I recently watched the HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. It chronicled the downfall of Theranos, a biotechnology company that promised to change the world with a cheap and noninvasive blood test, and it’s founder, Elizabeth Holmes. The only problem is that the entire company was built on lies. For years, Elizabeth Holmes deceived her employees, customers, regulators, investors, and the general public. It was the biggest corporate fraud since Enron.
It’s easy to dismiss Theranos and Holmes as an outlier, an extreme example. But doing so misses out on a huge learning opportunity that is applicable for almost anyone. When you start out as super passionate about something and then transition from spending your time doing that thing to spending your time thinking about, talking about, and promoting that thing you can easily become deluded.
This happens on smaller scales all the time. A common example is when front-line people—such as teachers, physicians, attorneys, analysts, salespeople, and coaches—get promoted into administrative roles. If they don’t keep at least some skin in the game, doing at least some of the work itself, they tend to lose touch with the game altogether. When this happens these well-meaning people end up making ill-informed decisions that are based on the reality in their heads instead of the reality in the world. This is the definition of delusion.
Another way getting too far from the work is harmful is something I write about extensively in The Passion Paradox: When the job becomes primarily about maintaining ego and identity instead of doing the work itself. When this shift happens, people tend to feel anxiety and symptoms of burnout. This is because unlike producing good work (which you do have control over) you don’t have much control over how other people perceive you as a person. In extreme cases, like that of Elizabeth Holmes, you lie and cheat to protect your identity and ego. In less extreme cases, you become an angry, restless person and suffer from burnout. This is all too common in large organizations where people get promoted into roles where the whole job is basically to be liked and relevant and important. This may sound great, but it’s usually pretty awful.
The way to prevent these situations (and reverse them if they are underway) is to be sure you always spend at least some time doing the work that you are passionate about in the first place. Never get too far from it.
This is also why it’s wise to be skeptical of people who have provocative stories and ideas for “changing the world” but who don’t spend time doing the work. They don’t have skin the game. Elizabeth Holmes wasn’t a scientist. She wasn’t a physician. She wasn’t an engineer. She had no technical background. She was a great storyteller. It would have made sense to fund her science fiction book, but not her life-sciences company. Again, Theranos is an extreme example but this kind of fiction, too, happens all the time. People who are world-class marketers use that world-class marketing ability to portray themselves as great technicians, creatives, etc. when what they really are is great marketers. So much of what I like to call “bro-science” (e.g., all the life-hack nonsense) falls into this category.
At the end of the documentary The Inventor, lots of the people involved with Theranos agreed that if you were to hook Holmes up to a lie detector and ask her about her company she would still probably say that she’s done nothing wrong and that the company would have succeeded had regulators not shut it down, and this wouldn’t register as a lie. I believe that. Because to Holmes, it’s not a lie. It’s delusion. And again: though she’s an extreme example, this can happen to all of us in more subtle ways when we go from doing the work and being passionate about the work to promoting the work and being passionate about the identity, ego, and external validation that brings.
The challenge and paradox is this: the better you get at something, the more time you generally end up spending on the external stuff. This is even true for athletes, who perform well and suddenly have to do all kinds of stuff for sponsors. It’s also true for writers like myself, who need a platform for share their work. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, so long it doesn’t become the main thing itself. This is why I believe one of the most important principles in The Passion Paradox is the 24-hour rule, or the notion that after a big win or hard loss you give yourself 24 hours to celebrate the win or grieve the defeat, but then you get back to the work itself.
All of this points to the same truth. The best way to keep your motivation and drive rooted in reality is to engage with reality itself. Do the work. Do the work. Do the work. It will make you happier and better and, ironically, less prone to burnout and other forms of distress.