Tony Hsieh is Dead and Nobody Knows What to Say

You can tell by the things they are saying. The major outlets talk about his legacy of business successes and huge parties, and his “tragic downfall at the end”. The personal essayists and bloggers are looting that legacy for inspiring leadership quotes. And WaPo is turning him into a cautionary tale for rich people even before his body has gone cold.

On the surface, it looks like nobody wants to understand why Tony Hsieh is dead. I think everybody privately understands anyway. Most just don’t have the right language for it.

I think Tony Hsieh, as a public figure, spent decades trying to tell us something important about himself that nobody wants to hear. It’s something about all of us, especially the “visionaries” and “leaders,” that the postmodern world blinds us to while we drive ourselves insane. Specifically, the lay concept of mental health is incomplete: the differences between how human minds are commonly thought to work, and how they actually work, creates and perpetuates the suffering that makes business, economics, and modern life unbearable to gifted people.

Before I dive into this, I need to make two things very clear.

  1. I am not a licensed mental health professional. I work as a coach for leadership and, consequently, life. I facilitate people’s personal change processes; doing that effectively requires lots of study and training in psychology and supportive relational practices, which I have. But I don’t hold a license from any board of health. This means I’m not bound by the handcuffs licensed professionals wear and can speak my mind pretty freely about mental health topics, so long as I don’t solicit services regulated by healthcare licensure boards or construe myself as a certified practitioner. But this isn’t about me. It’s about Tony Hsieh.
  2. I’m going to talk about Tony Hsieh the public figure. This is the Tony Hsieh whose story is told in magazine articles, press releases, and newspaper editorials. He is distinct from Tony Hsieh the private citizen. I don’t know that person; I could never know that person; I’m not going to presume anything about that person’s life or mind. Besides, this isn’t about Tony Hsieh. It’s about you.

How We’re Taught to Talk About Dead Visionaries

Sifting through a few dozen articles and blogs about Tony’s death shows common trends for discussing high-profile visionaries. Depending on our (lack of) relationship to them and to structures of social power, we vary in how much we’re willing to see them as bona fide human beings.

Most people are satisfied with counting trophies and projecting their own aspirations onto the blank canvas of a public figure.

The title of an article is displayed: “How Tony Hsieh’s Death Is A Reminder of How to Build a Great Company and Life”
The title of an article is displayed: “How Tony Hsieh’s Death Is A Reminder of How to Build a Great Company and Life”
If your epigraph includes “but,” you need to get clear on whether you’re talking about the deceased or yourself.

This is what I mean. The author can’t see Tony through the fog of The Business Icon. Their confusion even shows in the title, which lexically broadcasts two ideas:

  • Tony Hiseh’s Death [Reminds] How to Build a Great Company
  • Tony Hsieh’s Death [Reminds] How to Build a Great Life

First, note that Company came before Life. Then look at that second sentence and tell me how it makes any kind of sense. A guy descends into drug-fueled madness for months, flees to the mountains with a cadre of sycophants, and dies in a fire while locked inside a house.

The article doesn’t even talk about Tony’s life. Instead, it cherry-picks factoids from Hsieh’s business legacy to support its premise that a culture-forward HR policy is the best way to do business. The author sprinkles in assumptions about Hsieh’s inner life, like “Looking at some of the pictures and comments around these events [note: ‘adventures away from the office’], you just can’t fake that kind of gratitude and happiness.”

He doesn’t give a damn about Tony Hsieh. He wants to feel inspired by a set of culture polices that promote his idealized work environment. The closing argument proves it:

Reading and practicing what Hsieh wrote made me a better teacher and a better person. In this regard, Hsieh left something really great behind for people who knew him and complete strangers like me. We honor him by following his timeless advice about business and life.

I believe we dishonor Hsieh when we only honor the ideas and works he left us. The man himself never mattered to people like the author. This might be forgivable since the author never worked for Hsieh and never met him in real life. But reducing a person to public figurehood — no, to iconography — indignifies them. And for many, many people that indignity creates a steep slippery slope between a healthy sense of self and identity confusion. How can someone know who they are, or what they need to feel safe and fulfilled, when they’re only known by their roles and achievements?

That goes for Tony and for the author.

The title of an article is displayed: “A few unedited words about Tony Hsieh departing from Zappos”
The title of an article is displayed: “A few unedited words about Tony Hsieh departing from Zappos”

This, as I’ve highlighted, was published before Tony died. It’s a response to his stepping down from Zappos, the event that demarcated his flight from familiar surroundings and people in Las Vegas. The 3-min read is little more than a PR statement from one Zappos employee to others. Its thesis:

We lost a leader. But we have also gained an opportunity, to change. Though I recognize the shock of this change, and we will be OK in the long run. Everyone will lift each other up, it is already happening. Rarely is anyone at a company because of simply one person, and I believe that to be the case now.

This is the thing about businesses and professional organizations: people are only part of them because of the mission or for personal gain (read: salary/commission/dividends). So much of what’s said about Tony isn’t even about Tony; it’s about what he did for the institutions of Zappos and Downtown Las Vegas. What members to those entities got from him. Where are the articles about his relationships? His personhood?

I think this is a serious problem in executive leadership roles. The structure of the job demands someone who trusts others very little, who believes they are in a constant struggle for survival against the world. The work hours and constant power-jockeying with vendors, competitors, shareholders, and even teammates creates an impossibly isolating lifestyle.

How is a human being supposed to find happiness, fulfillment, and life satisfaction while working as a business leader? Especially if they have the kind of personality (read: developmental psychology) that makes them less likely to trust others than normal?

Everybody wants to be safely connected to other people. “Safe” is determined by the unconscious mind and its authentic needs. When we repeatedly experience violations of trust — power games, backstabbing, politicking — we learn to keep our guard up. We deny ourselves authentic self-expression, and the only way to do that is to stuff our authenticity down inside ourselves, to lock away our unconscious minds so they don’t slip out. This kind of self-disconnection, when it becomes chronic, leads to all sorts of physiological and psychological problems…

…which start to show up in your work.

An article’s title with a photo of Tony looking unhappy: “10 things Tony Hsieh taught us about happiness in business”
An article’s title with a photo of Tony looking unhappy: “10 things Tony Hsieh taught us about happiness in business”

This article is a summary of some tribute given to Tony by “people that knew and loved him including TED speaker Nic Marks.” Because being a TED speaker matters even more than having known and loved Tony; it merits special mention. That’s what readers of The Happy Startup School really want to hear: the opinion of someone successful enough to have spoken at TED. The rest of Tony’s lovers can come too, we suppose.

1. “Live your values, don’t laminate them”: Zappos’ core values were important to building a strong company culture

2. “Never put money before your happiness”: Tony walked away from his first company because it made him so unhappy. He couldn’t bear going into work every day.

3. “Aim to create an emotional connection with everyone you talk to”: One of Zappos’ customer service metrics was making two emotional connections on a call. This was personally important to Tony.

4. “Surprise and delight your customers at every turn”: Each rep was given freedom to make customers happy, even sending flowers and recommending pizza.

5. “Encourage your team to be themselves at work”: Individuality was encouraged at Zappos and staff were empowered. They had a full-time life coach for work or personal sessions.

6. “Don’t let money or success change you”: Tony was worth $1bn but had a normal desk and lived in a trailer

7. “Your brand and culture are two sides of the same coin”

8. “Use your company as a vehicle for your mission”: Tony inspired others to put people before profit

9. “Never stop taking risks”: Tony kept pushing himself to try new things. He could have played it safe.

10. “Make your mark in the precious time you have”: Tony died early, reminding us to act now

Great. We have a collection of banal platitudes for making a business that cares about people. But why is this important? Why is it distinct enough to merit a TED speaker’s consideration? Why isn’t this just business-as-normal?

You know the answers. They’re solid answers. And they aren’t the point. They just tee up the real question: Why did Tony spend every waking moment struggling against those answers to build a different kind of work environment anyway? What demon possessed him to swim upstream against the entire world?

The above list tells a story about Hsieh. Here’s a retelling of that story with more focus on character development:

“Tony walked away from his first company because it made him so unhappy. He couldn’t bear going into work every day. At Zappos, he told people to make emotional connections as part of their job role. This was personally important to him. He even insisted that his employees make people happy by whatever means they could drum up. Everybody around him was allowed individuality and empowered: he hired a life coach for his employees and gave them free access to that person. Tony didn’t show himself much care through the luxury his success afforded him. He kept pushing himself. He could have played it safe but for some reason wouldn’t allow safety into his life. Tony died early.”

I assert that Tony Hsieh, the subject of all these essays and remembrances, was not actually a happy man. He was chronically troubled all his life and, as humans do, tried to construct an outer world that wouldn’t reflect his intensely distressing inner world. He couldn’t find the help he needed to make his inner world more peaceful, and he finally succumbed to what we callously label “mental illness”. And I think the writers of Forbes’s memoir agree with me, even if their audience won’t let them come out and say it.

Forbes article title: “Tony Hsieh’s American Tragedy: The Self-Destructive Last Months Of The Zappos Visionary”
Forbes article title: “Tony Hsieh’s American Tragedy: The Self-Destructive Last Months Of The Zappos Visionary”

But while he directly (by the tens of thousands) and indirectly (by the millions) delivered on making other people smile, Hsieh was privately coping with issues of mental health and addiction.

Finally, a breath of fresh air.

Forbes has interviewed more than 20 of his close friends and colleagues over the past few days…reconciling their accounts, one word rises up: tragedy. According to his friends and family, Hsieh’s personal struggles took a dramatic turn south over the past year, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic curtailed the nonstop action that Hsieh seemingly craved.

Anxiety creeps into my belly. This account is taking its own precipitous turn.

According to numerous sources with direct knowledge, Hsieh, always a heavy drinker, veered into frequent drug use, notably nitrous oxide. Friends also cited mental health battles, as Hsieh often struggled with sleep and feelings of loneliness — traits that drove his fervor for purpose and passion in life. By August, it was announced that he had “retired” from the company…friends and family members, understanding the emerging crisis, attempted interventions over the past few months to try to get him sober. Instead, these old friends say, Hsieh retreated to Park City, where he surrounded himself with yes-men…He would double the amount of their highest-ever salary. All they had to do was move to Park City with him and “be happy”.

And there we go. The interventionist historical fiction. He fell into crisis and we tried to change his behavior, but he fled us and dug deeper into the only thing he knew. It’s such a shame that he wouldn’t take the medicine.

This schizoid article struggles with itself the whole way through. I think the writers want to tell the truth about Tony’s lifelong struggle with inner demons, but Forbes is a magazine for business aspirants. Fortunately, famed singer-songwriter Jewel stands in nicely as a foil: the writers use the humble and heart-forward bohemian — who in no way threatens the identities of Forbes’ readership — to deliver their message so they can tell the truth without getting run out of town. And the editor gets to stamp his logo above the dead man’s head and use the title to blame him for “self-destruction.” (Bad Tony, scratching up the perfect image of an exuberant, people-centric, visionary leader we want to see. We trusted you to carry the banner.)

Tony Hsieh, like most visionary business leaders, only knew one way to handle his constant psychic distress: craft an outer world that doesn’t in any way reflect his inner world. When the pandemic shut down city life, he must have been left with a lot of time on his hands. Then Zappos was taken from him, according to insinuations in the article. And a troubled man exhibiting several markers of constant distress (heavy use of dissociative drugs like alcohol and whippets, chronic sleeplessness, chronic loneliness and depression, ‘an addictive personality’) had none of his tools for avoidance left.

The Language We Really Need

The normies around Tony saw him fall through the gaps in his constructed world and tried what they know: a behavioral intervention. Tony, they said, you have to stop drinking and using drugs. These outside-things are messing up your inside-world. Stop using them so your inside-world fixes itself. This is what they were probably taught by TV sitcoms growing up. It’s what we’re all taught through a million mass-cultural interpretations of behaviorist psychology.

Behaviorists love to look at humans like opaque “black boxes”: since you can’t know what the inside looks like, just change the outside of the box and wait for the inside to adapt. It works well enough when a human is capable of adapting, which is why the American Psychological Association (which governs mental health treatment in the USA) requires all psychiatrists to be trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is so heavily used here that its ideas and assumptions about human psychology have worked their way into normal society. But — this is one of those things I can say because I’m not a licensed healthcare worker — in my experiences as a therapy client, an emotional intelligence trainer, and a coach, I’ve seen how behavioral intervention doesn’t work very well in the face of psychological trauma.

Trauma is the rearrangement of one’s entire mind to isolate the memory of a life-threatening event. When something happens that makes the unconscious parts of our mind believe we’re going to die and can’t do anything about it, the brain records a special memory of that event that includes everything we did to survive it. If we survive, the memory is kept as an immutable record of stimuli from right before the event happened and physiological responses to it(nervous system, endocrine, and motor responses). Because obviously one or more of those responses cause us to avoid dying (or so the mind thinks). When the stimuli reappear in present-time, the memory is triggered and the responses are replayed automatically, unconsciously, and immediately to help us survive again.

Trauma is designed to be immutable. This is why behavioral interventions don’t work very well at healing it. You can’t just tell someone using alcoholism to avoid their PTSD, “knock it off with the drinking.” They’ll just drink when you aren’t watching, or they’ll switch to another intoxicant with a similar effect, like harder drugs or sex or cultism. It’s a mostly unconscious psychological process. What you have to do is heal the trauma first, and then they’ll stop needing to escape their own mind.

Effective trauma healing uses body-centric mindfulness to track autonomic trauma responses while staying aware of the present moment in which you are not actually about to die. You might have heard of EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, NARM, or Hakomi. Those are non-behaviorist methodologies with decades of clinical evidence and biological theory backing them. They can completely heal trauma by working with the unconscious mind. Behavioral therapy, hypnosis, and psychoanalysis — as well as coaching methodologies derived from them — do not.

(Citations for such a wide-reaching argument are impossible. You can find a better explanation of almost all of this in Trauma and Memory by Peter. A. Levine PhD and The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk MD.)

The public figure of Tony Hsieh smacks of complex PTSD (C-PTSD). The failure of behavioral interventions. The booze and partying and biohacking. The lifelong frenetic drive to create a fantasy world that doesn’t actually align with the real world’s constraints. This is a person who very likely suffered C-PTSD, and it seems nobody in his environment was able or willing to recognize it.

What we know intuitively is that people like Tony — brilliant, big-hearted, lost in the adult world, and almost constantly dysfunctional — are struggling with inner demons common to the heart of mankind. What we don’t know is how to talk about it, how to model the experience with a common language, or how to alleviate the suffering. The language of psychological trauma, particularly complex/developmental trauma, is what we need.

Tony didn’t get the help he actually needed. While he developed an inspiring persona modeling an idealistic fantasy we’d all rather live in, he didn’t develop a resilient personality for living in the real world. He didn’t find inner peace, not ever. He didn’t live another 40 years to make his utopia more viable and inspire even more visionaries to build it.

Hsieh is the Everyman for Leaders

There’s so much complexity in this story that could be explored, but I’m staying focused on part of it that never gets told clearly. Because when the details are abstracted, it’s the same story I see in most of the senior leadership, startup founders, and entrepreneurs I’ve met as a coach/trainer. The same psychology that makes one stand out from the masses also makes one incredibly vulnerable to chronic dysfunction. In banal cases, it just means you’re a heavy partier on business trips and work insane hours. In many of the cases I’ve seen, it means you’re a lowkey terror to people on your team, and they spend too much of their personal energy managing yours. In Tony’s case, it means you lose control of your company, lose touch with your humanity, and die in mid-life.

From Forbes:

Toward the end of 2014 he stepped away from leading the Downtown [Las Vegas] Project and moved from his high-rise condo into an Airstream park, complete with an LED-lit stage and a roaming alpaca. Here, the revelry continued in a scene where recreational drugs were mixed with an evolving group of thinkers, creatives and entrepreneurs who sought Hsieh’s advice…Over this period, many of Hsieh’s longtime peers found themselves on a divergent path from him. Their definitions of happiness had changed — a feeling echoed by several Hsieh friends, who said that they had married and started families, while Hsieh remained an extremely rich Peter Pan.

Tony Hsieh needed attunement, validation and nurturance. He needed people he could trust to see his full childlike authenticity, welcome it, and protect him from a callous world. He kept unconsciously trying to create these experiences around himself, for himself, but people just showed up to soak it in and encourage him to lay more golden eggs. This is a pattern of the traumatized mind: we unconsciously recreate the situation that led to the trauma for the rest of our lives, hoping to ‘win’ this time against the threat or stressor. The Tony I see between the lines of all these articles surrounded himself with people who “valued him” but didn’t validate and build his sense of worth.

Businesspeople need the capacity to point to the root causes of dysfunctional leadership and toxic culture. Nobody is telling the real story, despite the thousands of pages of biz lit published every year, because those who analyze leadership don’t really understand psychological trauma, and those who really understand trauma could lose their therapy license if they say too much about anybody’s psychology. It’s a catch-22 that keeps the deep healing magic locked behind a one-way gate.

Outside the gate, we’re left with pitiful imitations of real thing: Big-5 Profiles and Unconscious Bias Training. People with “strong personalities” keep being put into leadership positions where they are driven to their physical and mental limits to create value for everyone around them. In exchange, they’re allowed leeway to shape the lives of others through social power, which they always unconsciously use to make their inner worlds less painful. If the visionary is Tony Hsieh, people love it but he implodes and crumples. If the visionary is Steve Jobs, people hate it but deflect their misery with the material comforts they gain.

What are the costs of letting your eccentric leadership continue to live in ignorance of complex trauma? Are they toxic to their coworkers? To their organizational systems? To themselves? Do you have to build social firewalls around them at the Director level to filter their communications and influence their decision-making?

If you’re the leader in your company — maybe a startup or an entrepreneurship — how sustainable and fulfilling is your life in this role? Do you feel intimately connected to the people in your life? Do you trust your own instincts? Can you take directions, receive hard feedback, and say things like “I’m sorry”, “I need help”, and “I was wrong”? How much pigmented hair is still on your head?

It’s okay to be affected by trauma; every single person on Earth is. It’s the human condition. But it doesn’t have to be nearly as hard for many of us as society makes it. We are not a compassionate people to one another or ourselves. We have the innate ability to be, but our culture teaches us its opposite.

Tony Hsieh, as described by the post mortem rags circulating this week, is another wake-up call to all of Western business. Trauma runs deep in our individual and collective psyches, and we have been ignoring it for generations.

The complexity of the matter is only getting worse. If we don’t immediately start popularizing effective and compassionate conceptual models of the twenty-first century human mind, we’ll lack the language needed to understand the suffering and misery we cause with business-as-usual. We’ll only going to use up and throw away more Tony Hsiehs while they try, desperately but futilely, to change the world when they can’t find peace inside themselves.

An earlier revision of this essay appeared on my professional blog at https://www.leadershipartacademy.com.

Started at the bottom now I’m here: https://showerwithdavid.substack.com

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