Disclaimer: The following is only my opinion. I am not directly affiliated with the Thiel Fellowship or Thiel Foundation, but I did have the opportunity this summer to interact with and work with many of the fellows and other people involved in the community.
This is a response to an article, by a man that I respect and appreciate, regarding how to succeed as a Student Entrepreneur.
TL;DR I believe that to find success, you must go at your own pace.
Mike Olson is a very intelligent and cool guy. I appreciate that he used female pronouns in his theoretical example. I agree that experience is important and often undervalued. I agree that one should intern before starting their own company. I am incredibly grateful for my life-changing experience during my internship at Cloudera, which I’ve written about in greater detail here (post).
I’m not technically an entrepreneur. I’m a researcher who wants to help people on a large scale. In fact, not all of the fellows are working on companies. Many of the fellows are devoted researchers who want to help people and find the standard university system too limiting. I’ll use the term “innovators” to encompass entrepreneurs and researchers.
When I was accepted into university right out of 8th grade, I received very similar feedback: I was told that I needed to wait to grow up first, that I was too young to succeed. Many expected me to drop out and return with my tail between my legs to the local high school. Fortunately, the challenging and fast-paced environment I surrounded myself with was exactly what I needed to be happy and prosper. In university, I found that math and science are tool kits – not the rote and useless subjects my previous schooling experience had led me to believe. I learned that using these tool kits to solve problems and help people was more creative and satisfying to me than making art or writing short stories. I discovered my passion for research through brainstorming with my professors and pursuing my ideas to a close. I learned that working through tedium is necessary to achieve goals.
My emotional maturity quickly grew once I found intense passion in learning and inventing. I realized that, in order to stay in university, I had to work hard. I’d never had to work hard before. I learned a lot of lessons very quickly, and I loved it. The opportunities which allowed me to find such a competitive and nurturing environment are opportunities I will always be grateful for. When opportunities are given to you, it is best to heavily consider them, and not just pass on the call.
Classes have contributed a minor amount to my overall STEM knowledge; they served to introduce me to interesting topics and spark my curiosity. University certainly isn’t necessary to discover your passion in science and math. With a significant amount of determination, this love can be discovered and fostered through other means. People, including professors (they are people too!), are generally happy to share their knowledge. The internet is also a magnificent resource for autodidacts; it provides access to online textbooks and courses. There are many resources and introductions to explore STEM outside of university. You can find passion with some scrap metal, a battery, rubber bands, and a library card.
Many younger innovators find themselves stuck in the mud, and discouraged by the slow pace of the world around them. Mike makes a valid point: that fellows (and others in the under 20 community) have less experience than those who have taken the conventional education/work route. However, the selection process for the Fellowship quickly weeds out those who will not benefit from going at their own pace; those who don’t have the emotional maturity/correct mindset to succeed as innovators at their current age. Obstacles are there to keep out those who don’t want it badly enough.
The Thiel Foundation provides the broader Under 20 community and their select group of fellows an opportunity to seize their goals and help the world around them. It gives us a friend group floating in the same boat – people who have been through similar experiences, and are more than willing to brainstorm with us. It gives us tools to complete our projects and help the world around us. We are determined people who learn from our mistakes quickly, and ask the opinions of more experienced innovators when we are unsure. We know how to work hard to achieve goals that we are passionate about. We thrive off of overcoming hardships and learning from our mistakes. Why wait on the world to change when we can go out and change it ourselves!
Success is about finding your niche. It is about figuring out how to help others by doing what you love.
The Fellowship and the community surrounding it provide a platform for hundreds to find their place and succeed. It provides opportunities and motivation to young innovators. Staying in the conventional educational path may be the right answer for some. For others, the right answer is to dream more and work harder. There are many ways to go at your own pace, and one of them is picking up the phone when Peter Thiel calls.
I’d like to thank Thomas Sohmers for giving me extraordinarily helpful feedback on a pre-launch draft of this article.