Peter Thiel's eye for talent has helped him become a billionaire.
He partnered with Elon Musk to found PayPal in the early 2000s, then became the first large investor for Facebook, a move that would bring him more than a $1 billion in cash.
All of which prompts a fundamental question — what is this guy looking for?
He told economist Tyler Cowen why in a recent interview.
"It's very difficult to reduce it to any single traits," he said, "because a lot of what you're looking for are these almost Zen-like opposites."
"You want people who are both really stubborn and really open-minded," he continued. "That's a little bit contradictory. You want people who are idiosyncratic and really different, but then who can work well together in teams. And so, this is again, maybe not 180 degrees opposite, but like 175 degrees."
When Thiel mentions "Zen-like opposites," we can assume he's talking about a philosophical concept called the unity of opposites — where things taken to be opposite are actually part of a greater whole.
Zen got the "unity of opposites" from Taoism, a Chinese philosophy that influenced Buddhism as it spread eastward from India.
In "Understanding Zen," philosophers Benjamin Radcliff and Amy Radcliff write:
Good and evil, true and false, up and down, are all relative. They arise mutually, with one necessarily producing the other. This is nicely symbolized by the universally recognized circle diagram of the yin-yang. The black and white each represent a dualistic pole, joined together in all em compassing unity. They are not opposed, but mutually dependent.
Thiel is saying that when somebody embodies rare opposites — like stubbornness and open-mindedness — they'll be more likely to come up with original ideas, a trait that Thiel prizes above all else.
Perhaps Thiel's greatest find, Mark Zuckerberg has a lot of those opposites. While sometimes portrayed as an aloof leader, he's one of the most beloved CEOs in America. While he's the hard-charging CEO of a $200 billion market cap company, he finds the time to learn Chinese and reads a heavy nonfiction book every two weeks.
"I like to get things where you get these combinations of unusual traits, so if you have people with some really interesting, very different ideas, that suggests we're in the idiosyncratic category," he says. "Then the important question becomes, OK, would they actually be able to function socially and execute?"
Read the full transcript of Thiel's interview here and watch the video below.
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