Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) remains to this day one of the most influential thinkers of all time.
The German was a philosopher, composer, poet and philologist, who wrote 15 books in the seventeen years between 1872 and 1888, including Beyond Good And Evil, Ecce Homo, the Antichrist, On The Genealogy of Morality, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
What I find striking about Nietzsche’s work is not only the depth of thought, but the application of his teachings to today’s world, whether that be in the professional or personal domain. His work transcends politics, economics, philosophy, psychology, morality, religion and spirituality, work, love and war.
So many of the concepts that get thrown around on all manner of podcasts and media today had already been contemplated by Nietzsche more than a century before they gained prominence — and this will become obvious in my commentary below.
As such, I’ve extracted over sixty key passages from various Nietzsche writings, and hope that his inspires you to delve further into his works, if you have not already.
My commentary can be found in the italics underneath select excerpts, so as to differentiate from the excerpts, and provide, where possible, an interpretation of my own insofar as it applies to life or business today.
With that, I bring you 61 lessons from Friedrich Nietzsche.
1. The ‘ubermensch’ (the super man) accepts the totality of life, especially the suffering (the Dionysian man).
This won’t be news to readers of Jordan Peterson’s bestselling ‘12 Rules For Life’, who have learned that life is inevitably characterised by suffering, and that the ideal of a constantly happy life is a pointless, if not, unattainable goal. Instead, we’re told to strive for meaning so that the inevitable suffering is worthwhile.
Happiness is indeed a transient chemical state, and we humans are subject to hedonic adaptation and defaulting back to a mean state of feeling (biologists call this homeostasis).
Accepting what life throws our way, the highs, the lows, and the long in-betweens, is, Nietzsche suggests, what the ubermensch should strive to do.
2. Good writers prefer to be understood, rather than admired
3. That everyone is allowed to learn to read will in the long run ruin writing and thinking
Looks like he was on to something when it came to writing, especially when you throw the internet into the mix — just look at the depth of noise one needs to sift online in order to get to something resembling a signal. As for thinking, it is hard to say — we have made incredible progress in the time since Nietzsche’s passing, but whether the ability to ‘think’ as a whole has degenerated or not is beyond me. One thing is for sure — today’s K12 education system which is characterised by ROTE learning tends not to create thinkers.
4. The works of philosophers are a testimony to man only at a very specific period in time
Bear this in mind when reading Cicero or Seneca (both philosophers whose works I admire), but consider how applicable their works are to today’s unique realities.
5. There are no eternal facts — there are no absolute truths.
Spoken like a true man of science — and sounding very Feynmanian, a good thirty years before Richard Feynman was born.
6. Give me any sceptical proposal to which I am permitted to reply “let’s try it!”, but nothing which does not admit of experimentation.
Nietzsche would have made a good venture capitalist or tech entrepreneur, given his understanding that in conditions of uncertainty, one must experiment and not overcommit oneself.
7. Man should have an ability to contradict
Nietzsche pre-empts the idea that we should be able to hold two contradictory thoughts in our head at the same time.
8. ‘Good’ is no longer good when your neighbour takes it into his mouth (one man’s trash is another man’s treasure)
9. I doubt whether pain improves us, but I do know that it deepens us.
10. It makes all the difference whether a thinker stands in personal relationship with his problems rather than in impersonal connection to them.
This, in my opinion, speaks to the ‘principal agent problem’ that plagues the management and operations of organisations everywhere, and Nassim Taleb’s idea of ‘skin in the game’.
11. Education sanctifies lies
So does the media.
12. Every acquisition, every step forward is the result of courage
The obstacle is the way indeed. No credit to Nietzsche for that one — the Stoics were two millennia ahead of him on this one.
13. It is the mask of a higher culture to value unpretentious truths discovered by rigorous methods over errors handed down by metaphysical ages, which blind us and make us happy.
14. Freedom of will is an invention of ruling classes.
15. Conscious thinking is mostly instinctive.
16. Physics is an interpretation of the world, not an explanation of it.
17. Existence (reality) may just be interpretation.
Are we living in a simulation, Nietzsche?
18. Evil acts are motivated by the drive to self-preservation
19. We are less censorious to the animals because we consider them unaccountable
20. Man’s actions are always ‘good’
21. The man of knowledge cannot accept a lack of accountability for good and bad deeds, because it shatters his world view
22. Prohibition without reason is to the man of knowledge, the injunction
23. New and deviate ideas, evaluations and drives are accompanied by a dreadful attendant — madness. A grain of the spice of madness is joined to genius.
“It is through madness that the greatest good things have come to Greece” — Plato
Indeed, most successful entrepreneurs, musicians and artists are characterised by a touch of madness — Tesla, Lennon, Jackson, Musk…
24. All the world judges by what is most immediately and crassly obvious.
25. It is the strongest and most evil spirits that have advanced mankind the most.
When you observe history, humanity has made great leaps forward in the aftermath of great tragedies. For example, the United Nations was formed in 1945 (for better or worse) out of a collective desire to avoid another World War.
26. The poison which destroys a weaker nature strengths the stronger — the latter doesn’t consider it poison.
Child A gets bullied: suffers lifelong insecurity and psychological issues
Child B gets bullied: is motivated to work harder and achieve great things
27. One praises selflessness because he derives advantage from it.
28. When virtue has slept, it will arise more vigorous.
You might consider yourself disciplined, but when you afford yourself a week or two away from your work, you no doubt find yourself more disciplined and motivated than ever after your proverbial slumber.
29. A marriage proves itself good by enduring ‘exceptions’.
30. Self-mastery and the suppression of harmful desires and instant gratification through:
These are four excellent methods by which you might help yourself to suppress harmful desires.
31. There cannot be the greatest amount of pleasure without the greatest amount of pain.
This echoes what the Stoics wrote about, in particular Seneca — that we should practice poverty, and by virtue of doing so, we will appreciate the things we normally take for granted much more — shelter, food, a warm bath. We can’t truly appreciate highs without experiencing lows.
32. Thoughts are the shadows of our sensations.
33. Virtue is the consequence of happiness.
Poignant. One in a happy relationship is more likely to behave virtuously and remain faithful than one who is in an unhappy relationship.
34. Errors are a consequence of the degeneration of instinct.
35. The poorer a man, the more they are determined by law; the stronger, the more impressed they are with nature.
36. The believer in magic wants to impose a law on nature (religion)
37. The individual should set his own ideal, law, joys and rights
38. There is no harmony between furtherance of truth and wellbeing of mankind
39. He who considers deeply knows that all of his acts are wrong
Given that there are no absolute truths, and untold paths we can take, then it makes sense that all of our acts are in some, or many ways, wrong. We should strive to be less wrong.
40. There can be no pleasure or pain without belief in facts pertaining to them
Nothing is bad, but thinking makes it so.
41. An error of man is that he never saw himself other than imperfectly.
42. The secret of realising the greatest fruitfulness and enjoyment of existence is to live dangerously — send your ships out into unchartered seas.
43. We invented ‘purpose’. In reality, it is lacking.
There is no meaning of life. At least that is my interpretation.
44. In denying God, we deny accountability and redeem the world.
45. Men exercise a will to power to overcome weaker parts of their nature.
And men also over-invest time and energy into their work where they derive a great sense of identity, instead of developing other dimensions of their being.
46. Men disrespect others when, keeping silent, they could have remained respected themselves.
Moral of the story: If you’ve got nothing nice to say, don’t say it
47. Will a self, thou shalt become a self
48. The man who overcomes his passions enters into the most fertile ground — to sow the seeds of good spiritual works in the soil of the subdued passions is then the most immediate task. Overcoming passions is a means to an end.
49. Amor fati / love of fate — a formula for greatness: to want nothing other than it is, not in the future, the past, not in all eternity.
How very Stoic.
50. The value of a thing sometimes lies not with what one attaints from it, but what one pays for it.
Yep, so crank up those prices!
51. Friendships are like ships, each on their own journey to its own destination. They may cross paths and spend considerable time at sea or at the docks in close proximity to each other but they may eventually set sail in opposing directions never to see each other again. Sometimes they may cross paths again years later, and not recognise each other, for the journey onward has changed them.
Indeed. Which is why one shouldn’t feel guilt for spending less and less time with ‘old friends’, particularly as you grow in different directions.
52. He who completely entrenches himself from boredom also entrenches himself against himself — and will never get to drink the strongest, refreshing draught from his own innermost fountain.
Ah, the value of boredom — something that many a podcast host is exploring today insofar as smartphone addiction is concerned, and the idea that we can never be bored because at the first hint of boredom we reach for our phones.
Also a topic that Ryan Holiday has unpacked in his new book, Stillness Is The Key.
53. The strongest opponent is human vanity
Remember this when going toe to toe with arrogance.
54. To make plans brings good sensations, but with carrying out plans comes the vexation and sobering up.
Indeed — like many a wantrapreneur who gets excited in the embryonic, planning stages of a venture, but then loses steam during the early days of execution and inevitable setbacks.
55. How little pleasures most humans need to make them find life good.
56. One ought to reserve an hour a week for receiving letters, and afterwards take a bath.
Seems like Nietzsche was onto the idea of batching email about a hundred years before it was a thing.
57. How can one become a thinker if he doesn’t spend at least a third of the day with people, books and passions?
58. The opinions of the marketplace today indicate nothing of that which is coming, but only of that which has been.
Nassim Taleb would no doubt agree with this. Economists on the other hand…
59. We shouldn’t die for our opinions — we are not sure of them enough for that, but perhaps we should for the right to have opinions and to change them.
VC Ben Horowitz’s idea of ‘strong opinions, weakly held’ would fit in nicely here.
60. A formula for happiness: Yes, No, a straight line, a goal.
61. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.