The Waiter, The Thiel Fellow

On CBS Sunday Morning, a segment on college, even high school, “whiz kids” who have dropped out to become the new prospectors in the digital goldrush. Part of this segment was an homage to Peter Thiel’s Fellowship, a $100,000 prize awarded 20 of the best and brightest dropouts.

How cool is that?

The cameras showed the faces of a handful of young whizzies, filled with risk-taking aplomb and ideas for new apps that were pretty much like old apps, and didn’t do much of anything to change the world. But hey, all they want is some VC loot and a chance to sell it to someone with enough money to turn them a profit, so they can do it all again.

But the kids they didn’t put on camera were the waiters in the restaurants where the TV producers ate lunch, or picked up a venti fruiticcino. Because they were going to be huge successes too. The problem is that the faces they show, the stories they tell, are of the handful who are treading water, if not quite surviving. 

It’s likely that the producer didn’t set up interviews with the losers because they can’t see them, they’re hidden from view. The winners are easy to find. The losers don’t have signs on their heads, publicists, an incubator holding them out as the whiz kids. The losers are asking if they want fries with that burger.

The Thiel fellowship is a tool of the devil, a lure for those who are smart but not wise.  They forsake education (which may not be their worst move), but they also forsake the opportunity to gain experience to go along with their mad coding skillz.  Indeed, one of the apps discussed in the segment would facilitate the use of hourly workers. Viable idea? Maybe, but what it also means is that you will not get a job, a full time job, with security, medical insurance, a pension, because you’re now available for 2 hours on Thursday when someone needs your skills.

The app creator may succeed. Minimally, but whatever. But the hourly worker? Enjoy that future there. After all, it’s not like your kids will want to eat. Every day.

Yet, is success for whiz kids any different than success for everyone who gives up everything to find a gold mine?  There is Gates. There is Jobs. There is Zuckerberg. And there are tens, hundreds, of thousands of people who aren’t Gates, Jobs or Zuckerberg.

Everyone thinks they’re going be the one, that very fortunate one, who finds the mother lode.  And as the young lady in the segment explained, should her quest for fabulous wealth fail, she can always return home to mommy and daddy.  You remember them, the old folks who worked hard, saved, behaved responsibly so you would have a place to return to when your crazy cool life failed?

But why not chase rainbows when you’re young? You might be the one in a million to catch one, and even if you’re not, there’s always your parents to feed you.

37 thoughts on “The Waiter, The Thiel Fellow

  1. tim

    I bet this producer won’t be interviewing people like me who skipped college (graduated high school in 1990) and went on to have successful careers in the tech industry but now find themselves shut out of the new tech boom because they are perceived as too old by the twenty something managers and directors that this producer covets so much. Now I’m one of the lucky ones as I’m high specialized but there are thousands of 40, 50, and 60 somethings who can’t find decent coding jobs because the rampant againsm in the tech sphere.

  2. Fred Campbell

    Inappropriately cynical.
    Kids: Follow your dream. In our culture/economy there is always the opportunity to try again.
    Here, even the loser can emerge better and wiser.
    Please, don’t let the professional educators convince you that their path is the only (or even best) path to success.
    Perhaps they became educators because they failed real life but chose to not try again.
    Just keep trying, next time you will succeed.
    And we will all be better off for your diligence.

    1. SHG Post author

      You only get to advise kids to follow their dreams if you’re willing to feed, house and cloth them for the rest of their lives should they fail, as most will.

      1. mb

        I would advise them to get a job that pays all of their living expenses as soon as possible, and only ever pursue higher education that is necessary to advancement within the career field they already know. Extra sprinkles today?

        Edit: I gave your comment a bit more thought, and realized that even if the Thiel fellowship might help with that job a year later, five years and no accomplishments later, it won’t count for squat. The MIT degree, on the other hand, will still carry its weight.

        1. SHG Post author

          “After all, that’s what I did, and look at how well it worked out for me!!!” Yes, extra sprinkles, please.

      2. DaveL

        Robin Williams’ father, when his son told him he wanted to be an actor, reportedly said “that’s wonderful, just have a backup profession, like welding.”

        1. SHG Post author

          The daughter of one of my dear friends is out in LA, trying desperately to make it as a musician. She says she can’t get a job, not waiting tables, not making coffee, not selling shoes, because the place is overflowing with very talented people who need to eat. And some who aren’t quite so talented, who also need to eat.

          She’s very good, exceptionally good, as what she does. She’s had some success, but not enough to make her a star. She’s now been out there for four years, and she’s beginning to realize that for all her talent, she may not achieve her dream, but she has no backup. Welding would probably be a good alternative.

  3. Adam

    I think 2 things are missing from the analysis.

    1. Most of these kids are on deferral from prestigious schools they can go back to if they want.

    2. Within the tech industry a Thiel fellowship on your resume is likely going to lead to more and better job offers than a 4 year degree.

    Silicon valley has different resume rules.

    1. SHG Post author

      Maybe, except few go back to school, and this isn’t just about Thiel fellowships (and is there any evidence to back up your assumption?), but all the next Zuckerbergs out there being told to “follow their dreams.”

      1. Adam

        I don’t disagree on dropping out in general. Probably a bad idea for the bulk of students. Thiel though isn’t targeting average kids. He picks 20 out of a self-selected 400,000 applicants (probably higher by now). I think his point that there’s some percentage of kids that would be better off taking their talents out of college is probably correct and the outcomes agree.

        To your question do I have data, I could not find a list of 100% of the recipients, but several links discuss them. Best quote here:

        “If you add up the work of the four classes of fellows—83 people in all—their ventures have raised $72-million in investments and produced $29-million in revenue, according to the foundation. Those who have sold their start-ups have brought in $17-million. (Two left the program early, and six others returned to their studies when their fellowship ended).”

        I’m not sure if I can put the links, but I doubt you want me to type out the list of their specific outcomes (which are outlined pretty well in the articles). To summarize, multiple mention going back to school, a lot of them have full-time high paying jobs at tech companies and venture firms, and a few have had big dollar exits.

        1. SHG Post author

          Not sure that answers the question. You made some big claims, and there are no facts as yet to prove (or disprove) them. Let me know in ten years how they’re doing.

          1. Adam

            I guess you are correct that I couldn’t show you a spreadsheet kid by kid, school by school, job by job but I think the information provided pretty clearly shows that at least for Thiel Fellows, they are largely either employed, starting their own funded companies, or back in school. That’s a pretty decent answer to your question or backup to my assertion. A lot of that backup was in the 2 links that you chose to delete from my post.

            And asking where they will be in 10 years simply moves the goalpost to an impossible standard since the program itself isn’t 10 years old.

            1. SHG Post author

              Hey, you made the assertion. Don’t blame me that you can’t prove it. And the links don’t prove it, so their deletion has nothing to do with anything.

            2. Adam Chudy

              I can not for the life of me see how you are making a blanket claim that I didn’t back up my statement. You simply denying it so doesn’t make it true. I provided a large amount of quality back up for discussion. You simply choose to uncharitably ignore it for some reason rather than engage in an actual discussion. I won’t waste my time next time.

            3. SHG Post author

              My, my. Haven’t you become the poster boy for the classic Millennial whiner. You didn’t get a tummy rub for your brilliance so your going to stomp your feet and hide in your safe space. Have fun with the puppies.

              P.S.: Note that I didn’t say you were wrong, but only that you didn’t prove your point, which was unprovable at this stage. Instead of recognizing the limitation, you chose to throw an infantile hissy fit. You were doing fine until then. Now, you’re just another whiny little baby, too delicate to engage with grown-ups. You won’t “waste your time”? You won’t waste my space. Guess whose absence won’t be noticed?

  4. Twenty-something

    You got just about all the facts wrong in this one Scott. Where do I start?

    A full time tech job with security is basically a myth. A software dev might land a great contract with a salary and all the perks, but none of that matters when the average lifespan of a cutting edge tech company is a year. I’ve worked contracts that lasted as long as the salaried employment of my peers. The more actually-secure a full time tech job is, the less it has to do with engineering, and the more it has to do with being a company’s indispensable jerk who remembers how to operate 60 year old computers. I know you don’t believe it, but tech people can sustainably fail. Career software developers start and end companies as fast as most people get pay checks. My peers and mentors support their families that way. We aren’t one failure away from falling back into our parents arms. In fact, my next failure fits in nicely with the one scheduled after that. Business is good.

    The people with the dumb app ideas aren’t the young whiz kids. As young whiz kids, we don’t market our own ideas. We only like code, and people and business are distractions from code. My peers optimize their contracts to involve as little socializing as possible. Its people from your generation Scott, who provide the ideas. My peers and I work hourly for clients who are without variation, old white guys with the same app idea as every other old white guy. The ideas don’t matter to us. Our clients are willing to throw money at us, even if we state up front that we think their product idea is unmarketable nonsense. Our moral dilemma, is whether its right to make a living off the fantasies of clueless dinosaurs. We bill hourly, rather than for the completion of a successful product, because if we did the latter we would be broke.

    Our clients find us adorable. I deliberately live the young whiz kid lifestyle because clients find that attractive. Mad code skillz pay billz, and they do so a lot more so when I am flamboyant about it. You might not like it- I certainly don’t- but the question to a software developer isn’t ‘how do I convince my client not to hire me?’, but ‘what’s a responsible way to spend his money?’. Saying no to my clients would be pointless; they’ll just go find the developer who is willing to rub their tummy. When the bubble pops it will be because your generation woke up, not mine.

    Your biggest fan,
    – A spoiled twenty-something freelance software developer

    PS; I know you appreciate real names. For the sake of my career, I can’t be honest. Sorry.

    1. SHG Post author

      I got the facts from the CBS story, which I gather you didn’t bother to watch. But if your “lived experience” is different, then the only “facts” that matter are yours. The only question is, what do you young folks do when one person’s facts aren’t the same as another’s, and then the world explodes because you are both absolutely right and everybody else is totally wrong, but you are both completely different? It’s very hard to be young these days.

      1. Richard G. Kopf


        As you know, I am old. The kid who wrote the above kept using the word “code”. Like this: “We only like code, and people and business are distractions from code.”

        I have a question. Does “code” mean “porn”? Such that: “We only like porn, and people and business are distractions from our fake world of visual arousal.” If so, then I completely understand and applaud. After all, without porn, there would be no need for the basements of parents. If not, I’m confused.

        Inquiring minds want to know. All the best.


        1. SHG Post author

          It’s my understanding that “code” and “porn” are used interchangeably. But then, I’m old too, as you know.

          1. Billy Bob

            You are not old; you just look old. Ha. Lost in a Lost World as well. The movie, that is. May you forever remain young, and not get “jaded”.

        2. Kyle W

          At the risk of missing the joke: No, code is coding, or writing programs. I’ve never heard anyone use it as a slang for porn.

        3. Twenty-something


          I only said that we aren’t slimy entrepreneurs, not that we aren’t slimy.


      1. Twenty-something

        I’m sending this reply from a catered workspace thats provided by a huge famous tech corporation. I’m wearing a badge that says I’m a ‘Partner’ of the company, and a ‘Founder’ of my company (that I just made up). I and others like me are welcome here any time for free. The tech company pays for the building and the staff, I think with the hope that when I get around to inventing the next facebook, I will be so grateful that I will give them a cut of my billions.

        Somebody just walked by and told me ‘Thank you’. I don’t know what for.

        You know, this exchange has left me not feeling very good about my career choice. Maybe it’s not too late for me to go to law school?

  5. elhunde

    I think it’s great. Because most of these fellows end up making a lot of money for attorneys. We’ve got everything from attempts to start banks and sell securities, to several different educational programs to replace online college, to giving a 20 year-old funds to build mobile radiology labs, to many various ‘uber for x’ gig economies.

    So for those of us that do SEC work, class action fraud law suits, personal injury, and various labor/workman’s comp law, his ill considered plans are going to be very fruitful!

    1. SHG Post author

      I really need to tell a jury, “he’s the Uber of crime.” Shouldn’t we all make some money off this?

      1. fledermaus

        “he’s the Uber of crime.”

        I love this phrase, now how to work it into a closing. Perhaps in a distribution case: “My client only exploited market inefficiencies between buyer and seller, leaving both parties better off, he’s the Uber of crime”

  6. Chris

    Everyone going to college is new, but internships, fellowships, clerks and their equivalents are very old. Jobs trained workers for reality, instead of academics sheltered from the same job. Aren’t you always complaining about ignorant law professors speaking to the media, while those in the trenches are too busy to waste time with clueless reporters speaking to clueless readers?

    Also, all of the drop-outs can easily reapply to the same college or a similar one, with a far better story on their application. Multiple times if need be – college is a business.

    In the end, neither college nor fellowships guarantee anything. The fellowship won’t put anyone into debt for a maybe like college. You don’t have to be the next Gates or Zuckerberg to be rich either – the bar is a lot lower.

    1. SHG Post author

      That morons like you, utterly incapable of grasping nuance, read SJ makes me sad. That you are so self-important that you can’t provide a real email like all the lesser commenters only serves to demonstrate the point. You should seriously consider the harm your existence does to humanity.

  7. Chris

    At minimum, state the nuance for anyone to care about it. Also, you allow anonymous posts without notifications, but are complaining about email – silly distraction from any critique of substance.

    [Ed. Note: Balance deleted, because you’re not special.]

    1. SHG Post author

      While I deleted the substantive (used in the figurative sense) portion of your comment, because you don’t get to decide the rules around here, I did want to reply to your “state the nuance for anyone to care about it.” That, dumbass, is what the posts are for. That you can’t discern the nuance doesn’t make it my problem to re-explain it by dumbing it down for every moron on the internet.

      As for your thinking my rules are “silly,” who cares? You don’t get a vote. Don’t like it? Go away. Problem solved, dumbass.

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