Stay physically active. Nietzsche is one of my favorite philosophers, and he only trusted thoughts that occurred to him while he was out walking in nature. Great ideas don’t happen when you’re hunched over a desk underneath fluorescent bulbs. A strong body and confident posture give rise to strong ideas delivered confidently.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing John D. Wood, Esq. John is a New York attorney who earned his law degree from New York University School of Law. His expertise is in federal law, corporate risk management, and sustainable business strategy. A scholar, author, attorney, and keynote speaker, he has offered Continuing Legal Education to the New York State Bar Association on the topics of “Artificial Intelligence and the Law,” “Open Source Software and Copyleft,” and “Dealing with Deepfakes.”
Thank you so much for joining us John! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
Ithink it was the 4th Grade when my teacher told my mom that I was a gifted writer and to never let me stop writing. I excelled in writing through high school and even as early as then, I was a trusted confidante for my peers. I kept everyone’s secrets and I gave everyone the best ethical and strategic advice I could muster. That is, essentially, what it means to practice law.
After high school, I ended up for a summer in Oxford before going to Texas Christian University to study philosophy and literature. I became the Head Teaching Assistant in both the English and Philosophy departments as an undergraduate. My honors thesis was a novel but I also won creative writing contests for essays, theatre, and poetry. I published my first law review article when I was still a law student at New York University School of Law. I have always had a strong voice that was beyond my years as a writer. It doesn’t pay well to be a writer but it’s the one constant in my life. I am still winning contests for my poetry so all signs suggest I should keep going. And in the law, words are my tools. I move words around for a living.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Immediately after law school I worked for a non-profit dedicated to protecting environmental and public health in New York State; I worked with a member of the Rockefeller family and a coalition of local non-profits and NGOs to convince public officials that the home of the Hudson River School painters — the Catskill Park — and the most biodiverse wilderness in the United States should not permit high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Thanks to the coalition work, the regulations put forward by the industry were rejected as deficiently protective of the environment and public health, and ultimately the legislature of New York banned fracking outright. Whether you like natural gas as a bridge fuel or think it’s contributing to the climate crisis, it is rare for non-profits to prevail in a lobbying campaign over the interests of the Oil & Gas industry.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As a writer, sure — I wrote this article on William Faulkner as an undergraduate. My professor was really impressed and suggested that I seek to publish the article in an influential literary journal. Taking his advice in the most cavalier manner possible, I immediately submitted the article as-is to that journal without cover letter or context. It was summarily rejected. I learned that if you really want to publish something, it’s not enough to write quality content. You have to know your audience. You have to know the Acquisition Editor. You have to know the submission process and all the formalities that go into it. You should get some kind of direction from the gatekeeper before you submit.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am co-author (with business professor Nada Sanders) of The Humachine: Humankind, Machines, and the Future of Enterprise (Routledge). This is as close as you can get to science fiction and philosophy while still being a practical guide book for business leaders. It’s a fun project because I was able to weave together insights from AI research, philosophy of mind, evolutionary theory, as well as business ethics. We are trying to help enterprise leverage AI for strategic advantages while also staying true to humanity. The writing process was challenging because AI research is a really technical area that takes effort to digest into actionable insights for those working outside of tech.
Based on this book, I will also be delivering Continuing Legal Education to the New York State Bar Association on “Dealing with Deepfakes.” Deepfakes are at the cutting edge of risks posed by AI because the technology is emerging that goes beyond our ability to control. Deepfakes are visual animation that can create life-like images of a person behaving that are actually fake but indistinguishable from reality. Although currently they are used mostly for harmless entertainment, they can be used for criminal impersonation as well as corporate and political sabotage. As such, they are pernicious and dangerous, but regulating them requires a carefully considered approach. Where do you draw the line between a satirical political cartoon and a criminal deepfake? How do you regulate the latter without outlawing the former in ways that stifles freedom of speech? This is a hard risk to manage. I will be teaching other New York attorneys about this topic but frankly there aren’t many meaningful legal solutions.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
There are two habits that have helped shape me into the writer I am today. First is: read great books. Since childhood, I have been reading books by the greatest minds of human civilization (emphasis on western civilization, though that’s more by upbringing than choice as I have been reading more eastern writers lately). Read and study the greats, the classics, the timeless masterpieces of literature. There is so much wisdom there. Do everyone a favor and stand on the shoulders of those giants before you try telling anyone about your views on life. I do read modern writers if the topic is relevant or the prose style is superior — but usually they have won literary prizes so I know they are will be a payoff when I buy the book. The reason you should read books that have stood the test of time is because, if you think noble thoughts you will start to write noble sentences.
Secondly, edit with a vengeance. The first draft of the book looks like a valet parking lot arranged by a bunch of drunk teenagers. It’s got some nice cars in it, but they are outside the lines, arranged haphazardly (some driver side doors can’t open because of how other cars are parked), some have their blinkers still signaling and emergency flashers on, there were some scratches and dings, and a car alarm is sounding. That’s the first draft. Get the core ideas on the page, even if it looks like a crazy parking lot.
Further revisions will begin to clean up the mess. All the cars will start to face the same direction, none of the blinkers or alarms will be on, all the scratches will be buffed out, each car looks its best, and the consistent symmetry of the rows will inspire aesthetic satisfaction. Editing takes a crazy drunk teenage valet’s parking lot and turns it into the Grand Opening of the new BMW dealership. Editing the first draft takes patience and discipline.
When I “finish” writing a manuscript on my computer, I print the entire thing off. Yes, it costs money, but writing costs time and you’ve already invested so much at this point, it is worth getting it right. Print it off, and take a red pen to it. From first page to last, ruthlessly read this book as if the author is a pretentious jerk that always acts like he’s smarter than you. Now is your chance to show him! Brandish a red pen, and go to town on that manuscript. Strike through every statement that does not ring true. Cut every cliche, cut every forced line, cut cut cut. Strike through ambiguity and clarify your meaning in the margins. Re-arrange blocks of text that are stated well but simply in the wrong location within the manuscript. Some passages will be buried in the middle of your chapter, but they really should be at the end, for example. Then, once the manuscript looks like a murder scene, take the marked-up pages back to your computer, and start manually entering the edits, page by page. Once you are done, print it off again, and go through this process again. The second red pen read-through will be a chance to make your points more carefully, so they are as sharp and clear as possible. There should be less major changes at this point, but they will be no less important. For me, this second pass results in the most nuanced, subtle edits that dramatically enhance the quality of the prose. I bet some of the best sentences in history were finalized by the author during in the second or third pass edits.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
The single best illustration is probably from Garry Kasparov. He staged the ultimate chess tournament that allowed humans to use teams that included computer programs. The idea was to determine the greatest possible chess playing combination. The results of the tournament are surprising. The winning team was not a Grand Master, it was not a Deep Blue-like supercomputer designed for chess as we would expect. Rather, it was two amateurs, virtually unknown in the competitive chess world, who used a customized AI program that they wrote based on prior playing experience. This ultimate chess tournament provided the empirical basis for what became known as “Kasparov’s Law,” which holds that ordinary people using ordinary machines with the right process can achieve extraordinary results, even prevailing over genius humans and supercomputers alone. The Humachine is inspired by applications of Kasparov’s Law to the enterprise. By combining human resources with AI using the right process, we can harness uniquely human skills like creativity and care, with uniquely machine skills like scalable big data analytics, in order to create something greater than the sum total of its parts: a super-intelligent humachine.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
We are living on the cusp of the greatest transition of human history. AI will do for human civilization in the 22nd century what the printing press did for humanity during the Enlightenment era. Instead of the global distribution and preservation of ideas (printed words), we now have the global distribution and availability of autonomous rational thought capable of processing these words. If the printing press was a multiplier for human intelligence, AI is like an exponential increase in human intelligence. If we can instill our super-intelligence with ethical constraints, then it can be used to help take our species beyond war and famine, beyond scarcity, and into a peaceful future of abundance.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
Doubt. Doubt that what I’m saying is original, or important, or ever going to be heard by anyone. Doubt that writing matters anymore. With the diminution of attention span, the 24-hour news cycle, the Kardashians, and the decline of print readership, it can really be depressing to write something that is several hundred pages long and that requires rigorous thinking. This can fill you with doubt that anyone is going to even attempt to understand what you’re trying to say. I overcame this by talking with my peers who are not writers. I told them about my ideas and what motivated me to write this book, and they expressed enthusiasm and excitement. I realized that writing is a gift, even if it’s hard. I realized that I had to keep my faith that the words would be heard and would land where they needed to land. You have to have faith, not only that the project is worth finishing, but that you are capable of finishing it. Especially halfway through the writing project, with so much work left to do, the feeling becomes like quicksand. You can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel and you don’t know whether it’s actually an oncoming train. You have to laugh in the face of despair. You have to keep going. Once you get into the second and third drafts of the whole manuscript, it starts to feel really exciting. I’ve felt butterflies in my stomach whenever I think of the book, ever since the final copyedit proofs were submitted. Every sentence is a point of both pride and vulnerability, but the writing process itself is sustained by faith.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
Early in my career, that would be James Joyce and William Faulkner. Turns out, they are both terrible influences for young writers, but like the bad uncle they are really fun to hang out with on the weekends. More recently, my inspiration as a writer is drawn from science fiction. Interestingly enough, I grew up with my own personal prejudice against sci-fi. My dad and older brothers read sci-fi, so it was a fairly unique little spot of prejudice that I had. I was a real literary snob, a purist — so it had to be a classical piece of the western canon or it had to be a Nobel Prize or Pulitzer Prize winning author, or I was going to sneer at it. It wasn’t until after law school that I started reading more widely of modern fiction and especially sci-fi and realized some of the most inspiring, creative, and profound ideas were in the hard sci-fi category. Speculation on the future of humanity is a crucial exercise and sci-fi writers have done the best job. I am currently reading Three Body Problem trilogy and it is mind-blowing — the kind of book that I wish CEOs and Presidents would read so they’d be more thoughtful.
How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?
I give readers permission to think big thoughts and to be bold in pursuit of ethical convictions. I hope my writing lights a thousands torches, each of which will light a thousand more, and so on. Especially in Foundations of Sustainable Business: Theory, Function, and Strategy, we are giving future business leaders permission to reject the “shareholder profit maximization” mantra of the past and to think creatively about using business to solve the inter-connected social, economic, and environmental challenges facing humanity. By turning traditional business school dogma inside out, I feel like I’m providing young students the courage to contradict their old-school finance professors. It’s the students who are going to be leading the enterprise in the 21st century, after all — I’m writing for the future not the past.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?
It’s hard to spell out a recipe for success here. Start early and push yourself. Being a writer is like being a professional athlete but it’s all in your head. I was getting positive feedback on my writing since childhood, and it helps to start out with the advantage of being better than average and knowing it. Own that. I read voraciously through grade school and high school, I studied literature at Oxford before college, I took 12 times the required writing emphasis courses at university, I took creative writing workshops on writing plays, poetry, and essays. Practice. You have to be diligent.
The next thing to do, is sign up for a major writing project. Something ambitious. Know that this means kissing goodbye your nights, your weekends, your free time. It’s a full time job in the sense that it’s always on your mind until it’s finished. You have to have an overwhelming appetite for the truth, even if it’s nigh impossible to ascertain, and even if you’re working in fiction. You have to be willing to fight for truth against powerful propagandists, against preconceived notions, against local prejudice. This takes bravery and a touch of martyrdom. On the foundation of this psychological disposition as a sentinel for truth, read a healthy mix of fiction and non-fiction, from different genres and different time periods. Try to find a voice that is authentic to you. Say what you mean. If you don’t know what you mean yet, stop writing and go on a walk. Get into weird moods. Disagree with yourself explicitly and unpack the contradictions instead of trying to cover them up. Eradicate vagueness and ambiguity. Do not be afraid. Fear is the mind killer. Do not write for money — write for pride.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Accept that your 20s are for paying your dues in your profession. It will not be fun. In fact, it will be painful and will make you question everything. But this is the period where you learn from mistakes, you learn to get over your self-loathing, and other people are generally willing to help you out because you’re not yet a competitive threat. Take advantage of this season to suffer where you are most resilient to psychic and physical injury.
2. Understand that no one has it figured out. Growing up, most of us assume that the adults know what they are doing. They don’t. Everyone is just making this stuff up as they go along. It’s OK to improvise. Just stick to some defensible principles and you’ll be closer to having it figured out than most.
3. Love yourself. Learn to take care of yourself physically, mentally, and spiritually. Sometimes this means shedding negative aspects of your life (people, habits), which can be daunting. Sometimes this means adventuring forth and finding new people and places and hobbies to bring joy and inspiration into your life.
4. Stay physically active. Nietzsche is one of my favorite philosophers, and he only trusted thoughts that occurred to him while he was out walking in nature. Great ideas don’t happen when you’re hunched over a desk underneath fluorescent bulbs. A strong body and confident posture give rise to strong ideas delivered confidently.
5. Do not ask anyone permission to succeed. No one will give you permission to be brave. No one will tell you that you are allowed to be exceptional. You have to take these liberties for yourself. Don’t just assume a door is locked because it’s shut — give the handle a jiggle. It might just open.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I often think about reversing the trend of concentrated power by starting a “radically local” type of movement. The opposite of federalism (where power is concentrated in the federal government) would be “provincialism.” Communities need to supply their own power with a decentralized electric grid and local, on-site power generation. Communities need to grow their own food so they are not dependent upon global supply chains and mono-cropping Big Ag. Communities need to re-fortify their social fabric with real human interactions instead of the headphones-wearing, cellphone-staring online-caring amoral atomistic drift we are in now. Everything needs to return to the local. I see this as a means of overcoming the social and environmental alienation we are suffering from now.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/john_wood
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!