Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Are These the New Enders?

In one of my favourite books, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, the planet earth is facing a massive threat from an alien race.  As such, they launch an intensive effort to find and train the brightest geniuses on the planet into the greatest war minds of all time to make their military able to take on the aliens and win.  The "chosen one" that has the special potential to lead them all to victory is a child named Andrew Wiggin, nicknamed Ender.  The military program is full of brilliant kids, but Ender is the cream of the crop in every situation.

Peter Thiel has been making many headlines for calling higher education a bubble.  There's admittedly a lot of good data to back him up, more than you'd think.  As an alternative to what Thiel seemingly sees as a broken system headed for bad times, he's trying to develop a special 20 Under 20 program that will give a bunch of kids $100,000 to start businesses.  Well, that list was finally released a few days ago.

And while it may seem obvious in retrospect, it surprised me how many of the "chosen ones" were already university students.  8 were already in top-tier universities, another had already graduated summa cum laude from ASU, and still another was 4 years into a Ph.D program at Stanford after graduating from the University of Washington as a younger teenager.  That's still less than half, since there are actually 24 kids accepted into the program.

But it begs the question.  If the program is about demonstrating an alternative to university for the young and bright, why are there so many university kids in the program, especially ones who have already graduated?  Well, for the kids who were still in university when applying, the answer could be as simple as the kids being too risk-averse to drop out of school.  Thiel's program gave them confidence to push them over the edge to make the jump.  For the two kids who already had degrees, it's not so easy to understand.  I get that the program wanted to choose the best people under 20 years old.  But if the program is about demonstrating that university education is unnecessary and a lesser alternative to achieve success for people who have the raw talent, selecting two fully university-educated kids defies that purpose.

If this program was really about demonstrating that higher education was not necessary and that it's a model that would allow people from all walks of life with talent to shine, then why are the "chosen ones" so university-heavy?  Well, as Thiel notes, you can't do it all from the beginning, so he's starting at the top tier.  It is unfortunately a fact that the top tier has more talent than the bottom tier.  But I wonder if the program would be even more radical if the prototypical 20 Under 20 candidate was not Ender, but rather, Ender's good friend Bean.  In Orson Scott Card's Ender's Shadow, we learn that Bean was actually Ender's rival, even though Ender didn't know it; Bean was in the running up until the last second to lead the war against the aliens.  You don't see that story in Ender's Game, but you do see it in Ender's Shadow.

Bean's background is the opposite of Ender's.  Ender had a fairly privileged background, though not elite.  Meanwhile, Bean survived in the streets based on his wits alone, because his body was too small to be a physical menace.  Ender was also small, but didn't face the same physical dangers as Bean.  Bean was discovered by a talent scout and sent to the military academy, where he followed a path similar to Ender, and eventually ended up on Ender's team (through a crazy plot twist you have to read the book to appreciate).

So what if the Thiel Foundation's 20 Under 20 was full of Beans, not Enders?  Wouldn't that be the ultimate defiance of university institutions?  "Check it out universities, you toss folks like these aside, but now they're huge successes."  I don't know.  Maybe, maybe not.  But structuring the program the way Thiel has and then seeing some of the ideas that will be implemented, I cannot help but think that although this program clearly is positioned in the public eye to compete with universities, its more direct competitors are actually venture incubators like YCombinator.  They both give money to people to start ventures, surround them with mentors, and foster innovation.  YCombinator also has a lot of examples of university kids who dropped out of school to chase their dreams.

In fact, some of those ideas that Thiel's kids are doing look like they fit more in the YCombinator world than not.  Mobile games for improving learning?  Revolutionizing online price comparisons?  A peer-based evaluation system for recruiting?  Mobile payments?  Helping music lovers discover live shows?  This is bubble gum pop trendy startup material that is normally about making moola.  Maybe they can revolutionize the world.  Maybe not.  Or maybe they'll fit somewhere in the middle and get bought out by a big corporation before they become substantial in their own right.  I know that you can't judge what will change the world.  But it is very easy to compare and contrast these ideas with some of the other Thiel Foundation choices and see how those are focused on changing the world.  And the fact is, there are a ton of startup competitors already in those spaces too; so where's the unique value and innovation?  I know, too early to tell.

But if the Thiel Foundation's 20 Under 20 program's closest competitor really is YCombinator, not the university, then Thiel could be pulling wool over everyone's eyes.  This may not be about showing that universities are overrated.  It could simply be a case of wanting to make money.  The only difference between Thiels 20 Under 20 program and YCombinator is that Thiel's program is marketed as a breaking-the-rules alternative to school, while YCombinator is simply marketed as a venture incubator.  In this scenario, Thiel is just being sensational to raise PR for his initiative by telling talented kids they could be the next Mark Zuckerberg and therefore don't need school.  If more entrepreneurs are successful, that story gets into the public conscious anyway (it already has been for a while).  Time will tell whether Thiel's 20 Under 20 and YCombinator are both actually of the same vein, with YCombinator just getting a head start; on that front, YCombinator beats Thiel's program on funding levels too.

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