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PayPal Co-Founder Peter Thiel Urges Class of 2016 to “Do What Hasn’t Been Done”


In his address at Hamilton’s commencement, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel told the Class of 2016, “At this time in your life you know fewer limits, fewer taboos and fewer fears than you ever will in the future. So do not squander your ignorance! Go out and do what your teachers and parents thought could not be done, and what they never thought of doing,” he urged.

Thiel gave the address at Hamilton’s commencement on Sunday, May 22, in the Margaret Bundy Scott Field House where 489 students received bachelor’s degrees. He was awarded an honorary degree, along with David Ferreiro, the 10th archivist of the U.S.; Indra Nooyi P ’07, chairman and chief executive officer of food and beverage company PepsiCo; and Michael Shapiro ’71, director emeritus of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Also speaking at Commencement was Alex Mitko of Cranbury, N.J., recipient of The James Soper Merrill Prize, and class speaker Jeremy Mathurin, a Posse Miami graduate.

Thiel began his remarks noting it made sense for him to serve as commencement speaker because “thinking about the future is what I do for a living, and this is a ‘commencement.’ It’s a new beginning. As a technology investor I invest in new beginnings; I believe in what hasn’t yet been done.”  

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Thiel recalled how as a student, he was competitively tracked from middle school to high school to college then law school.  He spent a few months at a New York law firm then applied for a Supreme Court clerkship. “But I lost,” recalled Thiel, who said he was devastated at the time.  But, he acknowledged, “If I hadn’t lost that last competition I never would have left the track laid down since middle school. I wouldn’t have moved to California or co-founded a start-up. I wouldn’t have done anything new.”

While becoming a lawyer seemed to be part of a set plan for the future “it turned out my biggest problem was taking a track without thinking hard about where it was going,” said Thiel. “When I co-founded a technology start-up we took the opposite approach. We consciously set out to change the direction of the world. Our goal was to replace the U.S. dollar by creating a new digital currency,” Thiel explained.

He recalled that when the PayPal founders told members of the global financial industry about their plan, those with more experience were certain that the new company could never work. “They were wrong; people around the world now rely on PayPal to move more than $200 billion every year…We learned that doing new things is difficult, but it is possible,” Thiel remarked.

Thiel gave a nod to Hamilton class of 1905 graduate and poet Ezra Pound. “Pound was a poet; he was also a prophet, and he announced his mission in three words: ‘Make it new.’ When Pound said ‘make it new,’ he was talking about the old; he wanted to recover what was best in tradition and to render it fresh.”

Thiel said the American tradition is itself about doing new things. “We are not true to our own tradition unless we seek what is new.” Yet, said Thiel, America is described as a developed country, setting it apart from countries that are ‘developing.’ This description suggests that our tradition of making new things is over,” he observed. “We are developed, and that’s it…Everything there is to do has already been done, and now the only thing left is for others in the world to catch us.”

But, Thiel continued, “We should resist the temptation to assume that our history is over. If we choose to believe that we are powerless to do anything that is not familiar, we will certainly be right. But we will not be able to blame nature. It will only be our own fault.”

Thiel ended by questioning clichés that in his words “are often justified by nothing except constant repetition.”  Regarding the oft-heard “Live each day as if it were your last,” Thiel advised that “the best way to take this advice is to do exactly the opposite: live each day as if you will live forever. That means you should treat the people around you as if they too will be around for a long time.

“The choices you make today matter because the consequences will grow greater and greater.   This isn’t just about finance or money; you will get the best returns in life from investing your time to build durable relationships…“If you take care of them, they will compound in the years ahead,” he advised.

In his remarks, Alex Mitko, the James Soper Merrill Prize winner, used the metaphor of a pineapple, describing it as having “an odd exterior but a delicious inside. In high school I was a pineapple,” said Mitko. “When I got to Hamilton I got the tools to find out what’s inside. Everyone has greatness within.” The Soper Merrill winner is selected by the faculty “as  best typifying the college's highest ideals.” 

Class speaker Jeremy Mathurin likened life to the game of Tetris and told classmates “We should stop trying to play it like a game of chess.”

We get to choose how we live our lives, he said, and urged classmates to choose with both body and spirit.  

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