This is the 26th installment of 774: Weekly lessons from history about science, technology, and the miscellaneous.
Where to Commit Fraud
Friends in High Places
On Tuesday mornings in the 1930s, one could enter an Oxford pub called The Eagle and Child and find a group of six to eight rowdy, but well-dressed men reading from notebooks and manuscripts to each other. Depending on how well-read one is, they could potentially pick out that there were some very popular books being passed around. Books like The Screwtape Letters and The Lord of the Rings. The puzzling thing is that most of these titles wouldn’t be released for years, in some cases even decades. The men reading were the book’s authors: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and other authors who would suffer less fame outside of England. They were a part of a literary group called “The Inklings.” The group was made up of professors and authors hailing from Oxford University, with C.S. Lewis as their ring leader.
*The Eagle and Child
The Inklings were not a university-sanctioned group. Their beer-filled meetups consisted of public readings of their latest work and the more-than-occasional criticism that would follow. C.S. Lewis's brother Warren (also a member) recalled:
We were no mutual admiration society: praise for good work was unstinted, but censure for bad work—or even not-so-good work—was often brutally frank.
Each of the authors had an indelible effect on the others. The regular criticism of each other’s work and the expectation of having something new to read each week drove the authors on to complete their work. J.R.R. Tolkien fleshed out Middle-earth because of C.S. Lewis’s encouragement. The influence they had on each other is best attested to by the fact that the tight overlap of readers who love both Tolkien and Lewis. Lewis said about the Inklings
What I owe them all is incalculable.
Most are probably familiar with PayPal, frequently hearing it mentioned in the same sentence as ApplePay or Stripe. Besides being one of the first payments apps, PayPal was the launch board for SpaceX, LinkedIn, Tesla, YouTube, Palantir, and Yelp, to name a few. This was thanks to the gang of graduates from Stanford and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who started PayPal. They were given the name “The PayPal Mafia”. When the company was purchased by eBay in 2003, nearly all of the first 50 employees jumped ship and took their slice of the financial pie to new ventures. Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim co-founded Youtube (Jawed Karim would upload the first youtube video, Me at the Zoo). Peter Thiel, the PayPal CEO, would found Palantir (a name that itself is a Lord of The Rings reference; the venture capital fund he co-founded with another mafia member was called Valar, also a Lord of The Rings reference). Reid Hoffman founded LinkedIn. Elon Musk would go on to found Tesla and SpaceX. This list of the PayPal Mafia’s accomplishments is not even close to exhaustive.
PayPal was the common node that connects many of the founders of Silicon Valley’s most prolific companies. Many reconnected to cofound new companies together. Many more invested in each other’s projects. The PayPal mafia’s peculiar mix of friendship, professional knowledge of each other and technology, and abundant wealth (Elon Musk made $180 million from the sale of PayPal; Thiel $55 million) created an environment that aided each member in being successful in their following pursuits. Many members likely could have been very successful without their place in the PayPal mafia, but it seems doubtful that they all would have accomplished what they did without the perfect storm that the PayPal mafia created.
In college, My good friend Austin was an editor for a university publication called The Pendulum, an international affairs magazine. He repeatedly encouraged me to write an article. I eventually acquiesced. I fell in love with research and writing, continued to do it throughout college, and began 774 to scratch the itch to write that it created. Fast forward a few years, I recently accepted a fantastic job offer that was predicated on my writing ability, of which my only proof was my articles in The Pendulum, this newsletter, and a few different magazines, all of which stem from my first exposure to writing thanks to my friend’s encouragement.
One of my favorite quotes is from the mathemetician Richard Hamming/chemist Louis Louis Pasteur:
Luck favors the prepared mind.
Hamming was talking about his research and work, but I’m going to apply it to friendships too. One increases the likelihood of lucky things happening when surrounded by good, smart, and earnest people. Not in a cheap, networking sort of way, but a friendship with no ulterior motives besides wanting to be around those you want to be more like. They end up pushing you to do things whose value isn’t obvious until years later. The world probably wouldn’t have gotten the Lord of The Rings without C.S. Lewis, Tesla might not be producing the most accessible electric cars today without the rest of the folks in the PayPal mafia, and I might not have gotten an opportunity I’m so excited about without one of my first friends in college.
I think this may be my favorite one so far. I love that you love using this wonderful gift you have!!