The Washington Post

Editor’s Note: A bridge to the future

One of the perks of being a business editor is that people send you books about business — lots of them.

Most that arrive in my mailbox go straight to the charity bin. They are either too technical, too gimmicky or too obviously a vanity project.

Every now and then, though, comes a book that provokes. Peter Thiel’s “Zero to One” is one of those. My copy was stamped “Advance Reader’s Edition,” and was not quite store ready.

Thiel is a tech billionaire who co-founded PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook. He’s a founding partner of an influential venture capital firm called Founder’s Fund, and many say he is one of the inspirations for Peter Gregory, the eccentric start-up investor on HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”

Thiel offers lots of insights into what makes a durable (and eventually profitable) start-up, and you can debate his ideas. But to help set the stage, he makes the case that too many of us leave life to chance. We obsess over short-term demands with no real idea of where we are headed.

We just take it on faith that things will get better with time.

We often like to think we live in an age of innovation, when new digital delights are born at a seemingly faster and faster clip, each magically an improvement on the next. We gush about those who take risks, who eschew corporate America for a laptop and WiFi connection.

But, really, are those risks on par with the men who built the great bridges and high-rises of the early 20th century? Are today’s undertakings equal to putting a man on the moon or building an interstate highway system?

Maryland Public Television recently aired a show on the history of the Bay Bridge over the Chesapeake. There was a lengthy bit about its construction. One of the workers told about the day he and a gofer, a “rivet punk,” were chatting away, high above the bay. Few workers wore safety harnesses in those days. The worker said he turned his back for a moment and realized his partner was no longer beside him.

The gofer had dropped to the water below, to be plucked from the bay by a boat stationed just for that purpose. His recompense for the unexpected plunge? He was given the rest of the day off.

These days, it’s difficult to fathom why people would put their lives at such peril. Peter Theil offers a hint: Perhaps it was because they lived in an age when people believed they were shaping the future.

Dan Beyers is the founding editor of Capital Business, The Washington Post’s go-to source for news about the region’s business community.



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