The Diderot Effect: why we buy things we don’t need and Peter Thiel: The Single Best Interview Question You Can Ask



Jul 13, 20234 min read


The Diderot Effect: why we buy things we don’t need and Peter Thiel: The Single Best Interview Question You Can Ask

In today's consumer-driven society, it's easy to fall into the trap of constantly buying new products and upgrading to the latest version, even if we don't really need them. This tendency to overconsume is often fueled by our natural desire for improvement and betterment. It's called the Diderot Effect, named after the French philosopher Denis Diderot, who experienced this firsthand.

Diderot's story is a cautionary tale of how our desire for new and better things can lead us down a path of unnecessary consumption and debt. In a short amount of time, he went from being content with his old possessions to buying a new golden clock, a bronze sculpture, a console table, and more art pieces. He described this shift as going from being the master of his old robe to becoming the slave of the new one.

This constant desire for more, better, and newer is deeply ingrained in our society. We are bombarded with advertisements and messages that tell us we need the latest gadgets, fashion trends, and home decor items to be happy and successful. But the truth is, buying these shiny new toys often only brings temporary satisfaction.

So how can we break free from this cycle of impulse buying and practice mindful consumption instead? One way is to beware of the shiny toy syndrome. Before making a purchase, ask yourself if it is something that will truly enhance your life or if it is just a fleeting desire for something new.

Another actionable advice is to create spending limits for yourself. By setting a strict budget for discretionary spending, you can avoid overconsumption and make more intentional choices about what you really need and value.

It's also important to be aware of consumption triggers. Take the time to reflect on what possessions will genuinely bring you joy and fulfillment, and which ones will simply empty your wallet. By acting in a moderate, controlled, and unrushed manner, you can make better decisions about what to buy and what to let go of.

Now, let's shift our focus to Peter Thiel's perspective on progress and innovation. Thiel believes that the most important question you can ask someone is, "What important truth do very few people agree with you on?" This question encourages individuals to think outside the box and challenge conventional wisdom.

Thiel distinguishes between two types of progress: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal progress involves copying things that already work, going from 1 to n. This type of progress is easy to imagine because we have seen it happen before. It is essentially the process of globalization, where successful ideas and practices are spread worldwide.

On the other hand, vertical progress involves doing something new, going from 0 to 1. This type of progress is harder to imagine because it requires doing something that nobody else has ever done. It is the realm of technology and innovation, where new ideas and inventions are born.

Thiel argues that both horizontal and vertical progress are essential for societal development. However, he warns that spreading old ways of creating wealth without new technology is unsustainable and will lead to devastation rather than riches. In a world of limited resources, we need to combine globalization with technological advancements to ensure long-term prosperity.

So, how do these two concepts connect? Both the Diderot Effect and Thiel's perspective on progress highlight the importance of being intentional and thoughtful in our actions. Just as mindless consumption can lead us astray, blindly following the status quo can prevent us from achieving true innovation and growth.

To conclude, here are three actionable pieces of advice that can help us navigate the complexities of consumption and progress:

1. Beware of the shiny toy syndrome and question whether a purchase will genuinely enhance your life or simply provide temporary satisfaction.

2. Create spending limits and stick to a strict budget to avoid overconsumption and make more intentional choices about what you truly need and value.

3. Reflect on what possessions and ideas will bring you long-term fulfillment and success, rather than blindly following popular opinion or trends.

By incorporating these practices into our lives, we can break free from the cycles of unnecessary consumption and stagnation and move towards a more mindful and innovative future.


  1. "The Diderot Effect: why we buy things we don’t need", (Glasp)
  2. "Peter Thiel: The Single Best Interview Question You Can Ask", (Glasp)

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