Since releasing my newest book The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche: A Book for Disruptors I’ve been continually getting the questions “Why Philosophy and Entrepreneurship?” and “Why Nietzsche?”
Dave and I cover this right off the bat in the book, so I thought I’d toss up an excerpt that addresses the question with part of my own origin story with Dave. It follows.
Nietzsche? For entrepreneurs?
It was the end of January 1988, about nine months since we had embarked on turning Brad’s solo consulting shop, Feld Technologies, into a real business. We were fraternity brothers and close friends and opened our first office directly across the street from our fraternity chapter house in Cambridge. We planned to use smart yet inexpensive software developers to build business application software. We employed half a dozen programmers, most of whom were undergraduates from our fraternity working part-time. We didn’t have any financing except for Brad’s credit card and the $10 with which we had purchased our common stock.
Dave walked into Brad’s office after calculating preliminary financial results for January. Up to this point, we had mostly broken even, but the news was grim: we had lost $10,000 in one month. We had not seen it coming, and it took some effort for us to untangle what had gone wrong. Dave had been spending most of his time managing the part-time developers, who were primarily working on future products, instead of billing hours to clients. Brad had been selling computer equipment, which had low gross profit margins, instead of billing hours to clients. Much of our revenue for the month had come from one highly productive though erratic undergraduate developer, Mike, who was working on a billable client project.
Before we had a chance to figure out what to do, Mike quit, citing a need to focus on his studies. Now we had no choice: we fired everyone, shut down our month-to-month office, sold all the office furnishings, and moved the business to our apartments in downtown Boston. It was gut-wrenching. Brad wondered whether we had failed just as we got started. Dave worried about paying rent. We had long discussions about the future of the business, including whether or not to continue.
But we did have billable projects. We no longer had to spend our time managing people and had figured out where our bread was buttered. Results were good enough in February to calm our nerves and even better in March. Just as important, we had learned some crucial lessons and settled on a very different idea about how we would move forward with the business. The experience of hitting bottom and the lessons we learned became deeply ingrained in our brains and our company culture as we more methodically and progressively built the firm.
Fast-forward thirty years, when we were in the midst of writing this book, and Dave was reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He encountered a passage that said the highest mountains rise from the sea, and that fact is “inscribed…on the walls of their summits.” Because of our experience at Feld Technologies—and many times since—we knew immediately that this had to be a chapter in the book. We imagined the solace and instruction it might have offered us to have seen (and understood) this quote, to have read a short essay like the one in our chapter Hitting Bottom, where the starkness and promise of the situation are presented in black and white, or to have heard Walter Knapp’s story of the crash and rebirth of Sovrn, a genuinely disruptive company.
That is how we wrote most of the chapters and how this project began. In reading Nietzsche, we noticed ideas that reminded us of situations, questions, and concerns that frequently arose in our entrepreneurial and venture investment experience. Nietzsche had a way with words, and we found that some ideas were nicely encapsulated and phrased. We started playing with expanding upon his pithy aphorisms and gathering stories from entrepreneurs, and it clicked.
Feld Technologies never became a disruptive company, despite our ambitions. It plateaued at around $2 million in revenue before we sold it in 1993. Because we had built a solid foundation for a certain kind of success, we never again hit a deep low point, and consequently never again had the painful opportunity to rethink our premises. This point, too, is covered in Hitting Bottom and illustrates why we did not just skip Nietzsche, write some essays, and assemble some entrepreneur stories. Nietzsche—sitting or walking alone, in pain, almost blind—thought deeply and managed to share these thoughts with the world. We tried to follow his lead, thinking hard and pondering additional angles and situations to which the quote might apply. We want you to do the same, as you keep in mind that Nietzsche’s works have been highly influential throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.
In business and entrepreneurship literature, inspiration is sometimes more helpful than instruction. Though there is plenty of how-to information in this book, we aim to give you food for thought from a different perspective. We address issues of leadership, motivation, morals, creativity, culture, strategy, conflict, and knowledge. We push you to think about what you and your enterprise are made of. We expect you to question and ponder these ideas, not just put them into action. If we are successful, you will sometimes get angry and at other times feel pride. At times you will wonder what you really know, and at other times you will charge forward. We hope that the combination of Nietzsche’s colorful language, our elaborations, and some stories from entrepreneurs will offer you intellectual, emotional, and entrepreneurial inspiration.
Nietzsche was not a fan of commercial activity or businesspeople. He saw the former as crass and the latter as lacking nobility. However, we suspect that if Nietzsche were alive today, he would view entrepreneurs differently. He adored intensity and fervor, deeply valued those who create things, and wrote at length about “free spirits” who do not feel bound to tradition or cultural norms. Nietzsche viewed his mission as the “revaluation of all values,” and he intended to disrupt the entire moral tradition of Europe in the late 19th century.
Ryan Holiday’s newest book, Stillness Is The Key, came out at the beginning of October. I ended up with two copies and thought I’d read it over the weekend after they showed up at my house. The weekend slipped by and I didn’t pick it up until mid-day on Thanksgiving.
It was pouring rain in San Diego all day so it was a perfect laying on the couch reading afternoon. I just finished and, once again, Ryan delivered with this book.
Ryan divided the book into three sections: Mind, Spirit, and Body. He has a thorough exploration, broken up into about a dozen chapters, for each category. As is his style, there are many detailed and powerful examples.
He leads with Seneca, a friend of all Stoics and a frequent visitor in Ryan’s writing. He tells a short story around apatheia, or upekkha, or aslama, or hishtavut, or samatvam, or euthymia, or hesychia, or ataraxia, or aequanimitas – a word that finally comes closer to translation into English.
That word is stillness. In the intro to the book, Ryan says,
“To be steady while the world spins around you. To act without frenzy. To hear only what needs to be heard. To possess quietude—exterior and interior—on command.
Buddhism. Stoicism. Epicureanism. Christianity. Hinduism. It’s all but impossible to find a philosophical school or religion that does not venerate this inner peace—this stillness—as the highest good and as the key to elite performance and a happy life.
And when basically all of the widom of the ancient world agrees on something, only a fool would decline to listen.“
I thought the chapters in each section were extremely well-titled and are listed below. Like reading a poem, slow yourself down and, instead of skimming the next three paragraphs, read them aloud.
Mind: The domain of the mind, Become present, Limit your inputs, Empty the mind, Slow down think deeply, Start journaling, Cultivate silence, Seek wisdom, Find confidence avoid ego, Let go.
Spirit: The domain of the soul, Choose virtue, Heal the inner child, Beware desire, Enough, Bathe in beauty, Accept a higher power, Enter relationships, Conquer your anger, All is one.
Body: The domain of the body, Say no, Take a walk, Build a routine, Get rid of your stuff, Seek solitude, Be a human being, Go to sleep, Find a hobby, Beware escapism, Act bravely.
If even one chapter in each section strikes a chord with you, I encourage you to grab a copy of Stillness Is The Key.
Ryan – thanks for adding another phenomenal book to my bookshelf.
The following post is the one I was referring to when I wrote The Moment You Realize You Aren’t Comfortable With What You Wrote. After I wrote it, I searched around for the quote but came across links to a speech by Ben Shapiro titled “Truth Is A Microagression” along with a bunch of commentary about Shapiro suggesting “Facts don’t care about your feelings” and counterarguments that “Facts do care about your feelings.”
I got sucked into a rabbit hole of trying to understand the discussion, debate, and the subsequent aggressive (vitrolic?) arguments. Neither was what I was trying to say, nor did I feel like becoming part of that particular discussion. So, I chickened out and wrote the post The Moment You Realize You Aren’t Comfortable With What You Wrote instead.
Now that I’ve sat on this post for a few weeks, I’m now fine putting it up. If you are part of the “facts care or don’t care about your feelings” discussion, that’s cool, but that’s not what this is about. So, please read it with the meaning I was trying to convey.
I love the phrase “facts have no feelings.” And, it’s important to distinguish that phase from a different quote which I don’t like and is in a completely different dimension of discussion, which is “facts don’t care about your feelings.”
Queue all the comments about living in a post-fact reality and alternative facts. Or about how facts are simply a fictional narrative that humans create about the universe. Or how facts don’t matter since whoever has the loudest megaphone can overwhelm any facts. Or, how facts actually matter in the long-run, even if they are ignored in the short-term.
Earlier this year I read Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre. It had some good stuff in it, but several of my friends who read it were turned off by McIntyre’s biases (which he acknowledges directly in the book), asserting that the biases undermined what he was saying.
Around the same time, I read James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty which I enjoyed regardless of what you think of Comey. After I wrote a blog post about it, I ended up getting a range of emails. Some were positive but others were similar to the ones I got about McIntyre’s book (although more aggressive) basically saying Comey was full of shit and not telling the truth.
One of my favorite lines in the context of business is Your Truth vs. The Truth. I use the original iPhone release as the example and two Steve Ballmer videos – one from 2007 and one from 2014 – to make the point. My punch line in the post is:
“When I say “your truth” I’m not referring to opinions. I’m referring to your deeply held beliefs. Your truth is the set of ideas that forms the basis of your view of the world. It requires a huge act of will and introspection for you to change your truth.”
That leads me to “facts have no feelings” and the distinction between “truth” and “facts” in the context of business. While the two are regularly conflated, they are really different. The “alternative facts” nonsense in politics makes this point clearly. If “alternative truth” had been said instead of the famously used phrase “alternative facts”, it would have made a lot more sense. Sure, some people would have still ridiculed it, but it would have been a logical construct because there can be a difference between what one person thinks is true and what another thinks is true.
Here’s a provocative example. I think bitcoin has no fundamental value. However, there are many people who believe bitcoin has fundamental value. And, regardless of whether or not it has fundamental value, it is a fact that when I wrote this sentence you can buy bitcoin for $3,403.48 (of course, it is also likely that when you read this, the price will be different.) So, people ascribe value to bitcoin, whether or not it has fundamental value.
My truth would be that bitcoin has no fundamental value, but is a highly speculative object that people like to trade. And, I build a set of truths around that. Other people have a different truth about bitcoin. Regardless, the fact is that a bitcoin can be bought and sold. And, for the avoidance of doubt, even though I think bitcoin has no fundamental value, I own some bitcoins (a fact …) Finally, while someone could extrapolate the notion that I don’t think cryptocurrencies have fundamental value, that would be incorrect, since bitcoin is simply one cryptocurrency.
Here’s something to chew on: “Should facts get in the way of truth?” Or, “Should truth get in the way of facts?”
Your truth (or my truth) and deeply held beliefs are complicated things that can change. But, facts have no feelings.
I heard a great phrase from Jenna Walker at Artifact Uprising yesterday. We had a Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network Colorado meeting with her and her partner and in the middle of the discussion about their business Jenna used the phrase “digital paralysis” to describe one of the things she thinks is driving the incredible engagement of their customers.
Her example was photography. Artifact Uprising came out of her original experience with photography, the dramatic shift to digital photography on iPhones and picture storage on Dropbox and Instagram, and the massive overwhelming feeling of having zillions of digital photos. In Jenna’s case, it’s caused a slow down of her photo taking (digital paralysis) because she’s overwhelmed with the massive numbers of photos she now has, doesn’t really have the energy to deal with them, and resists taking more because they’ll just end up along with the other zillions in Dropbox.
I totally identified with this. Amy and I have a huge number of digital artifacts at this point – with our enormous photo library being just one of them. The feeling of paralysis in dealing with them is substantial. After a brief tussle the other day over “hey – just share the photo stream with me of the stuff you are going to take today” followed by a struggle to figure out how to do it the way we wanted to do it and still have the photos end up in the same place, tension ensued and digital paralysis once again set it. I sent myself an email task to “spend an hour with the fucking photos on Dropbox” this weekend which I’ll probably end up avoiding dealing with due to digital paralysis.
Yesterday, my friend Dov Seidman wrote a great article in Fast Company titled Why There’s More To Taking A Break Than Just Sitting There. It’s worth a long, slow read in the context of reacting to being overwhelmed digitally as well as in the general intense pace of life today.
As I sat and thumbed through some of the beautiful photo books that Artifact Uprising creates, I could feel my brain slowing down and being less jangly as I settled into observing and interacting with something not-digital. Try it this weekend, and ponder it while you are taking a break. Pause, and explore why you are pausing, how it feels, and what you are doing about it. And see if it impacts your digital paralysis when you end the pause and go back to the computer.
As we roll into the weekend, and I start another digital sabbath, I’ve got the question “what really matters about being human” rolling through my mind.
I spent the afternoon at the Silicon Flatirons conference SciFi and Entrepreneurship – Is Resistance Futile? I thought it was phenomenal and remarkably thought provoking. I came back to my office to find Dane and Eugene playing TitanFall on my 75″ screen. In a few minutes I’m heading out to dinner with my parents, Amy, and John Underkoffler of Oblong who was in town for the conference. The juxtaposition of another intense week rolling into the weekend and a day off the grid intrigues me.
The first panel was a fireside chat between me and William Hertling. William is one of my favorite sci-fi writers who I think has mastered the art of near term science fiction. If you haven’t read any of his three books, I encourage you to head over to William’s website or Amazon and grab them now.
At the end of our fireside chat, we were asked a question. I heard the question as about mortality so I went on a long space jam about how I’ve been struggling with my own mortality for the past 18 months since having a near fatal bike accident (one inch and it would have been lights out.) Up to that point I felt like I had come to terms with my own mortality. I would often say that I believed that when the lights go out, they go out, and it’s all over. And I’m ok with it.
But last fall I realized I wasn’t. And during my depression at the beginning of 2013 I thought often about mortality, how I thought about it, whether I was bullshitting myself for the previous 25 years about being ok with it, and what really mattered about being alive, and being human.
I then handed things over to William. He proceeded to answer the question that had been asked, which was about morality, not mortality.
When he finished and I’d realized what had just happened, I emitted a gigantic belly laugh. And then for the next couple of hours I kept applying the lens of “what really matters” to the discussion about science fiction, entrepreneurship, and the human race.
From the meditation I’ve been doing, I’m definitely exploring “listening to my thoughts” rather than obsessing over them. I’m recognizing that the narrative I’m creating in my brain is just my narrative and doesn’t necessarily have any real meaning, or importance, at all. 150 years from now, I don’t believe any of it will matter. And then, suddenly, the great John Galt quote “It’s not that I don’t suffer, but that I know the unimportance of suffering” comes to mind.
Sometime during the fireside chat, the statement popped out that “I believe the human species dramatically overvalues its importance to the universe.” I think this is going to be a radical point of conflict with the evolution of machines over the next 50 years. At this stage, it’s a part of what gives our lives meaning. There are so many complicated things that happen on a daily basis that create stress, conflict, controversy, and emotional responses. All of them theoretically generate meaning, but when I “listen to my thoughts” I recognize the unimportance of them.
And then I start searching for what really matters. Both to me, and about being human.
See you Sunday.
I’m glad it’s 2014. Last year was a difficult one for me as I hit a wall of depression that completely surprised me. I was over it by mid year and, while the second half of the year was better, I still struggled with figuring a bunch of stuff out about what I cared about as I turned 48 years old.
I discovered great relief, and happiness, from stopping doing these things.
As I start 2014, I’ve decided to continue to stop doing things that are neutral to negative utility to me, in an effort to spend more time on the things I want to do, and do them more deeply.
Some of the things I’m stopping are ones that down deep I know are unsatisfying to me. Interacting with government at any level – federal, state, or local – has been a huge negative emotional drain. I’ve put a lot of energy into two issues over the past seven years – startup visa/immigration reform and patent reform. There has been almost zero change in either of these and the experience has been deeply unsatisfying. I’ve been incredibly distressed and agitated by the NSA / Snowden revelations. The idea of municipalization in Boulder, and my interactions around it, bums me out. I’ve realized that it’s not a game I like at all and that whenever I spend time on it, I’m a less happy person. So I’m not going to engage in 2014 and see how that feels.
For the past 25 years, my week days have started at 5am. I started experimenting with that a few months ago and, even though I’ve had some stretches where I’ve gotten up at 5am, I realized the thing I didn’t like was the oppressive crush of scheduled stuff that started at 9am and didn’t end until 6pm. I’ve lived an adult life of “manager mode” with only a few stretches of true “maker mode” and I desperately need – and want – more maker mode. So I’m stopping doing anything scheduled before 11am. I’ll get up whenever I want and my mornings, until 11am MT, will be unscheduled for me to do whatever I want with them.
I’ve been deeply conflicted with alcohol in 2013. I grew up in a house with no alcohol – neither of my parents drank. I drank plenty in college, but limited myself to just booze – no drugs (my parents scared my brother and I straight at an early age.) Over the years, I’ve gone through dry phases – up to five years – where I didn’t drink. In other time periods, including around the Internet bubble and 2013, I found myself drinking more than I felt was ok as I used it to dull the edges of the stress and anxiety. In addition to the negative physical effects, I spent a lot of mental and emotional energy thinking about “am I drinking too much.” I’ve always struggled with abstaining vs. moderating, so 2014 will be a year of abstaining from alcohol.
Many of you out there provided great support, friendship, and advice in 2013. I treasure all of it, even when it’s hard to hear, something I disagree with, or when I am simply not in a head space to act on it. As 2014 begins, I look forward to another year that is an interesting one on this journey called life. And by doing less of the stuff I don’t want to do, I hope to have more time to go deep on the things I want to do.
Happy new year!
One of my favorite books of all times is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I read it every few years and recommend that every entrepreneur read it early in their journey.
While a plethora of entrepreneurship books have come out recently, including the ones I’ve written in the Startup Revolution series, there hasn’t yet been the equivalent of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for entrepreneurship.
Matt Blumberg’s new book –Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business – has elements of it and is awesome. It should be out next month and every entrepreneurial CEO should buy a copy of it right now as it’ll be an incredibly important book to read for any CEO at any experience level.
Riz Virk’s post on TechCrunch yesterday – The Zen of Entrepreneurship – also caught my eye. He’s got a book out called Zen Entrepreneurship: Walking the Path of the Career Warrior. He’s sending me a copy but I went ahead and grabbed it on Amazon to read this weekend.
I know Riz from the 1990’s in Boston – I was an advisor to his first company Brainstorm Technologies. It was long ago enough at this point that I don’t know if I was helpful or not, but I had warm feelings toward Riz and smiled when I saw his name pop up again after not seeing it for a while.
Jerry Colonna and I have talked on and off about really digging into this topic and trying to write a philosophical treatise on entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial way that will stand the test of time. I’m not ready to take this on as I’ve got enough on my plate, but I know it’s out there somewhere. In the mean time, I’m psyched to see more CEOs writing real books about entrepreneurship, rather than yet another ego testament to themselves.
Matt and Riz – thanks for putting the effort into this!
The title of this post “Work diligently, work intelligently, work patiently and persistently” is a powerful line from S.N. Goenka that is part of magnificent blog post by Ben Casnocha titled Reflections and Impressions from a 10-Day Meditation Course.
On July 18th, Ben wrote a post titled Something I Think I Could Fail At: 10 Day Silent Meditation Program , promptly went to Northern California Vipassana Meditation Center, and went off the grid for ten days. He resurfaced today. His post about his experience is awesome – go read it now.
Amy has done several ten day silent meditation retreats with Goenka. The first time she did it was the longest we had ever not communicated – an entire ten days of zero contact with each other. When she got home, she proceeded to spend five hours telling me everything that had happened over the preceding ten days. I like to tease her about it, but it was fantastic to just sit and listen to her replay her experience.
Ben’s first paragraph sets the tone for the entire post.
It was during the 8-9 PM meditation session on the 8th Day — by then I was 80 hours into the 10 day, 100 hour meditation course — when I experienced something remarkable. I was partially kneeling and partially sitting on a small bench in the meditation hall with about 45 other meditators, doing breathing techniques (anapana) and scanning my body for sensations (vipassana). Shortly after starting the session, my mind became as sharp as I’ve ever felt it in my life. I was in complete control of a lucid, concentrated mind.
I let you read it and I challenge you not to be inspired by it. Not by the amazing accomplishments of Ben during the ten days, or the magical breakthroughs he had, or the powerful new insights, but merely in the experience of how he worked diligently, worked intelligently, worked patiently and persistently at something he thought he could fail at, but he succeeded.
Powerful stuff Ben. Thanks for sharing and inspiring.
I’m in Iceland spending the day at Startup Iceland 2012. Amy and I are having a great time in this fascinating country.
At dinner last night, I got into a long conversation about what makes for a fulfilling life. My answer was:
Spend as much time as possible with PEOPLE you love in a PLACE you want to be on a THING you are passionate about.
I believe it’s that simple. What do you think?
Indulge me while I think out loud. I’m trying to decide if I like the phrase “poke people in the eye with the truth” or not. Help me by reacting to the following rant – good, bad, bullshit – and feel free to poke me in the eye with truth if you’ve got some, just give me a hug at the end.
Last week, at the Startup America Regional meeting, I got into a conversation about the role of state and local government in the development of startup communities. I went on my typical rant about how entrepreneurs have to be the leaders and government is a feeder to the startup community. I talked about a few things government can do that have a positive impact and a number of things government does that hurts startup communities. More specifically, I talked about specific types of people in government and their roles, including the people with an “economic development director” title (or something like that – who I’ve come to learn are called “ecodevos” which makes me think of Devo and the B-52s and then my brain goes somewhere completely else other than startup communities and government.)
One of the people I was talking to said “that’s all well and good, but I’m not comfortable telling my fill-in-the-blank-with-a-government-title person this stuff. I’m concerned they won’t respond positively to this. I strongly agree with you on what your saying, however. How should I approach this.”
I responded that “sometimes you just have to poke people in the eye with truth.” Be blunt. Be direct. Be firm. Don’t be an asshole – just say it like you see it. And if they think that makes you an asshole, that’s their loss. And when you are done, give them a hug so they know you care and are trying to be constructive.
I carried that line around with me for a week. I observed myself (which is deliciously meta) poking people in the eye with truth and then giving them a hug. My animal spirit, according to Amy when she’s in an earthy crunchy woowoo moment, is a giant polar bear. I like to think of this as the warm, cuddly, lovable version of a bear – the one that won’t crush you when it hugs you. Somehow these two thoughts merged together in my head and continue to circle around.
I’m at Venture Capital in the Rockies today. This is our annual Colorado VC / entrepreneur thingy. Last night I had dinner with a bunch of entrepreneurs who didn’t have dinner plans. It was last minute and a lot of fun. At the end of the dinner we got into a great conversation about the state of the local VC community and I was characteristically blunt about what I thought had happened, was going on now, and would go on in the future. While I have no idea if I’m right about the future, I made the strong assertion that it doesn’t actually really matter that much given the incredible underlying startup community and incredible entrepreneurial talent in the region.
While on the surface there’s plenty of political correctness about this conversation, and lots of “we need more VC money”, which I’m sure will be echoing in the hallways at VCIR today, I realized that I was once again simply asserting my belief that this didn’t really matter. At dinner, I wasn’t poking any VCs in the eye with the truth since there weren’t any there, but if they had been, I’m sure that’s how they would have felt I was behaving. It probably wouldn’t have been comfortable, but if they’d been willing to respond and challenge my assertions, it would have been a robust conversation.
I’ve got plenty of other examples of this from the last week, but you get the gist of this. Is “poke people in the eye with truth” a good phrase, or just nonsense?