Transcript – ​​Jacob Helberg, Author of Wires of War, on The Fight for Front and Backend of the Internet

Please enjoy this transcript of my conversation with Jacob Helberg, the author of The Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power. We discuss geopolitics, the physical infrastructure of the internet, and how the US can work to preserve democracy.
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November 17, 2021
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Jacob Helberg is a senior adviser at the Stanford University Center on Geopolitics and Technology and an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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Please enjoy this transcript of my conversation with Jacob Helberg, the author of The Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power. We discuss geopolitics, the physical infrastructure of the internet, and how the US can work to preserve democracy. Transcripts for other episodes can be found here

“We have to see the world for what it is, not as we wish it were.” – Jacob Helberg

Jacob Helberg (@jacobhelberg) is the author of the recently published book, The Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power. He is also Co-Chair of the China Strategy Initiative Working Group at The Brookings Institution, Senior Advisor of the Program on Geopolitics & Technology at the Cyber Policy Center and an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies


Infinite Games: Jacob Helberg, Author of Wires of War, on The Fight for Front and Backend of the Internet

Daniel Scrivner:

Jacob, it's great to have you on the show today. Thanks for making time and joining me.


Jacob Helberg:

Thanks for having me.


Daniel Scrivner:

First off, I just want to say that I think you've written an incredible book. This is slightly different than what we typically cover, but it's incredibly related. It's all about technology. It's about the war that's going on in very public ways, but also in a lot of somewhat hidden, obscured ways. So I'm really excited to dive into The Wires of War with you today. And I just wanted to ask, I thought an interesting place to start would just be to talk a little bit about your background. You wrote in the introduction of the book just about your fascination with politics, your family origin growing up, and your own relationship to autocracy versus democracy. Can you just talk a little bit about your background and why you became so fascinated with geopolitics early on?


Jacob Helberg:

Sure. So as you point out and as I talk about in the openings of the book, my family history was to a significant extent impacted by a lot of different political movements in recent history. On my father's side, my grandparents were Holocaust survivors and immigrated to the U.S. after the Holocaust. And they're originally from Poland, but they were in immigration camps in Germany for some time right after the war.


Jacob Helberg:

On my mother's side, my grandparents were actually French citizens based in Tunisia when Tunisia was a French protectorate. And their family had immigrated from Italy to Tunisia in the 1800s when Napoleon freed the Jews, to the extent that Jews were free at that time. Jews in Italy were forced to walk bare feet in the streets in certain instances, forced to pay higher taxes, denied certain professions.


Jacob Helberg:

So a lot of Jewish populations living in Italy fled to French controlled territories when Napoleon emancipated the Jews. And obviously after the independence of France, French citizens, there was a rocky relationship between newly independent Tunisia and French citizens. So a lot of French citizens immigrated back to metropolitan France when Tunisia became an independent country after World War II.


Jacob Helberg:

The various ways in which geopolitics had such a tangible impact on the direct, my grandparents, and to a certain extent shaped the world view of my parents contributed enormously to shaping my own views and hearing stories about on both of my parents' side, their families fleeing a country to move to another in order to want to be safe and live free. I think that had an indelible impact on the way that I see the world.


Daniel Scrivner:

Before we go too much further, I think it'd be helpful to just give everyone a little bit of a primer of what you're trying to cover in the book. And I say that in part because it is very sweeping and broad in terms of it's covering everything from the hardware of how the internet actually works and how the battle is playing out in that sphere. It covers the front end software side. So maybe I'll just ask, how do you describe the book? And what were you hoping to achieve when you wrote it?


Jacob Helberg:

Well, the book talks about how technological change is leading to new paradigms in political power relationships, and the way in which governments are using technology to leverage these new levers of power as well as to compete and fight in what I call the gray zone, which is basically what military experts use to refer to the murky middle between war and peace. It's not peace, but it's beneath the conventional threshold of war. And obviously, technology has become so pervasive to every aspect of our everyday lives, that you can actually carry out a cyber attack and use these technologies in ways that are very, very potent and high impact, with very little repercussions. So these new weapons are effectively becoming highly usable in the conduct of day-to-day political warfare.


Jacob Helberg:

And in a way, one of the main through lines of the book basically is meant to convey the basic idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same. These are new tools that are obviously changing, creating significant changes in the configurations of power relationships between countries. But the fundamental dynamics at work are actually very similar to prior patterns in history. You have a rising autocracy that wants to revisit the way that the world is run. And it wants to refashion world order to its image. And it is doing so by trying to basically recreate a 20th style sphere of influence using 21st century tools and technologies.


Jacob Helberg:

So the U.S. is now facing this age old dilemma of what should we do as a democracy that is war fatigued, that is coming out of two wars? To what extent should we be forward leaning in terms of confronting China on these issues? To what extent should we try to sit at a table with them to try to broker some sort of deal? So in a way, the patterns are similar. But the context has changed quite a bit because of technology.


Daniel Scrivner:

And obviously a lot of the book is about China. But another term you use more often than China is just autocracy. It sounds like that can be applied not only to Russia, to Iran. Can you talk a little bit about what that means? And I guess why that's a bigger, broad thing than just China?


Jacob Helberg:

Well, in the tech sphere. So it's interesting because on the one hand, I mean China is the only country in the world that has the capacity to challenge the U.S. geopolitically and try to push an alternative to the U.S. led order, which is why I place so much emphasis on China. But as you point out, what China wants is a world that's safe for the CCP. And a world that's safe for the CCP is a world where the political power and regime of the CCP is accepted as a legitimate regime and form of power. Which when you're a democracy, you are inherently taught to believe, and the way that democracies are entirely run is predicated on the idea that autocracy is illegitimate.


Jacob Helberg:

So in a way, you have this really interesting convergence in big picture, strategic, political interests between autocratic countries like Iran, Russia, China where they have a lot of different interests because they're very different countries, but they have a major area of overlap, which is that they want a world where their form of autocratic power is treated as legitimate, not threatened. And where democracy is discredited because a world that is full of vibrant, thriving democracies is a world that is inherently very threatening to autocracy.


Daniel Scrivner:

And maybe it's probably not super accurate, but it seems like one way to think about it in the vein of how people talk about crypto is democracy is like this decentralized. Autocracy is really, it's one small ruling party obviously being in charge of everything within those countries. Am I getting that loosely correct? Is that how you think about it?


Jacob Helberg:

Yeah, exactly. So from a technological standpoint, it's interesting because the way that that translates into the world of technology is the difference between democracies that are in terms of the power relationships, democracies are based on checks and balances where political power is distributed, which is also why democracies are conditioned to be much, much more comfortable with networks and social configurations that are based on decentralization. You have crypto that's become massive in the U.S. that is basically all about decentralized network infrastructure. And obviously you have the alternative in China where China loves artificial intelligence for example, because artificial intelligence is based on highly centralized server, centralization.


Jacob Helberg:

So autocracy, you really do have these two conflicting models of technology. On the one hand, you have centralization that's pushed by China. On the other hand, you have decentralization that's pushed by the U.S. And obviously, the Chinese internet is such a perfect example of how you have a government that has successfully centralized so many core nodes in China's internal internet, where they are able to, and they actively aim to decentralize the internet in China by basically being able to triangulate CCTV camera images, with cell phone data, with payments data. By having everyone live online, and operate, and be pegged to a digital social score. It's a highly, highly centralized system that is completely in contrast to the system that we have here that is fundamentally based on a lot of values and principles of privacy and ultimately customs and habits, where we expect a certain degree of decentralization.


Daniel Scrivner:

Talk about a few different watershed moments. But one that I want to rewind back to is again, one thing I love about the book is just the breadth. I mean, you go literally back to the 1950s and '70s, talk about foundational technology. You zoom forward in time.


Daniel Scrivner:

But the book kind of kicks off, at least your story in the book kicks off in 2016 when you were the head of news policy at Google during the '16 elections. And I thought for people that haven't read the book yet, if you could share a little bit about that story. And why for you, that was a major watershed moment.


Jacob Helberg:

Well, I think it was a watershed moment for the tech industry at large, because it was one of the first major examples of autocratic governments using technologies that we had mostly taken for granted in the west as being inherently vehicles of democratization, liberalization, freedom of expression, and turning those technologies upside down, and subverting them to attack the very types of freedoms that we thought were inherent to these technologies. And I think that one of the big takeaways is that technology is fundamentally neutral. It can be used to do incredible things, or sometimes very nefarious things. And just like steel can be used to build a machine gun or a hospital, a lot of technologies are basically the same way.


Jacob Helberg:

And the reason that I think that it's significant is because if you look at the broader arc of the history of the internet, there was a sense of euphoria in the early 2010s between 2009 and 2012, when you obviously had these leaderless movements pop up across the Middle East. And in many parts of the world in Russia. And there was a Jasmine revolution in China where a lot of people were using the internet to congregate, to assemble, to organize, to talk, debate, dissent. And there was this belief, this culminating belief that the internet was freeing people. It was finally allowing people to express themselves. It was toppling regimes that had been in power for decades like the Mubarak regime. And ultimately, this was going to really bring new life to the democratic movement around the world.


Jacob Helberg:

And what we saw by 2014, 2015, 2016, is that obviously right after the Arab Spring, Russia, China, Iran scrambled to try to basically reverse this trend, address the risk that free speech online posed to their regimes. China basically shut down every major American content platform in China. Iran and Russia took drastic measures as well. And by 2014 and 2015 Russia, started going on offense where they basically viewed, "Okay, these technologies can be used as weapons against us. How can we use it as a weapon against democracy in the west?"


Jacob Helberg:

So I think the way that they have basically shown the use case, they proved a pilot between 2014 and 2016, that it was possible to use these technologies in ways that are enormously impactful. And after Russia interfered in our elections, you basically saw a whole slew of autocratic countries follow suit. And China now is a major player in the info ops space as well. But Iran's in there. So it's interesting how now this has just become a battle zone.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah. And you go into painstaking, amazing detail in terms of all of the types of manipulation, some of the different techniques and tactics that were being used then. Broadly, it seemed like the 2016 election was around foreign countries trying to influence opinions. And one of the stats I read in the book that I thought was incredible was I think for a lot of people, when you hear that headline, you think how real is that?


Daniel Scrivner:

But you have an amazing stat in the book that you talk about in the U.S., swinging just 80,000 votes in four or five states can basically determine an election for one side or another. So one question I wanted to ask is this gray war, or this pilot started in 2016. And we're now six, seven years into this. How are we doing? And do you think we've improved at being able to fight misinformation?


Jacob Helberg:

So it's interesting because I think that when the gray war started, depends a little bit on who you ask. I mean if you're a China, the Cold War never really ended. If you're China, 1989 was the end of the Soviet American Cold War. But China was very much in a we need to adapt and ensure our survival mode, and that meant changing strategies. But for them, the Cold War never ended. Technology just basically changed how you compete strategically.


Jacob Helberg:

I think that ultimately from the vantage point of autocracies, the 'gray war,' meaning this battle where governments are using dual use technologies specifically to fight and compete, that really started from their a vantage point with the Arab Spring, where basically the U.S. government brought their full fledged support in favor of these leaderless movements and these revolutions. And they started seeing all these dictatorships get toppled. So they I think interpreted that as democracies are basically waging war on us.


Jacob Helberg:

For us, it was really 2016 that was basically now these autocracies are going on offense against us. They're using our technologies to discredit us, undermine us. And I think that was really the firing shot. But they had been, I think China has been investing a lot of money. 2016 was what I call the front end battle. The hardware battle, the backend battle was something that was brewing in the pipeline for some time. And China obviously invested reportedly 75 billion in subsidizing Huawei because I think it sees a lot of benefits to controlling the information in our infrastructure in a variety of countries. So I think 2016 brought us the gray war to our attention. But ultimately, a dominant feature of the gray war is that it's gray. It's ambiguous, it's hard to define it. And it's something that had been going on for some time.


Daniel Scrivner:

And you talk about there, and I think it makes sense to start to get into that now is what that backend battle looks like. And I think that's what's fascinating is from my vantage point, I feel like what I've seen covered at length is the battle that's been waged on these dual use platforms. Which is everything from Twitter, to TikTok, to Instagram, to Google News, any news site. But there's a completely separate battle. Which is one, the internet is infrastructure. And there's a lot of components of that structure. And none of us that use it every single day spend a second thinking about that infrastructure.


Daniel Scrivner:

And just this notion that I thought it was fascinating in the book. You talk about that the internet got spun out of the Pentagon. That origin story is generally known. But then it evolved from there and really turned into this very Western democratic freewheeling movement, if you will. Almost very similar to crypto today. And now China is in other authoritarian governments around the world are now taking a look at this. And even just with the infrastructure, the way that it's set up, it does not really allow for control. It does not really allow for access to that information. So talk a little bit about the infrastructure of the internet, and why that's such a pivotal important piece of this battle.


Jacob Helberg:

Well, I think we're used to thinking about the internet. Because a lot of us interact with the internet through the screens that we see on our phones, on our laptops, we're used to thinking of the internet as a very digital technology. And we're not used to thinking very much about the actual physical infrastructure side of how the internet works.


Jacob Helberg:

But the reality is that information gets transmitted between different regions around the world through cables. Through submarine cables that basically crisscross different oceans that are thousands of miles long. There's about 400 underwater cables on the ocean floor currently, and many are under construction. And ultimately, these cables are connected by routers. And part of what we have seen as being a major risk is China and as well as other countries tapping into those routers, and basically being able to access, block, and manipulate any type of information that passes through it. So ultimately, that's why I raised the question how do you define national sovereignty in a world where if Beijing controls the internet infrastructure in your country, is your country still sovereign if Beijing knows all of the dirty secrets of all your journalists, politicians, judges in your country? Are you living in a sovereign country or are you living in effectively a satellite state?


Jacob Helberg:

So that's why ultimately, my conclusion comes to that if you control the wires in the ground, you no longer have to send troops on the ground. And ultimately, Beijing understands that very, very well, which is why they have been so intent on exporting Huawei in other countries, and which is why they have really fought tooth and nail American sanctions against Huawei and ZTE.


Daniel Scrivner:

And when you think about that battle playing out, and we'll talk about in a minute about all the different layers of that. Because you do an amazing job on your book talking about then this backend battle, there's the physical being able to build these things, which is happening largely in China. There's the protocol layer, there's the hardware layer. There's all these different layers. I'm curious to get your thoughts on where does this go? Because obviously, it seems like there is an attempt to try to own all of that infrastructure or be able to control as much of that infrastructure as possible. Is this a winner take all? Do you think it's just a market share basic battle between an autocratic internet and a democratic internet?


Jacob Helberg:

I think it's basically going to be a battle between a democratic internet and an autocratic internet. China's already basically building an autocratic internet. So I think the question is just do we essentially fortify a democratic what I call a techno block that is basically going to stand on its own vis-a-vis China's autocratic block?


Jacob Helberg:

So ultimately as you point out, there are two main types of networks that I describe in quite a bit of length in the book. There are the actual networks, the physical networks themselves, which are combination of satellites, cables, and 5G antennas. And then, there are the networks that build the networks, which are basically supply chains. And unfortunately, China has an enormous amount of control over both, because they're the factory floor of the world. They build nearly everything from windows, to solar panels, to fiber optic cables. And for a whole host of reasons that I described in the book, that has been a trend that has really cost us dearly in terms of compromising our national security.


Daniel Scrivner:

When you talk about just this notion that this battle will be waged digitally as opposed to obviously with troops on the ground, it still feels like most of the coverage I hear about U.S. versus China talks about the physical sphere. That's concentrating on things like warships being in different places. It's concentrating on things like incursion in airspace. And all of that certainly is still happening, but why is this maybe completely misunderstood and an underestimated risk that the battle happens much more digitally than in the real world? What does that mean?


Jacob Helberg:

Well, I think what you're seeing with Taiwan is I think the question today isn't so much whether we're living in a Cold War or gray war, but whether I think the answer to that is overwhelmingly yes. So the real question is, does that war morph into a hot war? And I think that's kind of what you're seeing in Taiwan.


Jacob Helberg:

And with Taiwan, you actually have a really interesting blend of ... because we have such vital gray war interests in Taiwan, meaning that Taiwan is home to a major supply of semiconductors, which we absolutely need for our economy is a major choke point in submarine cables that connect North America and the Indo-Pacific, which we also need. I think we can't just ignore Taiwan and let China take it. So for that reason, if China became confident enough to carry out an invasion, you could actually see a real boiling point in having the risk of a hot war.


Jacob Helberg:

But I think what you point out, what you alluded to is important. And that's that this hot war is really going to be a blend of traditional hot war tactics like warships, and planes, and missiles. But, it's going to be fought and complimented with a lot of gray war weapons. And for example, as a lot of American military experts have pointed out with a significant sense of urgency, a major risk for the U.S. if ever we did move into a hot war is the risk of cyber attacks taking out our satellite communication. That basically renders American forces deaf, blind, and mute where they can't communicate. And that is a major, major risk. So I think that whatever war crystallizes, I hope we never get to that point. But I think the risk is that you're going to see a whole blend of these different types of tactics.


Daniel Scrivner:

I mean there are some, just building off that last point and around cyber attacks, I mean something that's interesting as well if you think about recent watershed moments. One, you have a chapter in the book called Sputnik Moment. I think that's funny because a big headline that's come out the last two weeks is that this hypersonic missile that was supposedly launched literally orbited the entire planet before coming and landing just about 24, 25 miles away from its target. That happened. And then there's something in the book that honestly, I don't remember ever reading any headlines about that I thought was staggering. Which was I've long read news stories around China and India fighting over their border. Apparently in 2020, China was able via cyber attack to shut out power to 20 million people in India during the middle of a pandemic. So even hospitals were on backup power generators, which is frightening. I don't know, thoughts on that and why we continue to be surprised.


Jacob Helberg:

I mean, India is also a country with billions of people. And not every single event in India unfortunately gets the attention it deserves. It's very possible that this cyber attack might have actually resulted in loss of life. I mean, if you have an elderly person that was fighting COVID. For a whole host reasons, when you take out power on 20 million people, the chances of some people dying as a result of it is actually quite high. So this was a major significant event.


Jacob Helberg:

But I think what it proved is that to dial back to when we were talking about how there was a real risk of a blend of hot war and gray war tactics, this is actually a great example. There was actually an exchange of firing of bullets at the border where 20 Indian soldiers died. Ultimately, there was a stalemate and the shooting stopped. But, what China did to send a signal India to try to ultimately intimidate India is they carried out a cyber attack against an Indian city that took out power on 20 million people to basically tell them, "Push too hard, and the lights will go out." Train stations stopped running.


Jacob Helberg:

So I think what the subtext for us is that if ever we did God forbid end up in an actual hot war with China, you could see the American homeland impacted in a way that we have never experienced before as Americans, because we benefit from oceans and physical distance. So we're not used to seeing attacks on our homeland. But you could see attacks on our power grid, on nuclear power plants. The way in which war would look like in the 20%, especially between great powers is unlike anything we've ever experienced. So I think ultimately, it's really, really important for our country to take this extremely seriously, and give a lot of thought to planning for the worst. I mean always hoping for the best, but planning for the worst. Because if we're not prepared, ultimately there could be a lot of loose ends that could end up being very costly for us.


Daniel Scrivner:

And a lot of that obviously is clear underestimation. And something I know when you and I were talking about what we would cover, one of the big themes was just we need to stop being surprised and underestimating China, which seems to be a maddening, recurring theme. Thoughts on why do we continue to underestimate China? And or is it just general public underestimating and people in Washington generally get it?


Jacob Helberg:

Well I think for so long, we keep referring to China as rising and they're catching up. China's a peer competitor. They're not a near peer competitor. They are a peer competitor. They have risen. So I think right now, one of the big political cleavage and differences that you see in the policy space is basically those that advocate for a variety of different policy, philosophies, and solutions that basically amount to being reactive, and those that advocate for more proactive solutions. I think that's the fundamental difference between the two opposing foreign policy camps. And the way that that'll manifest itself is say example those that'll say we need to favor diplomacy. We need to set it at a table. We need to focus on climate change. We need to do a lot of things that basically mean that you're going to deprioritize the deterrence aspect of it. And when things do happen, you're going to have a reactive posture to that. And those that favor actually, we need to be much more proactive in preventing a lot of this behavior before it starts. And that might mean you might run into some friction. But ultimately, you're going to change the strategic calculation of the Chinese where they think that conflict is going to be too costly to wage. And therefore, they're going to stand down.


Jacob Helberg:

So I think that's a big philosophical difference between opposing foreign policy camps. And obviously, as I write in the book, I find myself decidedly in the camp of those that are much more in favor of a proactive philosophy on a lot of these issues.


Daniel Scrivner:

And it seems like clearly a part of that is when we've been reactive historically, I can't think of a single instance where it seemed like that was actually a good call after the fact.


Jacob Helberg:

Think about the Cuban Missile Crisis. I mean, if we had been reactive, we would've ended up with missiles on Cuba. And being proactive is scary because there's always risk. And sometimes, humans don't like confrontation. I mean, confrontation's not fun. So I think a lot of people sometimes, there's a lot of wishful thinking where we tend to see others through the prism of thinking that they would follow patterns of behavior that are similar to ours.


Jacob Helberg:

But I think fundamentally with China, China's an autocratic country that follows a pattern of behavior that's completely different than our own. So we just can't deal. We have to see the world for what it is, not as we wish it were. And ultimately in the Interwar Period, you saw the real downside of democratic governments that were fatigued of war, that wanted to avoid a war at all costs, and that waited way too long to confront Hitler to the point where their backs were completely against the wall. And the decade ended in the bloodiest, most destructive war we've ever had. So sometimes, being much more assertive upfront and having clear red lines is actually incredibly important when you're dealing with someone that only understands that type of language.


Daniel Scrivner:

What case would you make to politicians in Washington that maybe want to continue to pursue diplomacy, want to continue to take the soft approach? What would you say to them to one, convince them that hasn't worked, that's not going to work? And then two, why that is the wrong approach. Because it seems just to your point, it seems like obviously, and I think this is a crutch or weakness. For democracies is you want to solve everything through democratic discourse, and that's clearly not always the best path.


Jacob Helberg:

I mean sometimes, you just need to, unless you have the hard power muscle to flex, I think bringing people to the table, we always have to be willing to talk. But I think talking in a way where you have the guarantee that you're going to engage with someone that's going to engage on good faith, it's always much more comforting as a country where you know that you can back up these talks with actual hard power than if you are maintaining yourself in a position of unpreparedness. And we are continuously being surprised by events that are spinning out of your control. I don't think that that's a formula for success.


Jacob Helberg:

I mean, as I talk about it in the book, it has become a standard practice for these autocratic countries to take us by surprise with fait accompli complete politics, where they plot these strategic maneuvers secretly, and then they carry them out overnight and surprise us. And then we basically have to deal with the fallout and decide how we respond to those. And you can think about Russia's invasion of Crimea or what they're doing at the border with Ukraine. Or even China's building of artificial islands in the South China Sea. They didn't ask for our permission. They didn't give us a warning sign. They said that these islands weren't for military purposes, but yet they build landing strips on them and land war planes on them. What do we do? Do we send a blockade against it? Do we basically force them to dismantle them?


Jacob Helberg:

Dealing with things reactively is always much, much more difficult than if you try to approach these things proactively from a standpoint of deterrence when you're dealing with autocratic powers that basically have a set agenda that they're going to try to push through no matter what you do. So ultimately, I think as a country, we should only be deceived so many times before we start assuming that these leaders are ultimately going to be better assessed if we look at their actions, not just their words,


Daniel Scrivner:

That seems like a reasonable perspective. And I want to go back and talk a little bit about Crimea. Which you talk about in the book, one thing, the book was fascinating in that it's not only covering all the techniques and tactics around disinformation, around manipulating opinions. It's not only covering the hardware stack, including the protocol layer that powers the internet, and how that's even a potential battleground for autocratic versus democratic internets. But you also talk about that it was the first time I had read in a really wonderful, nuanced way how cyber and in-person warfare are actually coming together, and they've already come together.


Daniel Scrivner:

And Crimea was this great example where you talk about that I think it was in the 30 days leading up to that attack, that you saw an enormous amount of hacks and misinformation campaigns, manipulation campaigns carried out. Maybe you're in that country and you're like, "Something weird is going on." And then all of a sudden that clearly was done as a pretext for being able to go in. And you talk about everything that this is partly to shape opinion so that the country that's invading can be able to go in and say this is why we're invading. Talk a little bit about that and why that was so interesting from your perspective.


Jacob Helberg:

Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of it is basically about con auditioning the information environment to try to create what Xi Jinping calls the balance of forces that is more favorable to your strategic agenda. And I think that's exactly what Russia did in Eastern Europe, and what China has continuously tried to do by exporting Huawei, by banning TikTok within China, but obviously pushing TikTok aggressively abroad. And it's ultimately to try to basically condition the information environment and ultimately the strategic balance of forces to create a setting and a playing field that's much more favorable to Chinese maneuvering.


Daniel Scrivner:

It's fascinating. So part of that obviously is developing the pretext for war so that you can go and say, "Well, this is why we went to war. It's because of this reason." Part of it's being able to, because it's all done in this soft cyber space, you can deny that you were ever involved, that you knew about it, which is fascinating. You obviously can't do that in real world warfare. It's just fascinating to think about all the ways in which the rules are different when you're competing or fighting digitally versus in the real world.


Jacob Helberg:

Yeah. And China has actually carried out cyber attacks against American entities by trying to dress up the attack in a way that would lead forensics experts to believe that it was Iran. So they tried to frame the Iranians to carry out cyber attacks against American companies. And that's the kind of thing that makes it hard sometimes to have a clear picture in this whole gray zone space. And that's ultimately why I think that the gray war nomenclature is so apt to describe this new environment where ambiguity is a predominant feature.


Daniel Scrivner:

Maybe it'll be helpful to talk about that for a second. I was initially thinking we might cover some terminology, but we've covered things on the go. But one thing I thought was really helpful was one, the definition of the book of Cold War as a peace that is no peace. Talk about how that is subtly and slightly different from a gray war.


Jacob Helberg:

So let me just preface with saying that I actually don't have an aversion to using the word Cold War. I think my stronger preference is to call it a war, whether it's gray or cold, versus those that like to call it a competition. With that being said, I think that the reason that I like the word gray war is because I think it's slightly more precise and it's more descriptive in referring to the types of tools and tactics that are used for everyday political warfare. The definition of the Cold War that is often forgotten in contemporary foreign policy debates, George Orwell helps define that definition. And he defined it back in the very early days of the Cold War, right after World War II as a peace that is no peace. And I think fundamentally you have had, the question today isn't whether or not we're reliving the Cold War. But it's whether or not we're living through a Cold War. And there have been many chapters in history where you've had Cold Wars between great powers. Some have resulted in hot wars, some haven't. Today, we are living through a peace that's not really a peace. So ultimately I characterize this, Mike McFaul calls it a hot peace. I call it a gray war. I don't think it's a hot peace. I think we're definitely in war territory.


Jacob Helberg:

But I think the big picture is you do have an unfortunate set of circumstances where you have a bit of a zero sum dynamic where unfortunately today, because China and the U.S. both have global aspirations for how the world should be run, and because those aspirations are antithetical to each other, China's vision of success is completely at odds and antithetical to America's vision of success. You unfortunately have a very zero sum power dynamic between the U.S. and China right now. Where if China wins, it's an American loss. If America wins, it's a Chinese loss. And that is a very common, fundamental component of what constitutes the gray war.


Daniel Scrivner:

I love the term hot peace. I'm going to try to find ways to incorporate that into my everyday language. It seems like I think Cold War suggests nothing's really happening. And it seems like this is incredibly active. It's just very ambiguous and it's beneath the surface. I mean, it makes a ton of sense.


Jacob Helberg:

Just to add one extra point to that, I think one of the reasons I also opted for the gray war nomenclature is that ultimately, during the U.S. Soviet Cold War, there was a lot of indirect fighting between the two players. I think one of the differentiating aspects of this geopolitical struggle is that there's actually a lot of direct fighting, especially in cyberspace. So I think that's one of the reasons why I think the nomenclature of the gray war is more apt is because we're not just fighting through proxies like Afghanistan or Vietnam. We're actually fighting directly one another in cyberspace.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah. Truly aggressive, combative ways. I'd love to wind down. In the book you have, the last few chapters are dedicated to basically just your strategy in terms of some of the tactics you would use in order to be able to win this gray war. So I'd love to talk about that in a couple different veins. And the first one would be, I remember when we were preparing for this conversation, one of the things you were talking about is that you really like to think strategically as a system, and do that over longer arcs of time. So instead of trying to address whatever individual thing happened most recently and treating that as a one off, you're truly trying to string together a strategy that's long-term, and trying to think about it systematically.


Daniel Scrivner:

I'd be curious if you can cover some of what you share in the book, just around your advice for the U.S. government. And just to make that broader, obviously it's U.S. versus China is one context in the book. But the bigger one is democracy versus autocracy. What should the U.S. be doing to preserve democracy in the 21st century and to preserve the democratic internet?


Jacob Helberg:

Well fundamentally, I think I'll start with high level principles, and then I'll go down to slightly more tactical details, prescriptions. At a high level, I think philosophically I'm very much in favor of referring to this current geopolitical struggle as a war, not a competition. And I think that's really important because if you call it a war, you inherently and intuitively understand that it's urgent. Your survival depends on it. You are willing to absorb short-term costs for the overriding objective being successful. And you understand that because your survival depends on it, it is important that your domestic companies comply with the overriding goal that you have as a country, which is to come out on the other side successfully.


Jacob Helberg:

When you call it a competition, you don't have that level of strategic clarity. And you kind of see that with the government trying to balance 20 different priorities. I mean when we were fighting World War II, we were not trying to issue a raft of different social programs. Because you had to be focused on fighting the war and winning the war. And that was the number one objective, and everything that you do has to be evaluated through that prism.


Jacob Helberg:

So I think today, especially because I think we need to be honest about the fact that we're on our back foot at this point. I mean, China's launch of a hypersonic missile was a watershed moment that I think crystallized to a lot of in the U.S. that China is much, much more advanced than we expected. So we can catch up. But if we're going to catch up, we have to be laser focused. We can't start distracting ourselves. So ultimately, I think calling it a war is very important to have that kind of focus, urgency, and determination.


Jacob Helberg:

At a more tactical level, I'm very much in favor of creating an outbound CFIUS framework whereby I think the U.S., one of the dynamics that has caused a lot of friction to having a cohesive national security strategy for China and that has prevented a lot of needed collaborative between the private and the public sector has been the fact that we have a private sector that has built out a lot of dependencies on China in a whole host of ways over the course of two decades. And I think starting to unwind some of that is incredibly important to get the business community to fall in line and pick a side. I think as long as you have companies that are trying to straddle both sides of the fence, even if that fence is becoming increasingly uncomfortable to sit on, we're going to move too slowly, and it's going to be hard to actually get a lot of big things done.


Jacob Helberg:

So ultimately, I think the U.S. government should be able to evaluate and potentially block on grounds of national security any American investment headed towards China. The U.S. government should be able to review and potentially block. So for example, when Blackstone announced that it was going to invest $100 billion in the Chinese market, some of those dollars are money from American pensions funds, retirement accounts. That is something that makes absolutely no sense to me at all. I mean the U.S. government should absolutely be able to review that and kindly respectfully tell Blackstone to go invest that money elsewhere. But not in our number one geopolitical rival. An outbound CFIUS framework.


Jacob Helberg:

In the book, I also make the case ... I won't reveal all the prescriptions, so I encourage people to read the book. But I also make the case that it's very important to deglobalize what I refer to half tongue in cheek as China's Eye of Sauron, which is this notion that China is using the internet to basically see all things, at all times, in all places. And ultimately, undercuting their strategic capabilities is going to require deglobalizing their reach in cyberspace. And we can do that by basically preventing the expansion of Chinese information networks abroad.


Daniel Scrivner:

I'd love to talk a little bit about not coming down a couple levels to your advice for founders and CEOs. And I think the context here is in the book, you talk a lot about ... you and I spent a lot of time talking before we did this interview at length that if you are based in the United States and you are here because you love the daily life that you get to live in America, you love that you can be who you are, you love that you can express your points of view, you love that we can get to enjoy things like decentralization, Dows, and crypto, and very innovative things. So if you like those things, then everyone has a role to play in terms of helping national security so that we can defend those things. We can keep those things. I felt like one, just articulating it that way for me was a pretty big unlock because it came about defending these ideals that I think all of us hold really near and dear.


Daniel Scrivner:

So the question there is I've been really encouraged the last few years to see more companies starting to innovate in the defense sector. I think one that it's very innovative, I think is doing really incredible things is Anduril, there's Saildrone. There's Varda. There's a bunch of companies now I think that are starting to do really interesting things, leaning into those interests. What advice would you have for founders and CEOs just in terms of how they should think about this and some of the decisions they should make?


Jacob Helberg:

So as you point out and allude to, I think that one of the ways in which it's really important for people to think about this geopolitical struggle is about more than just this isn't just a contest between the U.S. and China, two countries. It's a contest between values. So I think one of the things that's impeded in the past, a lot of companies feeling comfortable to basically put their thumb on the scale in the favor of the U.S. government is that they feel like it's basically a geopolitical dispute between two governments and they just want to be neutral and stay out of it. But fundamentally, it's a dispute between values. Values that American companies depend on every day to do business, to compete on a liberal playing field. To make sure that as everyday internet users, we're all safe. We can express ourselves freely, and companies can protect their IP. And a set of values that is based on basically surrendering all of those rights to a system that's fundamentally predicated on total compliance with the CCP.


Jacob Helberg:

And so ultimately long-term, American companies, whatever they are, are not going to be successful and global in a world where China rewrites the rules. That's just a fact. And you can see that by what's going on within China. And in fact, today was just announced that Yahoo pulled out of China citing a challenging environment. Microsoft pulled the plug on LinkedIn there also citing a challenging environment.


Jacob Helberg:

If China is able to expand its reach beyond its borders in cyberspace, you're going to see American companies retreat in a lot of parts of the globe. So ultimately, trying to make a quick buck for a quarter or two in China is going to be digging the grave of a lot of American companies in many other parts of the world. And it's just not worth it. So I would appeal to their values, but also their interests long term. Medium and long term, it's not that far off to ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country, and the values that your country has been a vehicle for.


Daniel Scrivner:

I think to just end with the closing message, so we'll talk in a second about where people can find the book. I have read it. I've listened to a lot of it on audiobook. Both have been incredible. So I highly recommend people pick up either the book, the audiobook, wherever they can find it. If there's a last message you would leave everyone listening with, what would that be?


Jacob Helberg:

The message I would leave everyone listening with is twofold. The first is I want to footnote everything I just said and everything that I say in the book with the caveat that all of these topics about geopolitical disputes between the U.S. and China are fundamentally a political matter between two types of regimes and in no way is meant to include and in no way scopes in the Chinese people, Chinese culture, the Russian people, Russian culture. Chinese culture is an incredibly historically significant rich culture that has a very long history. And in the U.S., we've been incredibly fortunate to benefit from the very many contributions of the Russian and Chinese diaspora. And ultimately, it is that very open model that we have had in the U.S. where you can come from anywhere, and compete on a level playing field, and fulfill your God given potential. That is the model that we stand for. And the that's the very model that makes us virtuous in this political struggle that if we want to continue living in a world where we have more opportunities like this and where that model survives, that's why we need to stand with the U.S. government on this, in this struggle.


Jacob Helberg:

This leads me to the second point that I was going to close on. And that's that at of the day, there's a lot of pessimism right now going around the foreign policy community about whether or not the U.S. and China, about whether or not it's too late for us to actually come out successfully in this struggle. But the one thing, the factor that I think that a lot of pessimists overlook is the fact that China can have all the planes, and all the worships, and all the tanks that it wants. But you see their Achilles heel in the fact that Xi Jinping is a leader that is terrified of words and thoughts. He surrounds himself and showcases himself in front of the world surrounded by heavy military equipment and these parades that they have in Beijing. But a mouse of thought and word is something that throws them in a tailspin. And they ban Winnie-the-Pooh on the Chinese internet. And they censor a lot of Chinese celebrities and pop culture figures because they're terrified of thoughts and words. And ultimately, what that says is that what we stand for are a set of values that are universal.


Jacob Helberg:

I mean, America's a vehicle for them. But they're at human aspirations to yearn to be free and live freely. Dictators will say, "This is an American idea. Human rights are an American invention." You have democracies in every part of the globe on every continent, and they're fundamentally universal ideas. They're not just American ideas. So that is what places us on the right side of history. So I think that we can absolutely be successful in this struggle because we stand on the side of people's natural human instincts.


Daniel Scrivner:

I think that's beautifully said. And I'm so glad you said that first point as well too. Because one, it's not how I went in reading the book that this was against the Chinese people or against any people. It's really not. It's against warring ideals, warring ideologies, worrying values. And I think that's what's fascinating is that's really the subtext. Obviously, that ends up being country versus country, people versus people, which is unfortunate. Where can people go to follow you online? And any recommendations about where people can find the book who should buy the book?


Jacob Helberg:

They can buy the book on amazon.com if they type The Wires of War Jacob Helberg. And they can follow me on Twitter @jacobhelberg.


Daniel Scrivner:

Thank you so much for the time Jacob. This has been an amazing interview. I really appreciate it.


Jacob Helberg:

Thanks Daniel. I really enjoyed it.



20 Minute Playbook: Jacob Helberg, Author of The Wires of War


Daniel Scrivner:

Jacob, thank you so much for coming on 20 Minute Playbook. It's wonderful to have you.


Jacob Helberg:

Wonderful to be here.


Daniel Scrivner:

So this should be a lot of fun. This show is a little bit faster pace, and I'll ask you the same 10 questions that we ask every guest. So let's go ahead and jump in. One of the first places we like to start is just by asking if there's anything that you've been fascinated about or excited about, obsessed with recently. Just something that's top of mind.


Jacob Helberg:

I've been fascinated by founders in the U.S. building technologies that solve hard engineering challenges that ultimately can play a small part in helping advance the national security of the country.


Daniel Scrivner:

I have to ask a follow-up question, which is can you talk about some of those? Because I know some of the investments you've made and I think they're in really interesting companies.


Jacob Helberg:

Yeah. So I angel invest. And some of the companies that I invested in recently include Varda and Saildrone, and those are relatively earlier stage in the grand scheme of things. But other companies that are later stage that I have not personally invested in but I'm very admired of include obviously Palantir and Anduril.


Daniel Scrivner:

One of the questions we like to ask everyone is what their superpower is. And I think some of the context there is a lot of us go through life I think at least the first year is feeling like we don't have a clue what we're good at. And luckily at some point in time, you can pick up on that if you're lucky. So I'm curious, what do you think of as your superpowers and how do you harness those?


Jacob Helberg:

I think my superpowers without being braggadocious, but I do think that understanding yourself and what your skills and weaknesses are ultimately incredibly important throughout the course of your professional life and throughout the course of anyone's professional life. And I think that one of the things that has served me fairly well is I tend to be pretty good at trend spotting and picking up on trends relatively early. There's a whole host of things that I have worked on over the years to try to improve myself. But I think that has tend to serve me very well, especially in the space of foreign policy where understanding trends is actually pretty important, because there's a famous French philosopher that once said that governing is anticipating. And being able to anticipate big changes when they're taking place early is actually really useful.


Daniel Scrivner:

It's fascinating. Do you have any tricks that you use or rule of thumbs? Because I feel like the most challenging thing I struggle with there is when something is a true trend versus something that's just a little blip or a spike.


Jacob Helberg:

Well, for the better and for the worse, I think one of the things that helps me quite a bit spot trends is that I tend to replay the tape of various conversations I have several times in my head. Which sometimes is ac curse, but sometimes it's also a blessing. It basically helps me ... my husband jokes that when I use my computer, I always have a million tabs open. And I think that that's just a pretty accurate reflection of the way that my brain works as well. I have a lot of different tabs open at any given point in time. And sometimes, that means that I could probably close a few tabs and be just fine. But one of the positive external of that is that I think it helps me spot trends.


Daniel Scrivner:

Well, I'm glad to hear that I'm not alone in having 1,000 tabs in 20 different browser windows that can close and reopen every time I do my computer. On the flip side, what have you struggled with? What have you butted your head up against, and how have you gotten better at that over time? And that can be professionally, personally, wherever you want to take that.


Jacob Helberg:

I think one of the things that I've struggled with is, as I think is evident throughout the book and any article that I write, I'm someone that tends to form fairly deep-seated convictions about things. And I think one of the skills that I've had to work on and that I have come to appreciate as being very important for life is being able to balance having convictions and making the case for your ideas in a work setting. And also being able to hear, appreciate, and balance other competing ideas. And sometimes when you work in a larger organization, but I think it's like this at an organization or outside of an organization. It's like this in life generally. It's being able to really listen to other ideas and even ideas that you disagree with and that you think are incorrect. But understanding the intention behind the idea of the person that you're interacting with.


Jacob Helberg:

Because sometimes, a lot of people just want to be heard. It's not even about the idea itself, but it's about where are they getting at? Where is their sentiment coming from? Understanding where people are coming from is ultimately a really important skill that I think is incredibly useful for life in general. And I think that's something that I've really come to appreciate over the years.


Daniel Scrivner:

I think that's really well said. Thinking about, and you can take this question in terms of what your average day looks like, what things you've experimented with historically. But one question we like to ask everyone is just around habits and routines. And I think the question the way we typically ask it is what have you experimented with that have had a positive impact on your life and performance? So it can be things you do today religiously, can be things you're like, "I'd love to do this again. Hasn't happened in a while."


Jacob Helberg:

Something that I try to do is I try in order to be as methodical as I can about being efficient and allocating my time, I try to avoid putting anything off. Because a lot of the times when I put something off, it sometimes ends up getting deprioritized and never gets done. So when I have to do something, I just try to do it right away on a regular basis for work reasons.


Jacob Helberg:

Another thing that I try to do just for mental health insanity, especially since the beginning of the pandemic is my husband and I are very intent on trying to maintain a physical exercise regimen for health reasons. During the pandemic, we were all locked doors. So I think being able to find a way of exercising is just a way of expending energy to stay sane. And that's doing that when and having two younger kids and obviously a fairly busy professional schedule can sometimes be challenging. But finding an hour in the day that you can carve out to yourself to be able to do things that you really love and enjoy, I think is so important.


Daniel Scrivner:

Especially for parents. When a big part of how you show up interacts a bunch of other humans, developing humans. On the fitness side, you talked a little bit about that, just trying to make sure that you set aside that time to take care of yourself and work out each day. Is there anything else that you do? And this can be around the way that you eat, habits, routines you have around sleep. It can be products or tools you use. But anything interesting or anything that you're loving on the health and fitness side?


Jacob Helberg:

My eating patterns tend to be a little bit erratic. I'll go through phases when I'm eating extremely clean, and phases when if you're really stressed and you're traveling a lot for work, and where you just want to eat a lot of junk food because it's easy, it tastes great. And when you're stressed out, it really is satisfying.


Jacob Helberg:

So I do think that food is actually quite important for health. So diet and sleep are two things that contribute to an enormous degree to people's overall state of health. So I do think that being able to maintain a lifestyle where you sleep enough, which I think a lot of people underestimate how important that is. And also eat decently healthy is important. But I mean ultimately, we're humans. And there are things that we like, and sometimes a chocolate ice cream or whatever it is, some things aren't always the healthiest. Being able to indulge yourself and treat yourself I think is important.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah. You have to sustain your soul sometimes. Especially if it's chocolate or some sort of sweet, I feel like. So we just spent quite a while talking about the book that you just wrote, The Wires of War. So this would be kind of related, but a question we ask everyone is what books and podcasts have had the biggest impact on the way you work and think? So for you, maybe a different way of saying it would be is there anything you're reading recently or that you really are recommending to others? So this can be book you researched for the book. It can just be totally separate.


Jacob Helberg:

So the way that my brain works is I actually tend to derive an enormous amount of value in reading groups of books and then comparing in my mind different arguments made by different thinkers and synthesizing what I agree with, what I disagree with. I really enjoyed Michael Pillsbury's book The Hundred-year Marathon. I find Henry Kissinger's books very interesting, World Order on China. They're very dense. They are very wonky. And to be honest, a little bit hard to get through at times. But really interesting, full of really interesting insights.


Jacob Helberg:

One of my favorite all time authors that I actually quote multiple times in my book is Winston Churchill. I think he was an extraordinary writer. I mean his command of the English language is hard to match. And he expresses himself with eloquence and humor. And I think so often, this is an example of someone that also had incredibly deep-seated convictions on just about everything. But he's so funny about the way that he expresses himself. And a lot of the times, there was such an incredible cardinal of truth and so many of his observations, I find myself enjoying reading almost anything that he writes. Whether it's his speeches, or a history of the English speaking people, his accounts of World War I. He's an incredible writer.


Jacob Helberg:

And the last point that I would make is another type of reading that I tend to enjoy quite are books that are written about the future. So a lot of tech books basically are forward looking about trends in the future, and then books about the past. And I think ultimately, one of the intellectual exercises that I enjoy is comparing in what ways ... in my book, I talk about technology is obviously new. But ultimately, a lot of it is about systems and configurations of power. So there are certain dynamics that have been present throughout history and there is a real through line. So being able to see what the through line is I find really interesting. So reading books about the past and books that are backward looking and forward looking, I find to enjoy it quite a bit.


Daniel Scrivner:

It's amazing. It's probably the best answer I've gotten to that question to date. So on the Winston Churchill piece, if you had to read just one speech, one book that he wrote, one piece of content produced by him for the rest of your life, you couldn't read anything else by Winston Churchill, what would you pick?


Jacob Helberg:

There is a great book that I bought on Amazon that basically is a compilation of his speeches. He wrote a lot of things, but I think his speeches are so fascinating because especially speeches in the tail end of the Interwar Period and in the early days of World War II. Because these were speeches that he wrote at a time when he was fired up. He's super passionate about what he's talking about. He's very concerned for the future of his country. He is constantly trying to find ways of persuading parliament and by the time, the Chamberlain government to do more, to warning about this looming danger that he saw in continental Europe, convincing Franklin Roosevelt to be more active. So you really feel his energy when you read the speeches and how much he cared about was going on. And I find myself overtaken by a lot of adrenaline every time I read his speeches, because they're so galvanizing.


Daniel Scrivner:

And he has such a clear voice. I feel like in that, there's just something about it that still feels alive. And to your point, it has that energy. We'll find that book and add it to the show notes. Because one, I want to buy that book.


Jacob Helberg:

If I could add actually one speech in particular that I especially like, it's called the lights are going out. And it's one of his speeches where he essentially talks about how the lights are going out on democracy around the world, and where he basically talks about this trend that he was seeing at the time when autocracies were on the advance. Democracy was in retreat. And this was obviously a cause of great consternation and should ultimately be a cause of action by Britain as well as the U.S. government. And that speech is written so beautifully.


Daniel Scrivner:

Amazing. We'll link to that as well. I love the title. On software and tools, do you have any software that you use to manage your work, your emails, tasks, and any tools that you use? I see you're wearing these amazing Apple air headphones. Any other physical tools that you use, you rely on?


Jacob Helberg:

I just subscribed to Affinity. So I'll be able to tell you in a few weeks if I've ended up becoming addicted to it, but I also like the To Do app by Microsoft, although I use it on and off. I'm a little bit old school. I like taking a lot of notes. So I find that actually a combination of digital tools and manual ones is what I tend to gravitate to the most.


Daniel Scrivner:

Super interesting. So one question that we always ask every guest, it's my favorite question that we ask is just if they could share a favorite failure. And I think what we're trying to get at there is while we're all trying to pursue these ambitious, interesting, exciting ideas, a lot of times in life, stuff doesn't work out. And oftentimes, that's for the better. And you can look back and see that yes, this thing didn't work out and didn't achieve this goal. But it sent me in a better direction. I learned something really valuable. Do you have a favorite failure?


Jacob Helberg:

Yeah. And I actually talk about it in the book. I dropped out of law school. And at the time, it was a terrifying decision because my entire life, I knew that I was passionate about politics and foreign policy. And I had this view that I was on this track. And that everyone in this profession, everyone that wants to go into this profession has to go through law school. It's a rite of passage. It's what everyone does.


Jacob Helberg:

So when I got to law school, I did the program for a whole host of reasons that I talk about in the book. I actually enrolled in a graduate school in France called Sciences Po. And I went back to Paris for about a year. And basically, as the first semester was coming to a close, I was applying for a bunch of summer associateships at top tier law firms based in Paris, like international law firms based in Paris. I got an offer from a white-shoe law firm called Shearman Sterling, which is a very, very good law firm.


Jacob Helberg:

And as I was getting the office walkthrough, I remember looking around thinking, "Wow. If this is the best that my life is going to look like for the next 10 years, I don't know that this is cut out for me." I mean, I went to law school because I was passionate about public interest law. But realized after getting into law school, that everyone that has the best jobs in public interest law and namely in the government all come from 'big' law firms. And in order to get to a big law firm, you basically have to spend 10 years at a big law firm in order to make partner, in order to get the best jobs in the government. And it's an incredibly long cycle where the cost-benefit equation for me just did not really pan out because the cost was just so high. I mean, you basically have to give up every aspect of your life to do something that to me felt incredibly dry and boring, which was proofreading contracts as a junior associate for the first few years.


Jacob Helberg:

The theory of law I've also found fascinating, the practice of working at a law firm, morbidly boring. So I dropped out, nearly gave my parents a heart attack, moved to California which is where I ultimately ended up getting involved in the whole startup ecosystem. And it was a terrifying experience because all of a sudden, this cleanly drawn out plan that I was on for so many years was completely thrown out the window overnight. But ultimately, it was for the better. And a funny irony actually is that a couple years after moving to California, I met my now husband Keith who himself went to law school, joined a law firm. He actually graduated from law school, did a law firm. But he pulled out of the field of law and jokes how it was one of the best decisions he's ever made. And his partner at Founders Fund Peter Thiel jokes about how he's also a former practicing attorney, and he jokes how he worked at a law firm where from the outside, everyone wanted to get in. And from the inside, everyone wanted to get out. And I had a very similar experience. So that gave me some level of comfort that I had made the right decision.


Jacob Helberg:

And ultimately, one of the things that I really loved about Silicon valley is that it's an ecosystem of incredibly interesting, bright, self-starting people that all have slightly unconventional backgrounds. I mean, I have a lot of friends that are very successful that are high school dropouts.


Jacob Helberg:

So I think believing, trusting your gut sometimes, and taking that leap so long as you've been really thoughtful about it I think sometimes can end up serving you quite well. I mean, if you know in your heart of hearts that something just doesn't feel right with the current path that you're on, I think being open and willing to take some pretty drastic changes I think for me, has worked that pretty well.


Daniel Scrivner:

That's such a great story. Okay. Last two questions. The first one is what is your definition of success? And this can be as big, as small as you want it to be. What is it for you?


Jacob Helberg:

Well in the context of my book, my definition of success is helping promote a viewpoint that I find really important for the public policy debate. So to the extent that this book can contribute to that broader public policy debate, that's ultimately one of the main goals of the book. And that would be my definition of success is encouraging a conversation about this because it's on an issue that I find so dear to my heart, but also that I find so important for the country. I think that's how I would define success.


Daniel Scrivner:

I love it. Last question. What are you most grateful for in this phase of your life?


Jacob Helberg:

In this phase of my life, I would have to be grateful at the risk of sounding a little bit cheesy for my family. My husband and I are incredibly blessed to have two adorable kids. So it's been an incredible experience seeing them change almost every day and evolve so quickly. And I think it's a blessing that we've been able to experience that has been incredibly fun.


Daniel Scrivner:

That's fun. Jacob, this has been an incredible conversation. For people listening, you can buy Jacob Helberg's new book The Wires of War on Amazon. The audio book's fantastic. I've read the physical book. The physical book is beautiful. And I would say get the physical book, because mine's filled with tons of underlines, notes in the margins, and all sorts of stuff. Jacob, where can people find you online, follow you on Twitter?


Jacob Helberg:

So they can follow me on Twitter @jacobhelberg. And if they haven't already, I'd encourage everyone to buy the book on Amazon The Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power.


Daniel Scrivner:

Thank you so much. It's been a lot of fun.


Jacob Helberg:

Thank you.








On Outlier Academy, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today. 

Explore all episodes of Outlier Academy, be the first to hear about new episodes, and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.

Daniel Scrivner and Mighty Publishing LLC own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Outlier Academy podcast, with all rights reserved, including Daniel’s right of publicity.

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