When people think about the backgrounds of successful entrepreneurs, philosophy rarely comes to mind. Computer science, biology, and design seem immediately applicable to starting a business, but philosophy conjures up images of bespectacled academics sitting in an armchair with a book and pipe.
I believe, however, that a fundamental understanding of philosophy can be a powerful tool for entrepreneurship.
In the following essay, based on the latest episode of the Greymatter podcast, I explain how the principles of philosophy can help entrepreneurs succeed by using examples from my own career.
You can listen to the podcast here.
Why Philosophy Matters
Philosophy isn’t just an abstract intellectual exercise. At its core, it focuses on improving our understanding of humanity, of how we evolve as individuals in a society.
Most people tend to be blinded by the now; they tend to think that the past isn’t that different from the present. They don’t realize the profound shifts in thinking that have occurred with the passage of time. We’ve evolved from living in tribes and thinking of kings as gods to valuing human rights as part of a nation-state. All these changes, including the birth of science itself, started with philosophy.
The other common misconception about philosophy is that it’s about providing the answers. The purpose of philosophy is not to convey literal truth in the form of the beliefs of the philosophers and their words, but rather for those philosophers and their thoughts to provoke and improve your own thinking.
How Philosophy Works
The understanding you develop from studying philosophy does not come from memorizing what the great philosophers said and adhering to it with 100% fidelity. It develops from the way those words interact with the things that are in your own mind, and the way that philosophy causes you to develop new frameworks for grappling with truth.
A key philosophical technique for understanding other people, ideas and theses is to ask yourself both what’s right and wrong about them. Even if your inclination is to think that someone or something is all wrong, ask yourself, What’s right about it? If your inclination is to 100% agree, ask yourself, What’s wrong about it? That’s where learning comes from.
Fundamentally, philosophy has a “question-first” orientation. It’s about asking questions like, “Why is the world the way it is?” Or, “I think I have a moral right to something, do I actually have a moral right to that, and on what basis?”
The search for truth begins with questions.
The following are three formative philosophers who really began to instill this mindset in me.
1. Aristotle & Human Nature
My first major philosophical influence was Aristotle. He wasn’t the first philosopher, but he was the first who really opened my eyes to how important philosophy is for thinking about human beings.
When Aristotle was a philosopher, being a philosopher meant a lot of things. Science used to be called “natural philosophy,” and Aristotle was, in many ways, the first scientist as well. In addition, Aristotle was also a tutor to Alexander the Great. So he wasn’t just sitting in an ivory tower, but had a literal impact on world events.
That is actually one of the major contrasts between Aristotle and his teacher, Plato. Plato focused on pure ideas, as depicted in his allegory of the cave. Aristotle believed that because we’re embedded in the material world, philosophy starts by studying that world. That’s also the reason why I believe Aristotle is a good philosopher for entrepreneurs.
For example, one of the things I’ve said about entrepreneurship is that it should include an embedded theory of human nature. If you develop a theory about how human beings identify themselves, connect with others, view themselves to be part of a group and pursue a theory of the good, the conclusions you reach can help you design a product or service that appeals to people on a fundamental level.
What Aristotle can teach us
As I discussed on Masters of Scale, everyone wants to be the hero of their own story, and great entrepreneurs make every user or customer a hero.
Of course, theory alone is not enough. I have a favorite quotation that goes, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”
Aristotle taught us to revise our theories based on practice. The loop between theory and practice is to engage with the world to generate the theory, apply that theory to the world, and use the results to refine that theory. Lather, rinse, repeat.
It’s the combination of theory and practice that is so impactful and important. In both entrepreneurship and investing, this means taking an Aristotelian approach of developing an investment thesis, testing it in practice, then honing that thesis to a razor-sharp edge.
My oft-quoted aphorism, “If you’re not embarrassed by your first product launch, you’ve launched too late,” is all about making sure that you’re balancing theory and practice. It doesn’t mean don’t have a theory. But it does mean to always be refining your theory with engagement.
By the way, practice isn’t limited to the classic scientific method of hypothesis and experiment.
Another way to incorporate practice is to talk with your smart friends and ask, “What do you think is wrong with this theory?” That leverages their many years of practice in a time-efficient way.
2. Nietzsche & Creative Destruction
My friends David Jilk and Brad Feld wrote a book called The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche: A Book For Disruptors. When they reached out to me to write the foreword, I was delighted, because I realized that Friedrich Nietzsche is truly the patron philosopher of entrepreneurs.
Note: It’s important to consider Nietzsche in the correct historical context, because there are a number of common misconceptions about him. First, there is the false notion that Nietzsche was a fascist philosopher. This is largely because the Nazis, and their heirs on the so-called “alt right,” have claimed Nietzsche as their patron philosopher.
This is no fault of Nietzsche, who died in 1900 when the most notorious Nazis were still schoolboys. Instead, his estranged younger sister (whom Nietzsche grew apart from when she married a prominent anti-Semite) took over his affairs and later his estate, joining the Nazi party in 1930, and accepting government support for the Nietzsche Archive after the Nazis took over the government.
The Nazis conveniently ignored Nietzsche’s actual words, such as when he wrote, “The Jews are without a doubt the strongest, purest, most tenacious race living in Europe today.” Nietzsche would have despised the fascists who tried to claim his legacy.
A more legitimate criticism of Nietzsche stems from his writings about women, which ranged from praise to contempt. We can and should draw on Nietzsche’s writing to provoke new ways of thinking without adopting the negative aspects of his own thinking.
What Nietzsche can teach us
Despite these issues, Nietzsche remains one of the most influential philosophers of his — or any — era, and that is due to the power of his ideas and his writing. For me, like for many first-year college students, reading Nietzsche was a revelation.
At 24, Nietzsche became one of the youngest ever professors of his time. But the academic attitude at that point was that modern thinkers were mere shadows of the great philosophers of the past. Our old friend Aristotle was often referred to with reverence as “The Philosopher.”
In contrast, Nietzsche felt that while the past was great, what really mattered was the creation of the new, including the future human being he termed the Übermensch (sometimes translated as Overman or Superman). Rather than trying to copy the past, he believed we should pursue the act of creating better versions of ourselves.
This emphasis on the importance of the individual, and that individual being creative by engaging in creative destruction, is what makes Nietzsche my patron philosopher of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs invent businesses that attack the current “idols” (industry, markets, products) by creating something new and disruptive.
Nietzsche’s writings can help inspire entrepreneurs to become heroes, and to overcome the difficulties and fears of the entrepreneurial journey.
3. Wittgenstein & Language
The final and most recent philosopher I’d like to discuss is Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Wittgenstein lived a remarkable life, and was himself a larger-than-life figure. He was cousins with Friedrich Hayek. Klimt painted his sister’s wedding portrait. His father was a patron of Rodin. And Brahms and Mahler performed at the Wittgenstein residences when Ludwig was a child.
When he grew up, Wittgenstein made a remarkable impression, even on his fellow geniuses.
Bertrand Russell said that, “Wittgenstein was perhaps the most perfect example I’ve ever known of genius, as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense and dominating.” Russell also said when Wittgenstein criticized his work, hethought, “This is an event of first-rate importance in my life and affected everything I’ve done since I saw that [Wittgenstein] was right. And I saw that I could not hope, ever again, to do fundamental work in philosophy.”
The legendary economist John Maynard Keynes expressed his first impression of Wittgenstein even more succinctly. He just said, “Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5:15 train.”
Like many entrepreneurs, Wittgenstein was obviously super-smart and somewhat obsessive, traits which helped him have a huge impact on philosophy.
At the time, philosophy was going through what has been described as the “linguistic turn,” which asked whether philosophical problems were actually problems of language.
For example, during the Christian Middle Ages, philosophers and theologians would ask such questions as: “How many angels fit on the pinhead of a needle?”
The linguistic turn would say, “That sounds like a well-formulated question but that impression is an illusion of language. The fact that we can assemble these nouns and verbs to follow the rules of syntax makes us think there’s a very important question there, when actually, in fact, what we’re asking is nonsense.” In the search for truth, language itself is where we need to start our examination.
What Wittgenstein can teach us
In his first great work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein took the logical attack on language, which is “a language is good when it is formulated in clear logical expression” and extended it to its logical extreme. The final words of his book are simply, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” (“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.”)
But what made Wittgenstein even greater was that he went even further. His next philosophical system attacked the entire previous system, including his prior views on language.
Wittgenstein asked: What can we understand about the world that we’re in? How do we express that understanding in a form of language that we can communicate with others? And how can we use that understanding to inform our theories of the world, our theories of humanity and our theories about what is and isn’t possible?
Wittgenstein expressed some of the tensions in these views in his famous aphorism, “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.”
That focus on language and what that means for identities, how we communicate and how we collaborate is one of the key learnings I drew from studying Wittgenstein. And while this may seem like a purely intellectual debate, it has actually led to some of my investments.
For example, I sit on the board of Coda. Coda’s focus is to design an internet-first work platform, and one of its key tools is to enable the creation of work rituals. To some degree, the way that we work together collaboratively is a ritual practice, like Wittgenstein’s rule-following paradox.
The meaning of our rituals, and how we change and extend them, is something that Wittgenstein called an “agreement in form of life.” We decide on the most effective rituals (e.g. How do you run meetings? How do you collect feedback? How do you coordinate all your work?) based on their application, and whether or not they help us create a high-performing team. Coda facilitates and systematizes that process for the modern internet age.
Resources for Budding Philosophers
I hope that this essay (and accompanying podcast) has convinced you to take a closer look at philosophy. Of course, one of the best ways to learn philosophy is to study it academically. But if you don’t have the time or inclination to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy, there are still many ways you can further your understanding of the subject:
- The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a very good online resource for finding and studying the great philosophical questions of the past.
- Another philosophy “hack” is to read biographies of philosophers. Most of the time, these biographies are more accessible to non-academic readers, yet still lead to very good understandings of the philosophers. For example, Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein interweaves the narrative story of the philosopher’s life with his intellectual ideas, and puts both in the context of the cultural ethos of the times.
- Finally, a core part of philosophy — all the way back to Socrates — is discussion. When I was a freshman at Stanford, I was part of the Structured Liberal Education program which incorporated at least three hours of pure discussion per week, plus another three to six hours of interactive lectures. While most of us no longer have time for quite so much discussion in our busy adult lives, finding time for discussing philosophy (even via Zoom) can be a powerful tool to build greater, deeper understanding.
Beginning here with any of these suggestions will greatly benefit you as an entrepreneur, opening your mind to new ways of thinking deeply about people, problems, solutions and even your manner of thinking itself. And those shifts alone will impact the ideas you’re already putting out into the world—and set the stage for continued growth.