The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why shades of Asperger’s Syndrome are the secret to building a great tech company

If you want to be a true innovator, be prepared to leave everyone behind. (Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images)

The individuals who have founded some of the most success tech companies are decidedly weird. Examine the founder of a truly innovative company and you’ll find a rebel without the usual regard for social customs.

This begs the question, why? Why aren’t more “normal” people with refined social graces building tech companies that change the world? Why are only those on the periphery reaching great heights?

If you ask tech investor Peter Thiel, the problem is a social environment that’s both powerful and destructive. Only individuals with traits reminiscent of Asperger’s Syndrome, which frees them from an attachment to social conventions, have the strength to create innovative businesses amid a culture that discourages daring entrepreneurship.

“Many of the more successful entrepreneurs seem to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger’s where it’s like you’re missing the imitation, socialization gene,” Thiel said Tuesday at George Mason University. “We need to ask what is it about our society where those of us who do not suffer from Asperger’s are at some massive disadvantage because we will be talked out of our interesting, original, creative ideas before they’re even fully formed. Oh that’s a little bit too weird, that’s a little bit too strange and maybe I’ll just go ahead and open the restaurant that I’ve been talking about that everyone else can understand and agree with, or do something extremely safe and conventional.”

An individual with Asperger’s Syndrome — a form of autism — has limited social skills, a willingness to obsess and an interest in systems. Those diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome tend to be unemployed or underemployed at rates that far exceed the general population. Fitting into the world is difficult.

While full-blown Asperger’s Syndrome or autism hold back careers, a smaller dose of associated traits appears critical to hatching innovations that change the world.

“A typical child might just accept, ‘Okay this is just the way it’s done, this is how we do things in our culture or family,” said Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center in Cambridge. “Someone with autism or Asperger’s, they kind of ask those why questions. They want more logical answers. Just saying ‘Well we do this just because everybody else does,’ that doesn’t meet their test of logic.”

Baron-Cohen says the autistic are interested in what’s called first principles, fundamental rules used to inform their decisions. First principle-thinking happens to be a tactic Elon Musk, the innovative leader of Tesla and SpaceX, says has contributed to his success.

“Rather than reasoning by analogy, you boil things down to the most fundamental truths you can imagine and you reason up from there,” Musk has said. “This is a good way to figure out if something really makes sense or if it’s just what everybody else is doing.”

To be great, you can’t think like everybody else, and you probably won’t fit in to the herd. As a child Musk was bullied and beaten so badly that as an adult he struggled to breathe through his nose and needed corrective surgery.

John Doerr, a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins, who was an early investor in Google, Amazon and Netscape, has said that great entrepreneurs tend to have “absolutely no social life.” Great innovators, like those with Asperger’s, just don’t fit in.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been described as “a robot,” and having “a touch of the Asperger’s,” according to a former colleague. There are stories of a young Zuckerberg having awkward meetings, such as with Twitter’s co-founders.

One of Facebook’s first investors, Reid Hoffman, has said his first impression of Zuckerberg was how quiet he was. Zuckerberg said maybe 15 or 20 sentences in an hour-long meeting.

“What I most remember was scratching my head going, ‘Huh why is he being quiet?’ It turns out he was being quiet because he’s thinking a lot,” Hoffman said in an interview on This Week in Startups. “He’s perfectly fine with, ‘Hey if there ends up being five seconds of silence, it’s five seconds of silence, I’m thinking.”

Zuckerberg’s willingness to defy social norms has paid off with an uncanny ability to position Facebook  to thrive. It’s now worth $228 billion. In an era where tech companies and especially social networks can disappear as quickly as they rise (remember Friendster), Zuckerberg’s eye for innovation maintains Facebook’s relevance. He dared to spend over $25 billion acquiring companies without little or revenue — WhatsApp, Instagram and Oculus.

When Zuckerberg spent $1 billion on Instagram, which had never made a cent, many saw it as a crazy move. Now by one estimate Instagram is now worth $35 billion.

Zuckerberg’s willingness to be different and ignore social norms manifest itself in other ways. He wears a gray T-shirt every day, saying he wants to focus his decision-making energy on Facebook not fashion.

“I just killed a pig and a goat,” he once posted on Facebook, during a year in which he spent a year only eating meat he killed with his own hands.

Zuckerberg isn’t the only one to turn unusual instincts into tech riches. Four of the six PayPal co-founders built bombs in high school.

While lots of “normal” people played with Legos, Google co-founder Larry Page built a functioning inkjet printer out of them in college. Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo chief executive and an early Google employee, has described Page’s super power as “asking ‘why not.’ On everything.”

“Think different,” happened to be Apple’s slogan, which its co-founder Steve Jobs embodied in his youth as he wandered India and experimented with LSD.

At age 24 Jobs was invited to attend the initial meeting of the Seva Foundation, which is devoted to treating blindness. Unhappy with the discussion, an angry Jobs stood up — unfazed by a room of accomplished experts — and shared what they should do to make a difference in the world. (The anecdote was shared by Larry Brilliant in the new book Becoming Steve Jobs.) The conversation devolved into a “donnybrook,” so Brilliant asked his friend Jobs to quiet down.

“I’m not going to,” Jobs said. “You guys asked for my help, and I’m going to give it.”

Soon Brilliant forced him to leave the meeting.

“If you have autism or if you have a mild form of it you might be kind of less interested in following the crowd and conforming to social norms. And you can think more independently,” Baron-Cohen said. “They want to know are we doing these things because it’s the most efficient way, it’s the best way of doing it or the cheapest way. They want some kind of logic.”

Obsessiveness, another trait of those with Asperger’s, also pays off when building a tech company.

Microsoft’s co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen were comfortable coding software for hours on end as young programmers.

“Some of the more prudish people would say ‘Go home and take a shower.’ We were just hard-core, writing code,” as Gates told author Walter Isaacson in The Innovators.

While Thiel has not said it outright, his theory could be interpreted as an explanation for Silicon Valley’s notorious gender gap. Asperger’s Syndrome is much more prevalent in boys than girls.

But for Justine Cassell, associate vice provost for technology, strategy and impact at Carnegie Mellon, Thiel’s argument doesn’t hold up.

“It seems odd to say that the best innovation is going to come from somebody who doesn’t study people. In fact who isn’t able to spend casual time with them,” Cassell said. “If really what he’s saying is Silicon Valley start-ups are places where the winners are the ones who don’t have any social skills, to me that’s a sad statement about who is inventing the technology of tomorrow. Both the narrowness of the group doing the inventing and most importantly and most tragically to me, the statement that those who do not care about social interaction with other people are thought to be the best able to develop technologies to help people.”