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Tony Hsieh’s Tragic Death—and why Chasing Success, Happiness, and Health is a Trap

A few weeks ago, Zappos founder and CEO Tony Hsieh tragically died in a house fire. It is unclear whether the death was accidental, if Hsieh was intoxicated at the time, or if he locked himself in a room. What is clear is that during the last few months of his life, Hsieh was spiraling downward into substance abuse (nitrous oxide) and biohacking (starvation and sleep deprivation), while at the same time latching onto utopian fantasies.

In 2010, Hsieh wrote a bestselling book called Delivering HappinessIn addition to revolutionizing employee well-being at Zappos, he spearheaded remarkable work revitalizing a seedy part of Las Vegas and turning it into an up-and-coming neighborhood. His latest project was trying to create a Utopian community in Park City, Utah. It is reported that he offered to pay friends double their current salaries to move there with him.

It certainly seems like Hsieh had a good heart and soul. Like many other successful tech entrepreneurs  age 25 to 55, he became fixated on trying to figure out happiness and health. Hsieh’s aims, both personally and professionally, were honorable. The only problem is that happiness and health will never be perfected, never be neatly figured out. The human mind and body are too complex. We are also a long way from utopia. Plus, as Aldous Huxley showed us in Brave New World, utopia probably isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be anyways.

When COVID-19 struck, Hsieh, likely for the first time in a long while, faced a forced slow down and open space. Reporting shows it was then that he fully fell victim to a consumeristic and biohacking culture that implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) says you should be happy and healthy always. The reason it does this is so it can keep selling you products that promise to make you happy and healthy. The only problem is that you can’t always be happy and healthy. And never meeting this too-high expectation not only causes you to come back and buy more stuff (or try more fads); it also causes a whole lot of sadness and distress.

Consumer happiness and health culture runs deep. Pay attention to advertisements for anything from watches to cars to detergents. The people are always beautiful, happy, and healthy. The ads say little to nothing about the product itself. You aren’t buying the thing, you are buying the life it promises. Yet no watch, car, or detergent will ever lead to lasting health or happiness. Being rushed still sucks. Traffic still sucks. Cleaning up dog shit still sucks.

Perhaps what we are in desperate need of is a new, non-dual way to strive for happiness and health. Yes, try to be happy and healthy! But also realize that parts of life suck, and that’s OK too! Holding both of these ideas at the same time prevents the despair of always settling. Equally important, it also prevents the despair of never meeting impossible expectations.

It’s kind of like this: Can you try to live to be 130-years-old while also accepting, and being at least okay enough, with the fact that you’ll probably die long before? Can you do everything possible to feel happy but not freak out or beat yourself up when you feel sad? Can you practice tragic optimism, or an acceptance of life’s inevitable pain and loss while at the same time doing the best you can every day?

This type of non-dual thinking isn’t taught in our schools. It’s not in our movies or television shows either. I wish it was. Acceptance, non-dual thinking, and being OK with not being OK are such important qualities. Sadly, they don’t feed the consumer machine, so they are too often swept under the rug.

The tragic irony in Tony Hsieh’s story—and so many similar others that are never told—is that people spend all of this time and energy stressing out about happiness and health, doing all sorts of fancy, bright and shiny object stuff trying to be happier and healthier. But imagine if we accepted that perfect happiness and health are impossible, that it is completely normal to occasionally feel sad and distressed. Imagine if instead of trying so damn hard to be happy and healthy always we spent more time and energy on basic but meaningful endeavors like building deep community, physical activity, sleep, and reading. My hunch is that we’d probably be a whole lot happier and healthier.

The chase for perfection in happiness and health can be exhilarating. But, left unchecked, it usually makes you sad and sick. This stuff is hard. Hang in there, y’all.

Brad

(For a conversation on Tony Hsieh’s tragic death and the above ideas, check out this week’s Growth Equation podcastwhich we feel is one of our best yet.)

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4 Comments

  1. Andy on December 17, 2020 at 6:32 am

    Brad

    I needed this essay about non-dual thinking – thank-you so much.

    I have a science and mathematical background – as a fifty year old I am learning there is just as much knowledge and wisdom in spiritual and philosophy teachings about the human being than exists in science. I think you, and a small number of others, are bringing these learnings to a wider audience and that is incredibly valuable.

    Best wishes,
    Andy

  2. Julissa Cadena on December 17, 2020 at 10:47 am

    Seeking after the kingdom of Christ is the best choice always and forever ❤
    https://youtu.be/6o7AGcwj0nE

    • Dan Clark on December 22, 2020 at 11:53 am

      As a Christian, I agree. However the happiness mentality has invaded some Christian circles as well. Prosperity gospel etc.. A friend of mine was an drug addict and alcoholic. He was convinced if he sobered up, he could overcome the depression that drove the addiction. He got sober but still the happiness eluded him. He joined a church and got baptized, thinking a relationship with Jesus would solve the happiness riddle. It didn’t. He took up running then eventually ultra running and somehow through the ups and downs of training and racing, the other aspects fit together. He’s a sober Christian and finally is OK not being OK. It’s part of the journey. I think the message above is great advice for all of us, including those of us seeking the Kingdom of Christ!

  3. TJH on December 17, 2020 at 2:12 pm

    Thanks for sharing this article. Tony’s tragic death has hit me pretty hard, as bad as Kobe Bryant death earlier this year. Tony’s wealth basically killed him. He was surrounded by people who want his money but not caring for him. RIP, Tony

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