I’ve been reading Happy at Any Cost, about the rise and fall, and life and death, of Tony Hsieh, who was the driving force behind the online retailer Zappos, and who died in a strange accident about a year and a half ago.
It’s a tragic story. Hsieh built two companies: Zappos, which he sold to Amazon for $1.2 billion, and before that, LinkExchange, which Microsoft acquired for $265 million before Hsieh turned 25.
Those “wins” would be enough to give him admission to the TechBros Hall of Fame (if it existed), but Hsieh was really known for his quirky thoughts on leadership and management, and for his strange and ultimately quixotic attempts to engineer fulfillment and even happiness.
I mean, he literally called his best-selling 2010 book, Delivering Happiness. But, as his biographers, Wall Street Journal reporters Kirsten Grind and Katherine Sayre put it:
“The man peddling happiness couldn’t make himself happy. By the time his friends and family tried to save him, it was too late.”
I wrote about Hsieh a few times while he was alive. I think I was pulled into his story in part because he was basically my age, and because from what I read and saw of him, I could have imagined him fitting in with my group of friends from high school.
There’s a short vignette that I think encapsulates some of Hsieh’s philosophy, and that frankly I wish other leaders would copy. It was called simply, “The Offer.”
The program worked like this: When new employees began working at Zappos, they’d be told after a week or so on the job that they had a choice:
First, of course, they were welcome to stay.
Second, they could leave: no harm/no foul. To make them think about this option seriously, Zappos would offer to pay them a not-token amount to do so.
"Why?" asked Bill Taylor in Harvard Business Review in 2008, when the maximum "offer" was $1,000. "Because if you're willing to take the company up on The Offer, you obviously don't have the sense of commitment they are looking for."
After Amazon acquired Zappos—and allowed it to remain a freestanding division, under Hsieh's leadership—"big Amazon" adopted a version of the idea as well. The Amazon iteration involves offering Amazon fulfillment center employees $1,000 per year that they've worked at Amazon to quit, up to $5,000.
None of this was altruism of course; Zappos was better off without employees who didn't want to be there. But I also think it was a real favor for people who took jobs at Zappos only to realize it wasn't the right move for them.
If you know my story, and the 15 minutes of fame I’ve written about here before, it might make more sense in context:
First, how I went through a nine-month application and recruiting process to start a six-figure job back in 2009, only to realize after a single day that I had made a huge mistake and to quit the following morning; and then
How I told nobody about the experience for years, but then wrote about it for Inc.com, had the whole thing go viral, and ultimately wound up the centerpiece of a story on CBS Sunday Morning about why people quit their jobs.
Honestly, all writing is autobiographical; that’s probably also why I wrote on Friday about making a list of things you don’t want to do, and why I’m also planning to continue this “pressure to find happiness” theme in tomorrow’s newsletter as well.
Anyway, I know there’s a train wreck ahead in the book I’m reading, since Hsieh was apparently addicted to drugs and alcohol, and had some mental health challenges—and was ultimately killed after a house fire in New London, Connecticut.
In fact, there’s a good chance I won’t actually finish it, especially since the authors explicitly warn in the introduction:
“Some of the scenes in this book, particularly at the end, will be hard to digest. We’re especially aware of how difficult it might be for Tony’s loved ones …
[W]e have not included many devastating accounts and details from friends, employees, and visitors that would have only served to repeat descriptions of his condition or make the story appear salacious.”
In other words, it’s a sad coda, and I know how the story ends. But I suppose that’s also why I liked Hsieh’s idea about "The Offer."
Life is far too short to follow the wrong path. And today is always a great day to start finding the right one.
7 other things worth knowing today
Here’s a riveting account by the last journalists who stayed behind in Mariupol, Ukraine, and how they escaped the city despite a Russian manhunt in an effort to share what’s happened there with the world. (AP)
This story is behind a paywall, which is too bad: It’s a pretty well-written account of parents who fell victim to “virtual kidnappings,” which are basically scams (often run out of prisons) designed to fool you into thinking your child has been kidnapped and that you have a very short time to deliver ransom. For a less-riveting but free account of the same crime, here’s a brief FBI summary of the kinds of things we’re talking about. (Business Insider, FBI.gov)
Officials at Walt Disney World said Friday that a performance by a visiting Texas high school drill team that used American Indian stereotypes, including chants of “scalp them,” doesn’t reflect the Florida resort’s values. (AP)
Los Angeles police are looking for the person behind a recent stunt captured on video in which a driver of a Tesla sped over a hill, jumped 50 feet, and crashed into two other vehicles. However, cops asked the public to stop calling to say it’s a specific social media influencer who has claimed responsibility—but who it isn’t clear was actually involved in the stunt. (NBC News)
Here’s the list of 86 people (plus 1 place) for whom U.S. Army bases that were originally named after Confederate generals and soldiers could be renamed. Among those on the list: Harriet Tubman, George Marshall, Audie Murphy, Alvin York, Dwight Eisenhower, and uniquely: “Central Texas.” (The Naming Commission)
A Russian court has banned Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, for "extremist" activities, making its work in Russia illegal. The decision excludes WhatsApp, which Meta also owns. (NPR)
You might recall the little girl whose rendition of the song from Frozen, performed in a bomb shelter in Kyiv, went viral. She’s now escaped to Poland, where she sang the Ukrainian national anthem in front of thousands during a charity concert. (NPR/Twitter)
Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Unsplash. I wrote a bit about The Offer on Inc.com previously. Also, Grind and Sayre have written quite a bit about Hsieh in the WSJ; this article (behind a paywall, unfortunately) is how I first learned about the book. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.
Of course we’re missing the psychological reason why Hsieh wanted to pursue happiness, but I can tell you mine. My father hated his job and our family had to listen to endless hours of his griping about it while we were growing up. It was enough to seek any other way of living. My brother, always good at Monopoly, went on to be a stock/bond broker and was really good at it. I, however, had endless jobs to find my happiness. Though I was told by a psychic at 23, that I would be a massage therapist, I didn’t believe him. At 45, when another psychic almost mimicked the first one, I decided to give it a try. OMG! There it was! The previous years weren’t wasted however. I learned a lot about human nature (esp mine) and acquired wisdom that I use on the job….and I’m still alive.
“Life is short. We don't have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind.”
― Henri-Frédéric Amiel