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.