Tony Hsieh and the Double-Edged Sword

April 20, 2021

Wealth is a double-edged sword.

I am in no way opposed to the accumulation of wealth. But, just like a double-edged sword, it must be wielded with care and respect.

On November 27, 2020, the world lost an icon way too soon. Tony Hsieh died of complications from smoke inhalation in a house fire. Hsieh had many successes. The one for which he was most recognized was creating the online shoe company Zappos in 1999. Ten years later, Amazon bought Zappos for $1.2 billion.

Our culture tends to make wealthy people into icons, informing us about their lifestyles and how they spend their money —think Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Oprah, Andrew Carnegie, etc. All of these individuals made substantial contributions to our society and our culture. So did Tony Hsieh.

Hsieh was a man with a purpose: creating happiness. That purpose was evident in the many ventures he pioneered. Zappos is an online store driven by a customer-first, no-questions-asked return policy. He invested $350 million into downtown Las Vegas, turning an undesirable, often ignored area into an arts, cultural and tech hub. There, he created a community of Airstream trailers, one of which he lived in for years. As a business leader, he became an evangelist.  Everything you need to know about Hsieh you can glean from the title of his book, Delivering Happiness: A Path To Profits, Passion and Purpose.

Yet Hsieh was in pain. According to his closest friends, Hsieh craved nonstop action. He was known as a heavy drinker. More recently he had started to use recreational drugs. His family and friends saw that there was a problem and tried to intervene. As a result, he further isolated himself from the people who knew him best and cared about him the most.

This is a sad, yet common tale, a pattern of behavior of a person who is trying to avoid experiencing internal emotions or self-awareness. It is a common misconception that people use drugs to feel good. In truth, people use drugs to avoid feeling bad. The “feeling good” concept is one that is shared by the drug user, often because they can’t identify or articulate what the good feeling is covering up or allowing them to avoid: some type of negative emotion or emotional experience.

Wealth does not inoculate you to premature death, either by accident or suicide. Financial resources may provide a person with the means to do great things in the world – starting a foundation, giving philanthropically, creating businesses that allow others to attain financial means. That is one side of the sword. It can also lead to isolation, exclusivity and distraction from what one is actually experiencing internally and emotionally. This is the other side of the sword.

Self-awareness is the skill that allows us to wield this double-edged sword without harming ourselves or others. As we strive to accumulate financial resources to achieve freedom from want and insecurity, be mindful that far wealthier people could not achieve that type of freedom even with far greater resources. This is because freedom from want and insecurity are psychological concepts that are not satisfied by wealth. They are satisfied through self-awareness, introspection and understanding why we are here and who we are in the world.

I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note.

Wishing everyone a wonderful holiday, and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!

Let’s keep cultivating our culture, together!

Photo credit: Delivering Happiness Book

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