Peter Thiel on Cain and Abel

A Theological Reading of Zero to One

The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 is a story about competition leading to envy and violence. It’s a story about scarcity, be it real or perceived, leading to enmity. Yet the story might have gone a different way. God tells Cain—whose sacrifice is rejected:

“Why are you distressed,
And why is your face fallen?

Surely, if you do right,
There is uplift.
But if you do not do right
Sin couches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master.”

Peter Thiel argues in Zero to One that the most successful people and companies are those who find a way to do something that nobody else can imitate, something with which nobody else can remotely compete. This imperative goes by different names: “Pursue a blue ocean strategy,” “Be a category king,” “Create a personal moat,” etc.

Influenced by literary theorist René Girard, Thiel’s point amounts to an injunction to transcend the Cain-and-Abel dynamic of fraternal competition. If you become so wholly you that nobody can imitate you, you won’t even be enviable. While the economic risk of competition in business (as in life) is that you will be forced to shrink your margins, the existential risk is deeper. People hate those who are similar to them, but not those who are incomparable.

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