Thiel vs. Gladwell: How worldview affects explanations

Photo credits Andrik Langfield

In Zero to One, investor Peter Thiel admonishes against overrating the power of chance and underrating the importance of planning:

Malcolm Gladwell says you can’t understand Bill Gates’s success without understanding his fortunate personal context: he grew up in a good family, went to a private school equipped with a computer lab, and counted Paul Allen as a childhood friend. But perhaps you can’t understand Malcolm Gladwell without understanding his historical context as a Boomer (born in 1963). When Baby Boomers grow up and write books to explain why one or another individual is successful, they point to the power of a particular individual’s context as determined by chance. But they miss the even bigger social context for their own preferred explanations: a whole generation learned from childhood to overrate the power of chance and underrate the importance of planning.

Thiel argues that Gladwell overplays Bill Gates’ early situational advantages and downplays the his resourcefulness and business acumen.1 According to Thiel, Gladwell’s worldview as a Boomer paints how the author observes reality and the explanations he derives.

But two can play that game. Perhaps you can’t understand Peter Thiel without understanding his historical context as a Gen-Xer (born in 1967).

Both Thiel and Gladwell have a point, and both are parsing Bill Gates’ story through their theories of the world. As Karl Popper argued, observations are theory-laden.

Our theories, explanations, and worldview inevitably mediate our observations and the conclusions we draw from them. And keep in mind that only some of our theories are explicit. Many more are encoded at the level of implicit or even unconscious knowledge.

We ought to keep this in mind when analyzing situations and making judgements. How is my worldview shaping the way I’m explaining this even?
What theories am I using to decode this observation?

This is a tough but crucial exercise. To refine our thinking we need to become aware of the theories through which we interpret our observations—then look for ways to sharpen them.

1 – For a detailed account of both Gate’s background and execution, see Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry and Made Himself the Richest Man in America by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews.