Not too long ago, Peter Thiel gave a commencement speech at Hamilton University. Commencement speeches are given at university graduation ceremonies to impart a last bit of wisdom to students as they head off from academia into the wider world.
In his speech, Thiel entreats his listeners to continue to make things new and to keep advancing all technologies. He finishes by addressing two common pieces of advice that they should ignore: 1) “to thine own self be true,” and 2) “live each day as if it were your last.”
He falls flat on the first, but hits it out of the park on the second:
1) The first comes from Shakespeare, who wrote this well-known piece of advice: ‘To thine own self be true.’ Now Shakespeare wrote that, but he didn’t say it. He put it in the mouth of a character named Polonius, who Hamlet accurately describes as a tedious old fool, even though Polonius was senior counselor to the King of Denmark.
*** Shakespeare often uses fools to impart wisdom, signifying that it is not the sole dominion of the powerful. Often it is the inverse.
And so, in reality, Shakespeare is telling us two things. First, do not be true to yourself. How do you know you even have such a thing as a self? Your self might be motivated by competition with others, like I was. You need to discipline your self, to cultivate it and care for it.
*** Had he read the entirety of Polonius’s speech, he would have understood that discipline was the main point of his words to his philandering son Laertes (Hamlet, act 1, scene 3)
Second, Shakespeare’s saying that you should be skeptical of advice, even from your elders. Polonius is a father speaking to his daughter, but his advice is terrible.
*** His advice is actually to his son Laertes, not his daughter Ophelia.
Speaking of Ophelia, she hits the nail on the head in terms of being skeptical of advice, when she graciously refuted her brother’s ‘wisdom’ by responding to him:
I shall the effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven
Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.
Shakespeare 1 – Thiel 0*
(*This is either proof that you can’t “hack” Shakespeare, or Thiel a has in fact ingeniously enacted “a play within a play”. Either way, the “play within the play” didn’t quite work out for Hamlet…)
On to the second piece of ‘bad’ advice:
2) ‘Live each day as if it were your last.’ The best way to take this as advice is to do exactly the opposite. Live each day as if you will live forever. That means, first and foremost, that you should treat the people around you as if they too will be around for a very long time to come. The choices that you make today matter, because their consequences will grow greater and greater.
That is what Einstein was getting at when he supposedly said that compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe. This isn’t just about finance or money, but it’s about the idea that you’ll get the best returns in life from investing your time in building durable friendships and long-lasting relationships.
Here Thiel makes a very nice recovery. We determine the quality of our lives by investing daily in what will bring value to us in future. This rings true in both our personal lives as well as in financial markets.
Returning to Hamlet for a moment, the depth of his plight was caused by indecision and doubt, which also happen to be common culprits in derailing investment strategies. We define ourselves by the decisions we make, and indecision tends to be the worst choice of all…