How Nietzsche Changed My Life

Life and Thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche - Middle East Theater

The low point

It was in the late summer of 2020 when I finally burst into tears.

The COVID pandemic was in full swing and I was confined to a flat in London just trying to cope with it all. I had been working for a tiny startup before the pandemic and although we flirted with the idea of shutting down, we decided to persevere.

There was no mistaking it though: we were on the very edge of survival as a business. We’d been going for 3 years already, so time was running out for us to prove that we could make this work (to ourselves as much as anyone).

However, a few months in, I was starting to really worry about what my life was turning into. With just seven full time employees, I felt responsible for keeping the startup going and for figuring out how to make this business work (not an easy job, even when the world isn’t on the brink of apocalypse). So, I was starting work at 8am every day, and just kept grinding through problem after problem until I’d finally give up late into the evening, only for it to start all over again.

I was managing three of the other people on our team, so I felt a serious responsibility to make sure they were okay, that they were coping and that all our hard work was going to be worth it in the long run. 

The only respite I’d found was going for long walks on the weekend through an eerily abandoned London. The strange silence in what is usually a constantly busy city provided a momentary release of the otherwise constant pressure I felt to be at my laptop working. Usually I’d enjoy the fresh air, marvel at an empty London, and then return home feeling recharged. 

On this occasion, as I strolled along the South Bank of the Thames, I suddenly felt all the tension and stress and anxiety of my situation well up inside me, and I burst into tears. It caught me totally by surprise, and I had to sit on a bench to regroup and find my composure.

Looking back, it was kind of a surreal moment to sit just 2 minutes walk from the London Eye, usually packed with hordes of tourists, and I had it all to myself to weep on a bench and despair. Thank God for the pandemic so I could bawl in peace!

The questions that went through my head are probably familiar to many people who go through difficult times at work.

How can I justify living my life this way? Should I give up the hard work, or will this all pay off one day? I have other options, I could pick an easier job and an easier life - shouldn’t I just find something comfortable? Am I on a path to regret at having wasted my life on hard work, or is this just a momentary low point on the path to something great?

(Re)Discovering Nietzsche

From that lowest of low points, I started to make changes, first of which was to talk to people in my life and tell them how I was feeling. That made a huge difference and I’m immensely grateful to them.

However, equally important to me, and I don’t say this lightly, was my reading of the works of Nietzsche - a 19th Century German philosopher. I had studied him briefly at university and enjoyed it, but mainly just did the assigned reading. His stuff is not always easy to follow since he often writes in a poetic, lyrical style. I’d written him off as not worth the effort.

I can’t remember what caused me to pick up a Nietzsche book again during that difficult period, but when I did, I didn’t find the stuffy academic philosopher I remembered. I found a passionate and beautiful writer who inspired me and helped me to navigate a path out of my slump. At his best, Nietzsche is trying to shake you out of your default routine, and calling you out to live a great and meaningful life.

At the very core of Nietzsche’s works is a grappling with the same problem that troubled me, sitting on my bench next to the London Eye feeling sorry for myself. How should you think about suffering and struggling? How should you live your life?

The Ascetic

The big mistake I made during COVID, at least according to Nietzsche, was that I had fallen into what he calls the Ascetic Ideal.

I was working non stop and telling myself that being a hard worker is a virtue, therefore I must be doing the right thing. In fact, I was using hard work as an excuse to avoid living my life right now. Nietzsche is all for throwing yourself into your work, and in fact he believes that struggle and pain is a necessary part of living a great life. However, my COVID experience was to work hard simply to avoid having to confront the more difficult questions about whether I was working in pursuit of my highest values, and how I could create a more meaningful life.

I was like a super religious monk, who takes a self inflicted vow of poverty or sleeps on a bed of nails in order to show devotion to God. Monks suffer for the sake of suffering, presumably because they’ve been led to believe that they’ll receive a reward in another life. In the meantime, they say ‘no’ to life right here and now. In the same way, I just assumed my self-inflicted suffering would be rewarded in some vague future life - who knows when or how.

Nietzsche says that all of us start off as camels - the beast of burden - weighed down by the baggage given to us by society, our parents, our bosses, and anyone else who gives us a rule to live by. During that difficult period in 2020, I was taking on every problem without question, and worked hard just because that gave me a story to tell myself - I am a good person because I work hard. But it wasn’t a recipe for a meaningful life - it was fundamentally about saying ‘no’ to life. I used my struggle with hard work as an excuse.

The Last Man

Obviously I didn’t need anyone to tell me at the time that going the ‘Ascetic Ideal’ route was not a lot of fun. When I hit my lowest point, the only other option I saw on the table was to instead optimise for a life of comfort and luxury.

I could have applied for a job at a big corporation or a bank, and probably could have found a similar salary, without anywhere near as much day to day stress. But why stop there? The pandemic was a peak time for people to hunker down, order a takeaway, binge watch their favourite TV series and scroll instagram until their thumbs bleed. It’s never been so easy to live a safe, comfortable life.

There’s an obvious appeal to embracing that reality, especially if like me you’ve tried the work-your-ass-off way of living and found that it didn’t give you the great life you were going for. So why not kick back? Working hard is a big risk if it doesn’t pay off, so we might as well all just enjoy ourselves right?

This approach to life encapsulates the point of view of ‘The Last Man’ - another option that Nietzsche rejects. The Last Man is the ultimate couch potato. He’s optimising for a life of comfort and luxury, and he’s too risk-averse to pursue any goal other than his own pleasure. The Last Man is utterly un-adventurous, and is so caught up in his own pursuit of ‘happiness’ and contentment that he’s not capable of self criticism.

Nietzsche’s problem with the Last Man is that suffering is unavoidable, and in fact it is the struggle of setting demanding challenges and overcoming them that constitute a great and meaningful life. A life optimised for comfort, luxury and no risk is one devoid of meaning. It’s another way of saying ‘no’ to life - so wrapped up in your own pleasure that you forget to make the unique contribution to the world that only you can make.

No, the Ascetic and the Last Man both get it wrong. From my vantage point in 2020 I thought I had to choose one or the other, but Nietzsche shows that there is a third way.

The Ubermensch

In contrast to the Last Man and the Ascetic, Nietzsche paints a picture of the ideal that we should be aiming for: the ‘Ubermensch’ - sometimes translated as ‘Overman’ or ‘Superman’. The Ubermensch is bold, courageous and adventurous - Nietzsche calls him “a monster of courage and curiosity; moreover, supple, cunning, cautious; a born adventurer and discoverer.” He does not shy away from difficulty and struggle like the Last Man, in fact it is precisely the overcoming of challenges that Nietzsche wants to hold up as the ultimate source of meaning in life.

While the Ascetic also works hard and embraces struggle and suffering, the Ubermensch does not just follow the role in life that has been given to him, or follow the ways of living that have been ingrained in him by society. Instead he says “no” to those things - Nietzsche calls this a ‘sacred No’. The Ubermensch has chosen for himself what are his highest values, what are the goals that would best enable his own self expression, and those are the things he is willing to struggle for.

This third option that Nietzsche argues for, so passionately and beautifully, is what really changed my life and has helped me to continue to weather tough times over the years since then.

If a great life requires you to pursue your own highest values, I had to spend some time reflecting on what that meant for me. I was fortunate to be working on a company with a mission I truly believed in - to help millions of people improve their finances and live their best lives. I’ve always loved the feeling that I’m learning and growing my skills as a startup operator and team manager.

In the chaos and stress of COVID and startup survival I had forgotten how much of my day to day grind could connect directly to my highest values. Re-framed that way, I found a way to not only cope with the daily fire fighting, but even start to love it again. If I’m aspiring to be one of the great start up builders, then every crisis gives me the opportunity to build my skills.

In fact Nietzsche believed that suffering and struggle are vital ingredients for a great life:

Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful men and peoples, and ask yourself: can a tree grow proud and tall without storms and inclemency? Disregard and opposition, all sorts of obstinacy, cruelty, greed, distrust, jealousy, hatred and violence - are these not among the favourable circumstances without which great growth, even in virtue, is scarcely possible? The poison by which the weaker natures perish strengthens the strong - and they do not call it poison.

Reading Nietzsche often is also a great way to remind myself that we want to say ‘Yes’ to life. The Ubermensch is ultimately an idealised way of living that probably none of us ever totally achieve. But, having Nietzsche’s powerful call to arms is an inspiration to be bold, go out on a limb in pursuit of your highest values. Or as he put it:

Set for yourself goals, high and noble goals, and perish in pursuit of them! I know of no better life purpose than to perish in pursuing the great and the impossible.

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