There are as many ways to be an entrepreneur as there are entrepreneurs in the world. Therefore, how to be an entrepreneur is largely open to interpretation. Dave Jilk and Brad Feld embraced this gray area in their new book, The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche: A Book for Disruptors.
In it, the authors have curated quotes from the renowned philosopher, Frederich Nietzsche, offered their own musings on each quote, and included first-person essays from dozens of entrepreneurs working in a variety of fields. The goal is for readers to connect with Nietzsche’s ideas in their own way.
On Author Hour today, Brad and Dave discuss why the philosopher inspires them in their work, they connect some of his wisdom to entrepreneurial aims, and they remind us how important it is to think for ourselves.
Jane Stogdill: Hi Author Hour listeners. I’m here today with Brad Feld and Dave Jilk, authors of The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche: A Book for Disruptors. Brad and Dave, thank you so much for being with us today.
Dave Jilk: Thanks for having us.
Jane Stogdill: Okay, I need to hear the genesis of this book because I feel like it’s going to be a good story, does one of you want to tell us a bit about how it came to be and how the two of you came together on it?
Dave Jilk: Sure, I can handle that one. Actually, I was reminiscing about how it came to be just the other day. The first notion I had of this, I was reading–it was actually not Nietzsche directly but a book about Nietzsche, and it had some of his quotes in it. Brad and I were both at his house in the mountains, in Keystone. He was reading a book and I was reading a book and I said, “Hey Brad, doesn’t this sound a lot like entrepreneurs?” His reaction was “Yeah, it kind of does.”
After that time, as I was reading Nietzsche, I noted that I found a number of those things where something that he had said seemed like it reminded me or seemed to be directly relevant to entrepreneurship. So, about five years ago, I proposed to Brad that we should put a book together about this. As we got deeper into it, it really seemed like it clicked that there is a lot to say.
Brad Feld: I’ll add to that. I think the book started 38 years ago. On the day of the MIT freshman picnic for the incoming class of 1987, I was at that picnic as a soon-to-be freshman, and Dave and a couple of the future fraternity brothers grabbed me, tossed me in a van, and took me to the fraternity that Dave and I ended up living in together. He was a senior, and I was a freshman, but we very quickly became best friends and have been involved in many projects since.
This being the most recent, and while plenty of our projects have been pretty intellectual, we went deepest on a number of things that also reflected experiences we have both had, and reflections that we had, and also some philosophies that we have.
The Patron Philosopher of Entrepreneurs
Jane Stogdill: I’m hoping you can tell me a little bit more about the ways that you find Nietzsche to apply to entrepreneurship. You call him the patron philosopher of entrepreneurs. Why is that?
Dave Jilk: Well, first of all, that particular line was from Reed Hoffman’s Forward. We thought that it was such a good line that we decided to use it in some of the materials for the book. I think what Reed did is he really captured what we were trying to accomplish, and encapsulated it, which was really fun.
A lot of it was during Nietzsche’s middle period, he wrote a lot of things that were essentially aphoristic, meaning, he’d write something that was just a sentence, kind of intended to be a quote. In other words, these quotes that we took, many of them are intended to be quoted, but he also talks about things in a very colorful way. So, if you read Nietzsche, it’s not like there’s an intentional overriding philosophy that is specific to entrepreneurship or anything like that.
It’s just some of his views on human nature seemed very pertinent to the kinds of issues that entrepreneurs wrestle with, both personally for themselves as entrepreneurs, and with the people that they deal with–their employees, their investors, their vendors, their customers. These sorts of things seemed very insightful about what dealing with humans and being a human is like. We grabbed some of those and wrote about them and wrote about how we saw these quotes applying to entrepreneurship.
Jane Stogdill: There are 52 of them, right?
Brad Feld: Yes, there’s one for each week of the year, and in this, we owe a debt–I’m going to call it a debt of gratitude–to Ryan Holiday. The inspiration here was, we had started to work our way through, and Dave had some quotes. The work was riffing off of them, and we were starting to get some friends and colleagues to contribute narratives that go along with the quotes. I was re-reading at the time one of my favorite books, which is a book called The Daily Stoic.
If you’re not familiar with Ryan Holiday, he really popularized the idea of stoicism in the context of entrepreneurship. After I think, two of his books, he wrote The Daily Stoic and I think he’s subsequently come out with two more. In The Daily Stoic, there is a calendar of the day which has a quote, but then Ryan writes somewhere between two and five paragraphs about the quote, and how the quote applies to entrepreneurship.
I was reading through it and I thought, “Well, the world does not need 365 days of Nietzsche, but we could do 52, we could do one a week.” One of the differences between stoicism and Nietzsche, at least from my perspective, is that stoicism ends up being very much about tactics and the tactics of, not just entrepreneurship, but of living your life and how to live your life a certain way.
With Nietzsche, it was sort of next layer down or next layer up I guess, depending on which way you want to look at it. It was much more strategic than tactical, it was more abstract, it required more chewing on and wrestling with the idea. Whereas for stoicism, one a day, sort of gets you into the rhythm of what that tactic is.
Jane Stogdill: Can you talk to me a little bit about how you devised the major sections of the book? I can tell readers that they are strategy, culture, free spirits, leadership, and tactics.
Dave Jilk: While I’d love to say that it was intentional, and when I went and looked for those five categories and for quotes that matched them, it was exactly the opposite. In other words, we went through and found quotes that we both liked that had appeal in terms of the thinking process that we went through when we read them relative to entrepreneurship, and they simply accumulated.
One of the processes we followed is I would read through something and assemble a bunch of possible quotes, Brad will look at them and see which ones he liked, and then we’d put together an essay on it, and see if we could find an entrepreneur who had a story.
When we had 45 or so of them, and we knew we were aiming for 52, we started looking at what the categories might be, and this is how they landed. Many of them could be in multiple categories, so they’re not extremely strongly connected in that way and they’re certainly not intended to be comprehensive. After reading the leadership section, you’re not going to know everything there is to know about leadership or everything that Nietzsche might have said about it.
These are general categorizations that are aimed at if a reader is struggling with a particular type of thing within the context of being an entrepreneur, or within the context of a particular business, then it’s a good way to say, “Hey, I could jump into this section and that could help me right now.”
A History Lesson
Jane Stogdill: How did the entrepreneurs you reached out to respond to the idea when they were requested to participate?
Dave Jilk: It was highly variable. Some of them had read Nietzsche and were all over it, they were very excited about it, and some were perplexed but had an interesting story that seemed to relate to the quote. We even had a couple who decided that they didn’t want to do it because they had heard things about Nietzsche, and didn’t know much about him, and decided not to go there. So, it was all over the place. I had a few people who were very nervous about it and ultimately didn’t write essays even though they had a couple of interesting stories.
It really varied and I think importantly, the stories are not intended to drive the point home. So, we don’t take the quote and say, “This is what it says, and this is what you should learn from this, and here’s today’s lesson.” It’s exactly the opposite. As Brad was alluding to earlier, it’s very much about, “Here’s an essay that we wrote because that’s what the quote made us think of.”
You might think of something different, and you may very well disagree completely with what we’ve said, but the point is to think more about it. The entrepreneur narratives are very much along those lines–it’s what that particular entrepreneur thought of when he or she read the quote and read the essay.
Think Deeply about Your Own Views
Brad Feld: I think this links to the brilliance of Nietzsche and for me, I became so deeply fascinated by what he had done and where he lived in sort of this crossover moment in contemporary philosophy. I knew almost nothing about Nietzsche before Dave and I started working on this book.
I was completely fascinated by people’s reactions, including people who knew a lot about Nietzsche, and then at the other end of the spectrum, people who knew nothing at all other than maybe some headline that they’d seen somewhere or something somebody had said to them.
The very profound thing is that he caused so many people in different ways to think much more deeply about things that affected them or impacted them. He really changed the texture in a lot of ways of some of this thinking. About seven years ago, I co-created a class at CU Boulder called The Philosophy of Entrepreneurship with Phil Weiser, who is now attorney general of Colorado, and Brad Bernthal, who is a professor at CU Boulder Law. I taught with them for a year or two. Phil and Brad did most of the work, I showed up for the sessions and participated in providing some of the original content.
Then it went on for another four or five years, a few other people taught the class, and I remember not being personally very satisfied with what I was doing in the context of that. I think the class was well-received, but it wasn’t really causing people to think differently about entrepreneurship.
In a lot of ways, the goal with this book was not to necessarily cause people to think differently from a norm, it was to cause them to think deeply about their own views when provoked or prompted, or stimulated by these quotes. For me, as I read and reread and edited and played around with different sections, I kept coming up with and thinking of new things and new experiences and new ways they related together.
I think our hope for this book is that people when they read it, don’t view it as a how-to, the world doesn’t need any more of those around entrepreneurship, but much more of a why and what for and how should I think around entrepreneurship.
Jane Stogdill: I would love to share with our listeners an example if possible, I don’t think anyone would expect you to quote Nietzsche from heart.
Brad Feld: Watch out, Dave can probably do 52 quotes from heart.
Dave Jilk: Actually, maybe when I was younger, I could remember things like that–I can paraphrase a lot of them but not quote them.
Jane Stogdill: Is there one you’re thinking of that really stuck with you, maybe for your personal what for or why?
Dave Jilk: I don’t know about that for me personally. I think there are a couple of chapters I noted as we were getting into this season of launching the book that it was straight, what we’re talking about.
One of my favorites is the chapter in the section called culture, and the title of the chapter is just called style. In the Nietzsche quote, he talks about the unity of artistic style of a people and of course, he’s talking about European nations.
He’s talking that nations ought to have a unity of artistic style, and he’s thinking of France and Germany and some of the smaller nations in Europe, or perhaps he’s speaking of Europe as a whole which was something that he’d thought of.
When I read that, I had this immediate reaction of thinking of companies. As people, as not nations, but as a group of people who really have a lot of connection, we work so closely with the people in the company that we’re in at any given time, that we really do come together in a way. Brad and I put an essay together on that and went back and forth a little bit on some of the things we wanted to say. Then we passed it to a friend of both of ours, Tim Enwall who is the head of Misty Robotics, a robotics company that I believe Founder has funded Misty, right Brad?
Brad Feld: Yeah, I’m on the board.
Dave Jilk: We have both known Tim for at least 20 years. He is a super smart guy and very thoughtful, he thinks about all this stuff very heavily. He is kind of our target audience or someone who maybe isn’t our target audience, but who is doing the kinds of things we want our audience to do. Indeed, he came through very strongly in this case, starting by contradicting us in his narrative and saying, “I don’t think that style connects in both brand and culture internally. They’re different, culture and brand are internal,” and then he said, “Then I thought about it some more as it was sitting on my desk,” and he wrote this tremendous essay where he illustrated what we were trying to say and how he thought more about it. I wouldn’t say that he completely agreed with us in the end, but but he saw what we were talking about and he saw the point of the Nietzsche quote–how some of these things do connect together.
So, brand and culture do have a connection point and it does connect in the area of artistic style.
Just to give you a little more color, Apple is probably one of the better examples of artistic style of a company, right? Everybody knows they pick their fonts carefully and their design and their out of box experience.
This is a great example of what we were hoping readers would do. They would read what we had to say, they would read the entrepreneur narrative, and they’d think, “That does apply to me.” I can remember it because Nietzsche’s language is colorful and maybe I can’t quote it, but I can paraphrase it. I thought that was a really good example of what we were trying to have readers experience.
Brad Feld: I’ll add one example from my perspective and I will read the quote here although I will acknowledge I haven’t memorized it ,so I pulled it up and I’m looking at it. It is early in the book, it is in the section called strategy and it is called finding your way. Nietzsche says, “This is now my way. Where is yours? Thus, did I answer those who asked me the way, for the way it does not exist.”
Our translation of this, in other words, people often ask me how to do something.
I tell them how I do it, but then I ask them how they’re going to do it because there is no one way to do something. One could easily say, “Well, that applies not just to entrepreneurship but to all aspects of life,” and we agree. But as we apply that to entrepreneurship over the next 10, 15 paragraphs, we then have a narrative from a guy named Daniel Benhamu, who is one of Dave’s friends–I always say his name wrong–who is also an entrepreneur and he talks about his own experience with it.
Every entrepreneur that I know that’s been either successful or has had multiple experiences of success and failure, by the time they get later in their arc, they are starting to talk about how they do it, but the great mentors don’t say, “And you should do it this way also.”
The great mentors recognize that all they’re doing is giving the new entrepreneur or the entrepreneur who’s asking or the person who is looking for guidance, data. So, in a lot of ways, it fits really nicely into finding your way.
It fits really nicely with an experience. I’ve had over many, many years both personally and also through things like Tech Stars and other organizations I’ve been involved with, where the goal is not to tell other people what to do but to help other people discover and determine their own answers.
Dave Jilk: To add to that also, I like that you picked that one, Brad, because it’s one of the essays where we have something to say and then we say, “But here’s another way to look it.” The issue here is every entrepreneur has a way, and has to choose a way to do things. You have to decide, but doing everything the way you want to do it may or may not be the right thing to do. In other words, especially with first time entrepreneurs, that can lead to a lot of rookie errors.
In other words, you see the world and you’d like to change a lot of things about how it works but you can’t do that and build a successful business. You can’t change everything all at once, and so this is a good example of where we try to think through this idea of, “Well, what does it mean to do it my way? Does it mean hey, my way or the highway on everything I think about?”
Brad talked about mentors and this is one of the ways where mentors can really help the most. They say, “Well, I do it this way and I’ve never seen anybody do it any other way, so that doesn’t mean it’s right, but maybe this is not what the sign on your door looks like, so maybe that’s not the most important thing to innovate on. Maybe you should innovate on your products.”
We cover those different angles, and we do that in a lot of the chapters where it is not, “Here’s the quote, here’s our interpretation of it, so this is what you do,” but rather, “Okay, here’s a straightforward interpretation but we could also go another way.”
The Problems with Interpretation
Jane Stogdill: There are as many different ways to start a business as there are entrepreneurs in the world, and just as many ways to interpret philosophy sometimes it seems, which is appropriate and also it makes me want to ask you about something you’ve eluded to a little earlier. Some of the entrepreneurs you’ve reached out to have heard certain things about Nietzsche. You have an appendix at the end titled “Don’t believe everything you hear about Nietzsche.”
Can you tell us a little bit about some of these ideas that have been spreading that seem misinformed to scholars?
Dave Jilk: First of all, I’ve read a bit on this notion and I think appropriately, Nietzsche brought this on himself in some ways by writing in a particular way. In other words, in his philosophy, interpretation is an enormous part of how he sees the world. In other words, he thinks all of it is, in fact, interpretation, and so he tried to do that in his writing to show, and we took inspiration from this. Nietzsche, in his writing, tries to show the process of philosophizing as he saw it in his writing.
While you’re reading it, you’re almost seeing him thinking, to some extent. The result of that is not a clear comprehensive straightforward view of things but rather a morass, a real mess in terms of trying to interpret it. It’s very hard to interpret Nietzsche clearly. On the other hand, it is very easy to interpret him any way you like, right? By the way, we admit that to some extent we’ve done that with his quotes, and in the essays we say that hopefully our purpose of making you think about your business harder is relatively innocuous.
Well, a variety of people have interpreted Nietzsche using this approach for their own purposes. Some of which were not the most admirable purposes and some of which were downright evil. So, in one way, it was his fault because he wrote in this sort of vague and complex way with lots of hidden illusions, and in another, it’s typical. The Bible is also misinterpreted or interpreted in a variety of ways, some of which don’t seem really consistent with the general idea. This is true of many other books as well.
That has happened, and in the essays, what we tried to do there is dig into some of these things and see what the experts had said, see what the facts say, and most of them are pretty inconsistent with Nietzsche’s views, to the best of one’s ability to actually nail down what he believed. Some examples of things–you know the worst is probably that his sister, who actually was involved with her husband in a proto-Nazi cult in South America, ended up becoming his heir and had control over his writings and his notes.
She put together a book called The Will to Power, which she worked as hard as she could to make it inclined toward her view of things, but it really was just a bunch of notes that he had written on the backs of envelopes and such. She actually was friends with Adolf Hitler and rumor has it that some of the books were kept in libraries by the Nazis. This obviously had a very bad effect historically, but in the 1950s some scholars started looking at this and they realized very quickly that this was entirely his sister’s doing.
The he in fact broke off his friendship with Richard Wagner, the famous composer, because Wagner was anti-Semitic among other reasons. So, if you read his work, he’s fairly clear that German nationalism and that sort of attitude was abhorrent to him, not just neutral or tolerated, but rather it is part of what he was fighting against. It was actually turned on its head by his sister and these are the kinds of things that we see.
More recently, some old Reich figures have said that they take a fancy to him and when we dug into all of that, it was all just click bait. Maybe they had read a couple of quotes from somewhere and taken them out of context and decided that was cool. There were a few articles here and there, but it was subsequently meaningless. We thought we would address that because it seemed important to make sure that people understood that.
Nietzsche’s views are probably not what you think they are, or what you’ve heard from rumors or clickbait articles, but quite a bit deeper. Now, there are some things that he says that many people would in fact find offensive, but they are not those sorts of things. They are much more sophisticated and complex. He was not a big fan of democracy or egalitarianism for example. He was kind of an elitist, so we may not agree with that, but that’s a philosophical point of view, not one that really relates to current issues that people are more concerned about.
Jane Stogdill: Well, thank you for providing context. I did want our readers who might have also heard some things about Nietzsche to get that very interesting history lesson.
Dave Jilk: The one other thing I mentioned there is that Nietzsche was a bit of a chauvinist. There is plenty of evidence for that, and I was pretty concerned about that except that what was interesting is some of our narrative authors who were women and had read Nietzsche previously were big fans. I thought, “Well, apparently they’re not too concerned,” and I do quote the person who first got me reading Nietzsche, which is Kathleen Higgins, who is a Nietzsche scholar.
She doesn’t really see it that way at all. She seems to see that his views on women are quite complex and in fact, his philosophy is the basis of the reasonable woman standard, which in court decisions is quite interesting.
For the Readers
Jane Stogdill: That is interesting. What’s the one or one of the top things you want readers to take away from the book when they finish it?
Brad Feld: I’ve written a number of books now. Most of my books have been either about the nuts and bolts of some aspect of entrepreneurship and venture capital or in two books cases, around the idea behind a startup community and the evolution of how startup communities grow and develop. All of those books, I think, will cause people to think but about a very particular subject. In this case, we very deliberately broadened that subject to entrepreneurship, which of course can be very wide.
More specifically, we set it up in a way where we want people to really reflect on what they were doing and how they were doing and why they were doing it. My hope is that we gave anybody who reads this book some tools and stimulation that allows them to go deeper in their own processing of what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how they’re doing it, and what’s important in the context of entrepreneurship.
Dave Jilk: Yeah, I’m on the same page thinking about these things. What’s interesting is that I advise a few entrepreneurs and it so often comes up where I say, “Well, we have a chapter about that,” So, it’s interesting because the book was not intended to be comprehensive, but it does actually touch on a lot of things that are really tough issues that really do come up in entrepreneurship.
It’s frequently relevant. If we can trigger some real thinking process that’s better than it would have been, I think it will bring value to entrepreneurs who are working through these very hard issues.
Jane Stogdill: Definitely. Well Brad and Dave, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Congratulations again on the book. Listeners, it’s The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche: A Book for Disruptors. In addition to reading the book guys, where can people go to learn more about you and your work?
Brad Feld: I’m at feld.com, this is probably the best place to find me, and the venture firm I’m part of is foundrygroup.com in case people are interested.
Dave Jilk: I’ve written a few random things, I even have a couple of poetry books on Amazon. I’m at jilk.com as my last name is spelled. There are a few of my published and unpublished writings.
Jane Stogdill: Great. Well, thanks so much.
Brad Feld: Thank you.
Dave Jilk: Thank you.
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