepare through incredible work ethic. While it’s true that superstition can be an effective placebo, there is little room for progression unless the true source of empowerment is discovered, acknowledged, and honed. When we understand the pattern behind how self-confidence works we can learn how to increase its intensity, and control its activation with more precision than by activating it indirectly through something else. Even worse, until we figure out the pattern, it actually perpetuates superstitions regarding the causes of competence, because many assume that the beliefs and desires of the people at the top of a meritocratic pyramid must be right. So myths and superstitions get propagated, while the true causes of success like focus and hard work get devalued, because the winners couldn’t consciously articulate their importance.

In order to progress, we must escape this cycle by discovering why things really work. Once a pattern can be consciously articulated, it can leave the mind of a few and enter the minds of many, where it can be discussed, tested, and analyzed with much greater scrutiny. The pattern not only can replicate and evolve but it can be combined with other patterns. These patterns create interdependencies and feedback loops, and as they continue to intermingle systems begin to develop. Where others see indiscernible chaos and mystery, the pattern seeker discovers order and clarity, and can support the evolution of the pattern by communicating it in a language others can understand.

As a teenager I let my curiosity carry me to a diverse array of subjects such as cosmology, psychology and business. As I read more I noticed that concepts in one field could frequently be applied through analogy to understand another. Furthermore, I noticed myself often applying the same set of patterns to understand new phenomenon. I began to see the complexity of reality as the interaction of a comparatively small set of patterns. Intuitively I was building up a library of patterns that described something fundamental about how the world works. From a macro perspective some frequently repeating patterns were centralization vs. decentralization, exponential vs. linear progress, power laws, evolutionary vs. developmental processes, system incentives and partial perspectives that grew in completeness. At a more micro-human scale, some of the repeating patterns were us vs. them, emotional vs. logical decision-making, habits and limited will power.

These patterns stacked on one another in my head, creating a model of reality. Every subsequent interaction presented itself as an opportunity to parse the world through this model. When I couldn’t explain something and my model broke, it was an opportunity for growth. This systematic testing of assumptions and the iterative improvement of my model was itself a pattern used throughout the universe. Self-similarity was everywhere.

If I had to pick one pattern as the mother of discovery, it would be the act of asking questions. I believe that most people have roughly the same mental capacity, but the primary reason some people acquire more wisdom than others is that they ask more questions. I believe that if we graphed the number of questions people asked per day over their lifetime the differential in our abilities would be illuminated. Competence is explained by the pattern of repetition. Wisdom is the emergent property of a consistently inquisitive person.

When humans acquired language the evolutionary baton was passed to us. When that happened evolutionary progress became dependent on humanity’s ability to discover, replicate and disseminate the patterns that lead to progress. I believe the effect of our continual pattern discovery and dissemination is such that the aggregate impact will eventually throw us over a threshold that signals the world’s next stage of development.

  • Thespitzer
    December 28, 2010

    I appreciate your general theme of the importance of finding order and patterns in what initially seems random. Well written.

    Regarding your discussion of self-confidence and the importance of understanding what’s behind it: we actually have nailed this one down pretty well:
    It’s important to note that despite the fact that we basically have self-efficacy (roughly synonymous with confidence, or at least how I suspect you’re using it) down to a science, people rarely consult the guidelines that years of research and hard work have yielded. This supports your main point that too many people are content to laze in the comfort of ignorance, even when the answers are out there.

  • Leah levine
    December 28, 2010

    Your nana still wants you to get your degree at Stanford. You are a super kid – but I am a firm believer in that piece of paper. Love you so much –

  • Darla Holtzclaw
    January 9, 2011

    I think that asking questions is one part of discovery, and the other is to be OK with the question sounding crazy. I started reading this tiny book, “It’s Okay to be Crazy!’ and I like this quote, “’Every time somebody tries to lift their head and do something special, there’s somebody else there to call them crazy.’ You have to be a little crazy to be successful.”

    I’ve been interested in patterns also. I have been going back to the science of statistics, but want to really dig in to the mathematics of statistical pattern recognition.

  • Johan Ismael
    January 19, 2011

    Hey Max,

    Thanks for sharing this essay.

    After reading it, I’m wondering where your place religion, or more generally spirituality, in your model : on the side of “luck or fortune” or as factor in the different patterns ?

    Johan Ismael