I was surprised to have read recently about the death of Tony Hsieh, the eminent CEO of Zappos, a company he built up to reach billionaire status. He died, at the tender age of 46, from smoke inhalation caused by a fire, induced by excessive drug use. He had created a milieu of purpose and ambition that he had passed on to the many who knew him. His abrupt loss of life reminded me of an “ex-addict” I met several years ago.
When I first started working at a residential program for drug addicts, I had little experience with this clinical population. My supervisor suggested I sit in on a group that was led by an ex-addict, named Fred, who I was told had much savvy in the ways of addicts. It was a learning experience listening to Fred talk the jibe of the addicts and not get sucked into their manipulative games. He turned every complaint they had against the system right back on them as the root of their misery. It was a confrontational style that the group members appeared to respect. After observing Fred’s technique with the residents, he suddenly did not show up for work. The news was that he had been arrested and was being held in a county jail. Apparently, he had relapsed and started using drugs again.
About 7 or 8 years ago a friend invited me to a talk that Tony was giving in Santa Monica, California related to the steps he had taken to have hit the jackpot with Zappos, when Amazon bought it. Mr. Hsieh impressed me with his young age combined with his evident self-confidence and ease he had in sharing his own creation of success and wealth. Although the market is flooded with self-help books, the title of Mr. Hsieh’s book, Delivering Happiness, appealed to me. After all, as a psychologist I’m in the business of trying to bring less suffering and more happiness to my clients.
When I read Hsieh’s book, I was not looking to make significant changes in my career. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it. The language in the book very much reflected the way this CEO had spoken about himself. His early failed attempts at earning money on his own, in combination with his honest lack of interest in being the ideal Asian child by learning how to play a musical instrument, reflected candor. His goofing off at college, but then determining how he could salvage a good grade in a course he had not bothered to study all semester, showed an originality in how he would deal with subsequent important business decisions.
He explained in his book how he processed information with specific details pointing out the pitfalls and successes on the way. Throughout his piecing together a very profitable online shoe company, Zappos, he related some of his fun activities, one of which was rave parties. Masses of people attended these parties where strobe lighting beamed down on the participants. This form of recreation appeared to serve as an outlet for Tony, an individual who put a huge amount of effort into the development of an empire. Mr. Hsieh had reached the quintessential entrepreneurial achievement when Zappos became a “wholly owned subsidiary” of Amazon. This deal gave Zappos shareholders over $1.2 billion based on the value of Amazon when the transaction was finalized.
For some people the experience of a grand success can be more difficult to handle than failure. That I believe was the case for Tony Hsieh and Michael Jackson. Both of these hugely successful individuals had layers of relationships. Unfortunately, the people that may have helped them the most were shut out from their lives. A recent article published in the Wall Street Journal about Mr. Hsieh’s death stated that the entrepreneur bankrolled his followers and in return they shielded his very risky lifestyle. Prior to his passing, he had been using nitrous oxide, a mind-altering gas, along with a mixture of other drugs and alcohol.
Although Mr. Hsieh believed he had found happiness, the way he died would prove otherwise. Perhaps he put too much emphasis on financial success in achieving what he thought would be happiness. We know he had a huge influence on others with many admirers who looked to him as a role model. Both he and Fred, the ex-addict that knew how to work with drug addicts, could help others but in the end, they were unable to help themselves. Tony understood that it is easy to become sidetracked in the present and lose sight of future goals “because of all the inertia to overcome.” When he gave in to the inertia and the good life entailed by hedonic acts, he began to lose his foothold on a meaning or purpose that perhaps would have sustained him.
I am convinced that when drugs and other substances become elevated to the foreground in any individual’s life, that person’s sense of reality is lost. It is saddening to see Tony Hsieh, and the many other innovative souls let their talents go to waste, when they lose the purpose and meaning that earlier had propelled them.