Dave Jilk is a former serial entrepreneur and IT executive. He is the author of several peer-reviewed works on artificial intelligence, as well as two books of poems, “Distilled Moments” (2020) and “Rejuvenilia” (2018). Dave graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in Computer Science and currently lives near Boulder, Colorado. When he’s not writing, he’s probably somewhere in the mountains. Brad Feld, co-founder of Foundry Group and Techstars, has been an early-stage investor and entrepreneur since 1987. Brad is a writer and speaker on the topics of venture capital investing and entrepreneurship. He holds a bachelor’s degree in management science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also enjoys collecting art and running long distances, and has completed 25 marathons as part of his mission to complete a marathon in each of the 50 US states.
SunLit: Tell us the background of this book. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Jilk and Feld: A key part of the backstory is the comeback story. The two of us were friends from college, then business partners, then colleagues in various endeavors, and have remained friends for the past forty years. Since we have been working together for a long time, each of us understands the other’s business thinking and work process quite well.
Dave reads a lot of philosophy, and around 2010 he just started reading some Nietzsche. He began to notice the occasional quip or sentence that rang out, as if describing entrepreneurs. At one point, we were both up in Brad’s chalet reading by the fire, and Dave read one of these lines aloud to Brad, asking if it resonated. He stopped reading, thought about it for a moment, and agreed. That was the genesis of what became this book.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & The Book Center features an excerpt from the Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
After Dave semi-retired (among other reasons, to write more) in 2013, we discussed the idea of combining some thoughts on entrepreneurship with Nietzsche’s ideas in book form. Brad was always looking for new directions to help entrepreneurs, and Dave was looking for a place to incorporate some of the things he had learned in his career. So we started, choosing one chapter at a time.
The format evolved as we worked on it. Brad suggested collecting entrepreneur stories to complement the essays, and after completing a few we saw that they really added value. We read a lot of Nietzsche, perhaps with a bit of “choosing”. “Proof Readers” helped us realize that we needed to provide modern versions of the quotes. And we both read Ryan Holiday’s “The Daily Stoic”; we decided that a similar weekly paced structure would be good for the level of depth we were aiming for.
Put this passage in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you choose it?
We chose the “Style” chapter because it illustrates particularly well some of our goals in the book. Most notably, in his narrative, Tim Enwall shows his own thought process as he considers Nietzsche’s quote and our essay and how they conflict with his own view of things. In the end, he didn’t so much change his mind as he deepened his thinking about issues related to the connection between brand image and company culture.
In the introduction, we encourage all readers to give this level of thought to every quote and essay they approach—not just to read and implement it, but to digest it for a week or so, and ideally to discuss it with others in the organization. There are some great how-to books on entrepreneurship; ours is not trying to be one of them. Instead, it aims to help entrepreneurs think more deeply about themselves and their business.
Another important aspect illustrated by this chapter is a surprising interpretation that connects Nietzsche’s thinking to today’s world of entrepreneurship. In the quote, he was talking about the actual artistic style in the national context. But it stems from his insight into human nature, not just a specific situation. We believe that these unusual applications can help the reader – and us – to think about organizational and leadership issues in a completely different way. We are not making any strong claims about what Nietzsche intended—if our book is philosophy at all, it is very much applied philosophy in the domain of entrepreneurial problems.
Structurally, the excerpt is one of 52 “weekly” chapters. Most of them are structured in a similar way, although not all include an entrepreneurial narrative. The chapters are organized into five main sections around a theme – this is the ‘Culture’ section. Other sections are “Strategy”, “Leadership”, “Tactics” and, wait for it… “Free Spirits”. The book also contains an insightful foreword by Reid Hoffman, who really took the time to understand what we were trying to achieve, and several appendices on Nietzsche for readers interested in learning more about him and his legacy.
Tell us about the creation of this book. What influences and/or experiences influenced the project before you actually sat down to write the book?
When we were in business together in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we would occasionally read a book together and then talk about it; as our business grew, we would involve the whole team in these exercises. Some of them were business books, but others were not. For example, one was “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach.
We got two really important lessons from this: first, getting even one good idea that could be applied in business made the effort worthwhile. Second, the process of brainstorming and discussing business ideas, in the context of our own business situation, was not only practical but also inspiring. This was especially noticeable when we were struggling: the realization that startups are difficult, that we are not the only ones struggling with various problems, that what entrepreneurs do is good and important, and so on, everything gave us new energy to continue and progress .
So when we set out to write the book, we wanted to make sure our readers were inspired and encouraged to think better. The specific ideas we touch on are relevant areas for every entrepreneur. Whether the perspective captured by Nietzsche’s quote, or our essay, or the entrepreneurial narrative is actually directly useful is almost beside the point. We’d actually be happier if the reader decides that what we’re saying is completely wrong for her business, and does the opposite with great success. It means we helped her think, which is our real goal.
Here we offer a portfolio of 52 different topics to think about. We feel good about the likelihood that at least one chapter will provide a worthwhile conclusion for each reader.
When you started writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe engaging with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
Almost every chapter was like this to some extent. The point of the book is to think, so as part of writing the chapter, we would sit with the quote several times and think about it. We often came up with new angles that weren’t part of the initial impetus for the selection. That was really fun. Entrepreneurial narratives were sometimes further along. Some of them barely connect with our essay. But taken as a whole, each chapter represents a thought process, a set of thoughts about a topic area. Thinking is not always linear; the best thinking, especially when you’re stuck, isn’t just “non-linear” or “outside the box”—it’s not even a geometric shape.
For a more specific example, towards the end of the writing process we realized that we were using the words “passion” and “obsession” somewhat interchangeably, in part because Nietzsche uses the word “passion” regularly. But Brad has written and spoken a lot about this: As an investor, he looks for obsessed entrepreneurs, not passionate ones.
And then we had an epiphany – in our chapter entitled “Obsession”, Nietzsche’s quote shows that he is trying to describe the concept of obsession, but using the word “passion”. A little more research showed that the term obsession was only later in use. In a sense, Nietzsche made the same discovery and observation as Brad, but 140 or more years earlier and without the terminology to say it: The two are not the same, and passion has some serious flaws.
Did the book raise questions or provoke strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?
We noticed early on that some people have strong feelings about Nietzsche: some positive because they read and enjoyed him in college or otherwise, and others very negative because of the certain “reputation” that Nietzsche has. The latter editions trace back to his proto-fascist, anti-Semitic sister Elizabeth, who was his final guardian after his mental collapse and controlled his literary estate after his death.
But these questions persist to this day, in part because Nietzsche made many powerful statements that can be interpreted in any number of ways, including ironically. His words have long been used to justify various views ranging from Marxism to the alt-right, and misinformation abounds.
We decided that we should address this in the book, first to ensure that our efforts are not tied to any of those agendas, and also to review, for readers unfamiliar with Nietzsche, why he is probably unlike what they have heard of him. , whatever that may be. Therefore, we include in the appendix a moderately scientific effort to explain why this happened and why the reader should not be too concerned about it.
However, we had to admit two things. And we have used Nietzsche’s words in ways he did not intend. We decided that this was acceptable because we are very transparent about it in the introduction and throughout the book. We also acknowledged that one thing people have heard about Nietzsche is reliably true: he can be hard to read. We solved this by limiting ourselves to fairly simple quotes and adapting them to 21st century English.
We identified another barrier to attracting our audience of entrepreneurs to the book. The connection between entrepreneurship and philosophy is not obvious – one venture is very action-oriented, the other more contemplative. Anyone who has read late 20th century philosophy might find it pedantic (if reading analytic philosophy) or impenetrable (if continental philosophy).
We discuss this point in the Introduction, but Reid Hoffman’s foreword is where the connection really comes to life. You can read it in a free sample on Amazon or on Reid’s website. Once entrepreneurs dig into the book, they find that elements of Nietzsche speak to them, just as they spoke to us when we first read it. This allows them to go deep quickly.
In addition to enjoying and deriving value from our book, we hope this will encourage them to find other philosophers they find useful, whether they are Stoics like Marcus Aurelius, ancient Greeks like Epicurus, existentialists like Simone de Beauvoir, or a modern virtue ethicist. like Martha Nussbaum.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
The most interesting thing is how we write together. We have incompatible schedules, not only on a daily basis but also on an annual cycle. Brad writes quickly and then edits; Dave works on a paragraph until he is satisfied with it. We have a metaphysical conflict about the use of commas. Google Docs has done all that. We used both suggesting and commenting to interact with the chapters until we were both satisfied with the content as well as the language. We also used it to integrate text from entrepreneurs and chapters that were done on the side. We ended up using Grammarly to reduce the passive voice and other language crutches.
It’s worth noting that, with scheduling issues and other distractions, it took five years from start to finish to complete the book. Okay, maybe it’s not just Google Docs; maybe because we have been friends and colleagues for almost 40 years, and we know how to work and persevere together.
If a reader of your book wanted to explore Nietzsche directly, what would you recommend?
It depends on how much power you feel. If you’re feeling confident, choose “Human, all-too-human.” This is the first of three books written in an aphoristic style – sections range from one sentence to several pages. It covers a wide swath of Nietzsche’s philosophy and much of it is very readable.
If you don’t understand a part or find it uninteresting, just skip it. These books aren’t actually cumulative: you can jump around or even read them backwards (like our book…coincidence?). This book is a great read in the bathroom or waiting room. But take your time with it. Beneath what might appear to be outrageous or offensive comments lies a great deal of depth.
If you prefer to delve into it, pick up a more recent secondary source like Eric Steinhart’s On Nietzsche. This is a solid review. Not everyone would agree with his interpretations, but that is true of any definitive interpretation of Nietzsche. Recent books such as “I Am Dynamite” (Sue Prideaux) and “Hiking with Nietzsche” (John Kaag) also provide some insight into the philosophy, although they are mostly biographical.
If you feel invincible and want to “jump into their jaws”, try “Genealogy of Morals” or “Beyond Good and Evil”. These are among his later works and tell a fuller story of their subject. They probably represent the most culturally influential elements of Nietzsche’s philosophy, treating ethics as the result of cultural evolution rather than from God or from irrefutable axioms.
Unless you’re a literary major with very good grades in college, we wouldn’t recommend starting with Thus Spoke Zarathustra, even though it may be his most famous book. The layers of allusion and irony, and the absence of much plot, make this book very difficult.
Will you follow this up with another book based on another philosopher or another source of quotations?
A number of people have asked this. The answer is probably not. If you read a book, you’ll get the hang of it – reading a vivid line from any source can prompt some deep thoughts and insights. Although we stick to entrepreneurship in this book, we don’t want to do more than that, and that wasn’t even the primary goal here.
We also don’t want to create a brand around Nietzsche. Although we have nothing against monetization, we were more driven by Nietzschean motives like gratitude and working together on this as the “prize of all prizes”.
For his next book, Dave is working on a sci-fi epic, but sharing any details here would be spoilers.
We believe that affected people need to see vital information, whether it’s about a public health crisis, investigative reporting, or holding lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on the support of readers like you.