Nonfiction: Tony Hsieh

I’m supposed to be writing a blog entry about our new brand, Nonfiction. But I can’t stop thinking about something that happened recently.  I also can’t decide if I’m blocked by the tragedy of the story or just affected and introspective but I decided the best course of action is just to write. 

The week before last, my husband Jim was sitting at the kitchen table eating while I was at the island cooking, and casually but carefully inquired, “you heard Tony Hsieh passed this weekend?” I had not heard. Further, I was so confused about his question thinking I must have misheard him...I was thinking to myself we must know someone else named Tony Hsieh because the Tony Hsieh I’m thinking about is our age.  The Tony Hsieh I’m thinking about wrote my favorite nonfiction book ever, Delivering Happiness.  A book that proved (at least to me) that we could indeed build a homebuilding company around a delightful customer-centric experience and be successful while doing it. Certainly, not that Tony Hsieh.  He couldn’t mean him.  

He did mean him.  It was that Tony Hsieh.  My own personal business hero.  The one we hoped to glimpse when we took several members of our company on a field trip to visit Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas.  The one I got to hear speak at a meeting for the Urban Land Institute.  I even have a grainy picture of his head - you can just make out the mohawk he had at the time.  

Tony Hsieh was one of my heroes because he wasn’t afraid to be the craziest one in the room.  We take for granted that of course you can buy shoes online and if they don’t fit you can return them for free.  But at the time - that idea was as crazy as it got.  Actually, it’s still crazy.  Free shipping is a privilege not a foregone conclusion.  

He was the CEO of a shoe company but he wasn’t a shoe aficionado or an expert on shoes.  Also crazy.  He was passionate about the experience his company could design and offer their customer and create for his employees. 

Later, he would turn his attention to revitalizing downtown areas of Las Vegas and building communities of artists.  When I heard him speak at the Urban Land Institute he talked about designing these commercial and residential spaces to create collisions between people that might not ordinarily meet or ‘collide’...collisions that could lead to meaningful, if even very brief, moments of connection.  

I’ve taken so many notes from this man.  I have tried very hard to choreograph moments of connection in our sales models, our homes and all forms of written copy - from emails to contract paperwork to website copy and floorplan names.  All of it - at least the parts I’ve written - have been influenced by Tony.  Subscribing to the ethos that we could be ourselves and we could be joyful and we could create meaningful connections with everyone who came in contact with our business. Knowing his story gave me permission to accept my title as CEO of a homebuilding company even though I’m not the person that knows the most about construction or homebuilding. His story gave me permission to be the person that wanted to infuse the most joy and the most meaning into our company - for literally everyone who comes in contact with us - and still be worthy of my title.  This man was the story I could point to as the example for what we hope to create with Garman Homes.  A little crazy, but for all the right reasons.  And ultimately to lead us toward being wildly successful while delighting people along the way.  

He couldn’t be gone, he just couldn’t.  

Then I read the article about Tony’s final days published by Forbes over the weekend and I came to understand his death was so much more tragic than I realized.  I know not to believe everything I read but I have to believe that most of the article is rooted in some truth about who he was.  Or at least true enough to feel so much more sadness for him and for those around him that loved him the most. It sounds like he was gone before he was gone, if that makes sense. 

In the days since reading the Forbes article, I’ve tried to reconcile the genius of the man who started Zappos with the man who died fighting so many demons including addiction and what I’m assuming was probably a deep sense of loneliness.  I have no basis for that except my own opinion and gut feeling.  It doesn’t make it true.  What is true for me is that when I read about his final days in the context of knowing everything else I know about him, I feel a profound sense of  loneliness on his behalf.  

Today I was in the car with my husband, Jim and I was thinking about Tony again.  I asked if he read the Forbes article.  He said he skimmed for the gist.  I asked him - somewhat timidly because I knew I was speaking from a place of speculation - if he thought it was possible that Tony was using drugs to somehow dissociate from his genius in an effort to make him more like everyone else around him so he could perhaps experience more connection? Was it the price of his genius?  Was it hard to be the craziest one in the room year after year after year? Or was he, like so many others, just tragically caught in the throes of addiction.   Admittedly, I don’t know much about addiction.  I realized I was wondering and projecting all of this in an attempt to fill in the blanks from the story of the man in Delivering Happiness to the story of the man in the Forbes article.  I’m not sure why but I found myself trying to tie it all up neatly or explain it somehow.  An exercise in futility.  

What I’ve decided instead is that I don’t have to fill in the blanks in some logical way to feel respect and admiration for every chapter and verse of his story.  I can make space for his whole story.  His story is Nonfiction.  Nonfiction isn’t ‘either or’, it is ‘and’.  Nonfiction is both beautiful and tragic.  Nonfiction is both bitter and sweet.  Nonfiction is everything about our life all the time and over time.  Fiction would be glossing over one for the other.  Spending more time on either the highlight or the lowlight reel.  Nonfiction is having the courage to tell the real story and to neither apologize for or make excuses for any of it - the good, the bad or the tragic.  It’s all there as part of the whole story.  And the story, just like the man, is worthy of love, compassion, grief, meaning, and hopefully, joy.

Tony is still my hero.  

Here’s to the crazy ones and may he, like so many others, rest in peace.  

Love, Alaina

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