Loosen the straps

When water leaks into your SCUBA mask, beginners tighten the straps.

But this warps the seal, letting in more water.

Experienced divers loosen the straps because they know that the ocean provides all the pressure you need and the straps are just there to keep the mask in place.

The same principle applies to creative work. 

When you get stuck trying to make something, don't force it. If you tighten the psychological straps, stress floods in, drowning your ideas.

Instead, go for a hike, read a novel, play a game, call your mom, let your mind roam free—a solution will reveal itself when you least expect it.

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Complement with Quantity is a route to quality, not its opposite, Be bold, and Creativity is a choice.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

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Brad Feld on Nietzsche for creators

“One man had great works, but his comrade had great faith in these works. They were inseparable, but obviously the former was dependent upon the latter.” -Nietzsche

I didn’t write my first novel to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a writer. I wrote my first novel because I was a voracious reader, and there was a book I wanted to read but couldn’t find, so I opened up Microsoft Word and started typing.

At the time, I was working at a venture capital firm as a drop-in operator for their portfolio companies. Startups were thick with human drama—enormously ambitious projects, fortunes won and lost, cofounder disputes, friendships forged, dreams shattered, success, betrayal, etc.—but many business books seemed to gloss over the depth of the human experience of entrepreneurship in favor of sterile lessons learned. Startups seemed a perfect canvas for fiction that could pry open that interior world, so my embryonic manuscript followed a pair of friends who drop out of college to start a company and get sucked into an international conspiracy along the way.

As I set to work on the opening chapters, Brad Feld’s blog proved to be an invaluable resource. Brad is a VC at Foundry Group, and over the many years he’s been publishing his blog, it has helped render a previously opaque industry transparent. The candid glimpses he provided were grist for my literary mill, and the genuine vulnerability evident in his writing was a welcome respite from an internet rife with self-congratulation and performative failure. Also, he loved science fiction.

So I bit my lip, crossed my fingers, and cold emailed Brad the first few chapters of my novel. I didn’t expect a reply, but he responded four hours later saying that he loved the story and wanted more.

Fast forward to last month when I put the finishing touches on my tenth novel. Along the way, Brad has gone on to support my writing as a publisher, patron, fan, and friend. My books wouldn’t exist without him. Life’s fulcrums are only visible in retrospect. That unreasonably fast and unreasonably generous reply to a tentative email from a stranger was the crux.

By believing in me, he gave me the faith to believe in myself.

Every artist, entrepreneur, and creator knows the power of a helping hand from a fellow traveler. Setting out to explore unknown territory is scary, and the least we can do to aid each other in our respective quests is share notes. Philosophers distill such notes into language that ignites the mind and endures in the heart.

So I was delighted to receive an email from Brad saying that he and Dave Jilk had written a book that collates their best notes—and notes from many of their friends—into a compendium of practical wisdom for people determined to contribute to shaping a better future. And I was doubly delighted to discover that, like this blog post, each chapter opens with a line from Nietzsche memorably capturing a timeless truth.

The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche provides an invaluable philosophical toolkit for anyone building a business or forging a new path beyond the beyond. In the following conversation, Brad and I discuss the creative process behind the book and what he learned studying and applying Nietzsche’s ideas.

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As you explored his body of work, what surprised you most about Nietzsche?

I was fascinated by the number of different thoughts his philosophy stimulates. It is said that “Nietzsche philosophizes with a hammer.” He is provocative. He is blunt. He is clever. His aphorisms have incredible depth. As we dug deeper, so much of what he said was relevant to entrepreneurship. He wasn’t giving answers but providing context for intense contemplation.

In what important ways is he misunderstood?

Some people think Nietzsche is a Nazi. More recently, the alt-right has tried to co-opt some of what he’s said. Dave and I explored this deeply, and we included an Appendix that is written like a journal article (e.g., lots of footnotes) titled “Don’t Believe Everything You Hear About Nietzsche.” The section headings cover the primary misunderstood topics: Anti-semitism, German Nationalism, White Nationalism, and Misogyny. The irony of all of this is that he’s extremely disdainful of anti-semitism, gave up his citizenship, was stateless for much of his adult life, and was generally apolitical.

As with much history, there are fascinating stories behind the story. For example, Nietzsche’s sister was a Nazi and, when Nietzsche died in 1900, she took over his literary estate. She cobbled together notes from some of his writing into a book titled Will To Power. She promoted this as his magnum opus, but in the 1960s, the philologists Mazzino Montinari and Giorgio Colli read the entirety of Nietzsche’s original documents and, after completing their comprehensive translation, called The Will to Power a "historic forgery" artificially assembled by Nietzsche's sister and K√∂selitz/Gast. Imagine if you had an agenda, took my entire collection of emails, cut and paste sentences that fit your agenda, and then published this after I died? That’s essentially what Nietzsche’s sister did. The Nazi’s then embraced this, and Nietzsche didn’t have a posthumous version of Twitter to call his sister out as a fraud.

This is a philosophy book written for practical, determined people intent on making things better by making better things. How did you go about linking theory to practice?

We started with 52 Nietzsche quotes that we thought refer to entrepreneurship. After pondering them, we translated them into modern English and then wrote a two to four-page essay about the thoughts stimulated by the quote. We weren’t prescriptive, but rather provocative, the way we envision Nietzsche would have been. Our goal wasn’t to say “do this, do that,” but to cause the reader to think, reflect, and relate the quote and our essay to their own entrepreneurial experience. About two-thirds of these are followed by narratives from entrepreneurs that were simply prompted by the Nietzsche quote. These narratives are lightly edited by us, so the voice of the entrepreneur writing them really comes through.

I love how every chapter opens with a quote and then brings the idea to life in a concrete example. You’ve mentioned how Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic was an inspiration, and there are also parallels to Seth Godin’s The Practice. Why this format? Why did this particular book take this particular shape?

Soon after Dave and I started seriously working on this book, Ryan Holiday came out with his book The Daily Stoic. I’m an enormous Ryan Holiday fan and love how he has made Stoicism accessible to modern life and entrepreneurship. Dave and I couldn’t get our mind around 365 Nietzsche quotes (like Ryan did with Stoicism), so we decided to use a weekly format—hence 52 quotes and chapters.

What was it like to co-author the book with Dave? How was it informed (or not) by the business you built together? What did the process teach you about creative collaboration?

Dave and I have worked together on many projects going back to our first company (Feld Technologies) in 1987. We met in college in 1983 and have been best friends ever since. Given our extensive experience working together, we knew how to collaborate. We are very tolerant of each other’s quirks, annoyances, and style. Dave is exceptionally patient with me as I’ve never met a deadline that I took seriously, even though I get plenty of things done on time.

What lessons did you learn from Nietzsche that you applied in writing and publishing this book? How might artists or other creators benefit from reading a philosophy book for entrepreneurs?

To think. To reflect. To be uncomfortable. To go deeper than the surface on an idea. To allow contradictory notions to co-evolve into something with more clarity. To love beautiful wordplay.

Which philosophers have changed how you see the world and live your life? What should fans of The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche read next?

Read all of Ryan Holiday’s stuff. If you find our book interesting and want to learn more about Nietzsche, read Nietzsche by Lou Salome and translated by Siegfried Mandel. Try some Nietzsche in the original. And, when you get a little tired from the effort, gobble down Andy Weir’s The Hail Mary Project.

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Complement with Kevin Kelly on the technology trends that will shape the next thirty years, Brad on riding the entrepreneurial rollercoaster, and why business leaders need to read more science fiction.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

Blake Crouch on writing Summer Frost

Blake Crouch's Summer Frost is a technothriller in miniature. Only 74 pages long, it conjures a complete, compelling narrative arc through a near-future where a non-player character in a computer game evolves into an autonomous AI. As thought-provoking as it is propulsive, this is a story that will suck you in and stick with you long after you reach the end.

In the following conversation, we discuss Blake's creative process and the big ideas that Summer Frost brings to life.

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What is Summer Frost’s origin story? How did it grow from a road-trip debate into the story I just read on my Kindle?

Summer Frost was originally going to be a novel called The Lost Coast, which was to be the follow-up to Dark Matter. I got about 150 pages in and realized I didn’t have my arms sufficiently around the AI technology aspect of the story. I didn’t really know how to dramatize a program becoming aware. And for me, that was the whole reason to write it. So I set that book aside and started in on the idea that would become Recursion.

After Recursion, I wanted to do something other than a novel. I had agreed to curate this Amazon Original Stories collection, and as I started thinking about the story that might be my contribution, I started thinking about The Lost Coast idea again. I’d had some distance from the initial idea, and I suddenly saw my way in. I think there was something freeing about approaching it as a story or novella, instead of all the pressure that comes with MY NEXT BOOK. Also, I wanted to do a super-dark ending, which I didn’t think would work as well after readers had invested hours and hours in a novel.

What are the key questions that define this technological moment? What does it mean to live in an era of accelerating change?

Well, it’s not just artificial intelligence and machine learning. It’s biotech. It’s the insidious way social media is impacting social discourse and how the algorithms of Facebook and Twitter are being used to manipulate us. I don’t know what it means to live in an era of accelerating change. It’s hard to have perspective on something when you’re inside of it.

In researching and writing Summer Frost, what surprised you most about the advances in and the implications of AI? What do the headlines miss? What under-appreciated emerging trends really matter?

I chose to take the more dramatic perspective on AI for Summer Frost. The sudden, exponential growth side of AI. For obvious reasons. I write thrillers and there’s a lot of thrilling possibilities with the idea that AI could rapidly evolve. But some people don’t think the threat is necessarily going to be from AI to human right away. There’s an angle on the problem that takes the position that AI will very slowly gain sentience. Imagine an AI with the awareness of a dog, or a two-year-old child. Or an orangutan. Then the question becomes how we treat that AI. And if history is any guide, if you look at how we treat animals in product testing, migrant children at our own borders, and generally every other living thing from forests to coral, we’re going to abuse these fledgling AIs. We’ll treat them like monsters. And that will become a problem for us, because where will they gain their sense of morality by the time superintelligence + full sentience arrives?

Even though it’s the length of a short story, Summer Frost reads like a novel—it follows a complete narrative arc rather than zeroing in on a single idea, twist, or feeling. How did the form shape the story, or vice versa?

A lot of that came from its origin as a novel. I also made the choice (once I picked it up again) to let the story unfold over years and years. I do think this iteration of the story could have been expanded to become a novel, but hopefully there’s power in the restraint.

Summer Frost was published as part of the Forward collection, for which you recruited a dream team of fellow contributors: N.K. Jemisin, Amor Towles, Veronica Roth, Paul Tremblay, and Andy Weir. What did you learn from working with them?

They’re all masters at what they do. I’m very fortunate to know a lot of extraordinary artists, and the one thing I keep being amazed by is how differently they all come at story. We could have been given the same general prompt, and I’m sure I could have published an anthology of one story, six different ways, and it would have truly felt like a completely different reading experience for each story.

In fact, this was the prompt I gave them: “The common DNA I'd like all of these stories to share is a sense of discovery. This could cover everything from a new scientific invention, uncovering of alien artifacts, first contact, discovery of a new disease, cures, AI and VR breakthroughs, new modes of interstellar travel, literally anything that places characters in the midst of groundbreaking, world-altering discoveries, and then explores the consequences. And it could take place at any point in time, from the far past to the distant future. The only other requirement is that it integrate some type of science and/or technology in the story.” 

Some people were concerned we might get four “AI stories,” or four “first contact” stories, but I thought we all had such diverse voices and approaches, that if it happened, it would be fine.

What can stories that imagine possible futures teach us about the present? What does science fiction mean to you, and what role does it play in the culture?

I think science fiction is really just the story of humanity. The story of us. It shows us possible futures and asks, sometimes as a warning, sometimes as a beautiful promise: “Are we sure this is the direction we want to be heading?”

What books have changed your life? What should fans of Summer Frost and the Forward collection read next?

My most impactful books (and this is a revolving list): The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, Blood Meridian and The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, any of Hemingway’s great short fiction, all of Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens, Homo Deus, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century), Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, the extraordinary short fiction of Ted Chiang, Silence by Shusaku Endo, Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, the great Ursula K. Le Guin. And what should people read next? Andy Weir’s new novel, Project Hail Mary, is a total triumph. I would have to go back years to think of something I enjoyed reading more.

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Complement with Cory Doctorow on writing Attack Surface, Barry Eisler on writing Livia Lone, and five things I learned writing Veil.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

“Can I get your take on something?”

When you face a tough decision and need advice, start by writing a description of your situation. Define the problem, stakes, options, and tradeoffs. Identify questions and risks. Explain what you think is important and why it matters. 

Read it out loud to yourself. What’s missing? Add it. What’s irrelevant? Cut it. What’s confusing? Clarify it. Don’t stop until everything important is on the page and any excess cruft has been trimmed away.

Now, sleep on it. Then read it out loud again the next day. Congratulations! Nine out of ten times you will no longer need advice. Nothing refines thinking like writing. The choice may still be difficult and the tradeoffs may be significant, but the path forward will be obvious. And even if you find yourself in the rare situation where the path stubbornly remains obscure, you’ve just written the email you should send to your trusted adviser in order to help them help you.

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Complement with Most successful people have no idea what made them successful, Ideas aren’t unique, execution is, and Be bold.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

Can speculative fiction teach us anything in a world this crazy?

Danny Crichton interviewed me for TechCrunch about the feedback loop between imagined worlds and the real one:

Current events are a painful reminder that unlike fiction, reality needn’t be plausible. The world is complex and even the wisest of us understand only a tiny sliver of what’s really going on. Nobody knows what comes next. So while it may feel like we’re living in a science fiction novel, that’s because we’ve always been living in a science fiction novel. Or maybe speculative fiction is more real than so-called realistic fiction because the only certainty is that tomorrow will be different from today and from what we expect. Depicting a world without fundamental change has become fantastical.

As a writer of speculative fiction, I’m an enthusiastic reader of history. And in reading about the past to slake my curiosity and imagine possible futures, I’ve learned that the present is exceedingly contingent, fascinating, and fleeting. For me, speculative fiction is less about prediction than it is about riffing on how the world is changing like a jazz musician might improvise over a standard. Accuracy only happens by mistake. The most interesting rendition wins because it makes people think, dream, feel. And thanks to technological leverage, to a greater and greater extent people are inventing the future—for better and for worse.

So I’m not worried about reality catching up with speculative fiction because speculative fiction is rooted in the human experience of reality. Every black swan event is simply new material.

Read the full interview.

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Complement with this podcast interview about the speculative scenario extrapolated in Veil, what The Truman Show can teach us about the internet, and using science fiction to understand the future of the web.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter documenting his journey as a reader and writer, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

Ideas aren’t unique, execution is

In his seminal book What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly notes that while we celebrate Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace independently came up with the same theory of evolution around the same time, both of them inspired by Thomas Malthus’s ideas about population growth. Likewise, Albert Einstein is history’s archetypal genius, yet the same year he published four papers that would remake physics, Hendrik Lorentz developed a mathematical architecture for spacetime, and the year before, Henri Poincare identified gaps in classical physics that only relatively could fill. The principle underlying multiple independent discovery also applies to invention and art. At least twenty-three people “invented” the lightbulb before Thomas Edison. And before J.K. Rowling introduced readers to Harry Potter, there were numerous books about orphans attending wizarding schools—including one with a protagonist named Larry Potter!

As I was gearing up to launch a new novel in May of 2020, I learned that one of my favorite authors, Kim Stanley Robinson, had a book coming out that November. Both Veil and The Ministry for the Future are set in near futures shaped by solar geoengineering and both start with an unprecedented global heat wave that kills twenty million people. I’m writing this blog post in early 2021, a few days after another of my favorite science-fiction authors, Neal Stephenson, announced that he has a near-future geoengineering thriller called Termination Shock set to publish later this year. “Termination Shock” was a working title for the manuscript that ultimately became Veil.

Robinson and I corresponded about the uncanny parallels between our respective novels, agreeing that the startling thing was that more writers hadn’t already explored this territory, and hoping that more would. Of course, while both stories start with a similar concept, they go in entirely different directions. Concepts in isolation are easy to talk about and, therefore, overrated. Most of the value lies in how a concept is brought to life, complete with layer upon layer of contingent idiosyncrasy. That’s why Harry Potter is Harry Potter and Charles Darwin is Charles Darwin.

Ideas aren’t unique.

Execution is.

We remember those who realize ideas in a singular way and make them stick in the culture.

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Complement with Creativity is a choice, Be bold, and the Science of Fiction on Veil.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter documenting his journey as a reader and writer, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

Literary leverage

As a writer, it’s important to remember that only a tiny percentage of people read, far fewer read full articles instead of just headlines, fewer still read books, and—even if it’s a massive hit—only a minuscule fraction of those rarified few will read your book.

Knowing that you will never reach everyone frees you to write for a particular someone. You can tell a singular story just for people like them, a story that speaks to who they are and who they are becoming, a story they won’t be able to put down or forget.

The right book at the right time can make a lasting impact on the life of the right person, and people who read books exercise outsize influence on the world. So while writing books will never earn you a mass audience, it may very well be the lever you need to make the change you seek to make.

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Complement with Stories are Trojan Horses for ideas, Strange and incongruous relation, and my advice for authors.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter documenting his journey as a reader and writer, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.