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Who Are the Best Thinkers in Silicon Valley?

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Answer from Auren Hoffman, CEO at SafeGraph, former LiveRamp CEO:

The best thinkers are at the Venn diagram intersection of (1) fascinating; (2) says things you do not hear from others (the contrarian).

Silicon Valley has a ton of really smart people. But Silicon Valley is also a super efficient copying machine. If someone says something interesting, it is often quickly re-said (or today, retweeted) by thousands of others usually in a matter of days. Original thought becomes part of the Silicon Valley zeitgeist (the norm) in an extremely short amount of time.

On the whole, this is a good thing. Great ideas get adopted quickly.

Ten years ago, Netflix was the only major tech company that did not track vacation. Today, only the most old-school of Silicon Valley companies track vacation. The change mainly happened overnight. Everyone was quick to copy Reed Hastings because they realized that he had a better solution.

Y Combinator launched the SAFE just a few years ago, and today the majority of tech funding transactions under $2 million are done with SAFEs (convertible notes, which were the norm just three years ago, have almost gone extinct). Yes, the SAFE is a small innovation … but the power of Silicon Valley is that people adopted it quickly.

Most people in Silicon Valley have adamant views that are very weakly held. The strength of the technology sector is that good ideas bubble up to the top.

Because Silicon Valley is a copying machine, it has very few “original” thinkers.

Twitter employee Amber Costa works on a computer at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, California October 4, 2013. Reuters

It is hard to be original if everyone immediately agrees with what you say. The genuinely efficient Silicon Valley copying machine seeks out truth and quickly adjusts. New ideas on organizing a workforce, compensating employees, frameworks for technology, how to be a CEO, and more are quickly adopted. Silicon Valley companies aren’t just technology innovators, and they are also organizational innovators. They attack sacred cows.

This makes competing with Silicon Valley companies tough because they can adopt to better ways of doing things super quickly. Change is in the water.

Silicon Valley’s copying machine even extends to things outside of business. And this is where efficient copying machine sometimes leads people astray. Memes, trends and fads spread faster in Silicon Valley than they do in high school (where the jocks are unlikely to copy the nerds who are unlikely to replicate the stoners, etc.).

Things like wine, Burning Man, skiing, Whole Foods, kite surfing, road biking, meditation, $12 coffee, paleo diets and more have become the norms in Silicon Valley, and people do not always stop and question whether these things make sense. Of course, the list mentioned above are just hobbies, so it matters little. But people in Silicon Valley also tend to vote the same way and hold very similar values without always testing those values in the marketplace as they do with the company-related views they put in the same copying machine.

So in Silicon Valley, the truly original thinkers are the ones talking about things outside of technology companies. Because of this, Peter Thiel would be my choice for the best thinker of Silicon Valley. You will not always agree with him, but he will make you think 100 percent of the time. Listening to him will make you question some deeply held assumption.

Even when (after reconsidering a strongly held view) you ultimately decided not to change your view, that journey of introspection is incredibly valuable. I try to find people that challenge my strongly held views—it is one of the fastest ways to grow (especially as you get older when so much of the low hanging fruit of growth is taken).

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