The Preventable Death of Zappos Executive Tony Hsieh


By Marilyn Heywood Paige

Untreated mental illness wins. Every. Time.

I’ve suspected it for years because I have family and friends who suffer from mental illnesses and I navigate anxiety and depression. So, I am well aware of the personal cost of untreated mental disorders. However, reading “Happy at Any Cost: The Revolutionary Vision and Fatal Quest of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh” by Kirsten Grind and Katherine Sayre confirmed that untreated mental illness is a ticking time bomb. Even someone as wildly successful and beloved as Hsieh (pronounced Shay) could not outmaneuver his mental illness, and it led to his ultimate demise.

The Life of Tony Hsieh

If you’re unfamiliar with Tony Hsieh, here’s the Cliffs Notes. He graduated from Harvard in 1995 and the following year, co-founded LinkExchange, one of the first successful dot coms.
Tony’s vision of the future of internet advertising and his ability to execute his vision paid massive dividends. As the company CEO, Tony "grew the site within 90 days to over 20,000 participating web pages . . . By 1998, the site had over 400,000 members and 5 million ads rotated daily. In November 1998, he and his partners sold LinkExchange to Microsoft for $265 million. Hsieh netted $40 million from the sale.
Hsieh then invested in the online shoe retailer Zappos and eventually became its CEO, starting with $1.6 million in total sales in 2000. Zappos was one of the first companies to offer free shipping and free returns, eliminating customers' reluctance to buy shoes online. (Remember, it was 2000. People remained wary of making purchases online)
Zappos reached revenues of $1 billion by 2009, and Amazon bought the company in July of that year. Hsieh is said to have made at least $214 million from the sale. On August 24, 2020, Hsieh retired as the CEO of Zappos after 21 years at the helm. At the time of his death, Hsieh was worth an estimated $850 million.


A Leader With A Vision for Creating Happiness

Those are the dates and numbers of his life, and they are impressive, but what Hsieh did that was remarkable was he created a culture at Zappos that revolved around customer service and honoring the weirdness in everyone. He taught employees how to wow customers by being authentic and empathetic and doing whatever it took to solve their problems. He injected joy and fun into everything, and his employees and customers loved him for it.
His 2010 book, Delivering Happiness, debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times Best Seller List and stayed on it for 27 consecutive weeks. The book detailed Tony’s ideas behind the culture of Zappos and how thinking long term and following your passions first can lead to not just profits, but a happy life for you, your employees, and customers. 
But while creating trendsetting companies, Tony was camouflaging his mental illness. He was exceedingly bright and had developed multiple coping skills to hide his social anxiety, depression, and face blindness (a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to recognize faces). He drank often and to excess. Much of Zappos’ culture revolved around drinking and parties. Everyone accepted Tony’s constant drinking in that environment. And because no one was with him all day, he could mask how much he consumed. Over time, his needs escalated, and he used ketamine, hallucinogens, and nitrous oxide to self-medicate.


Tony Hsieh Reminded Me of My Sister

Throughout the book, I kept thinking about my sister, Maun, a brilliant woman with a mind like Tony’s, who has bipolar disorder. Tony’s behavior resembled my sister’s in the years when she was still undiagnosed. Maun was beautiful and charismatic, had boatloads of friends, and was sneaky at maintaining her drug and alcohol abuse. In my childhood, I thought she was mean, angry, and crazy. I dreaded being around her. It wasn’t until doctors diagnosed her with bipolar disorder in her 30s that I realized how much she had been hurting her whole life.
At the time of her diagnosis, she explained that before being treated for bipolar disorder, drugs and alcohol were the only way she could feel comfortable in her skin. So, nothing could keep her from them. Her words echoed as I read about Tony’s irrational behavior in his last living year. Drugs and alcohol likely made his mental illnesses bearable, but as those substances eventually do, they enslave and destroy the user.
After being diagnosed and treated, Maun got clean and sober, but she suffered many heartbreaking consequences from her years of drug and alcohol abuse. The worst was losing her nursing license and the career she loved and excelled at. Not being a nurse was akin to losing her identity; she was drug free but had lost her calling.


Mental Illness and Addiction Are Still Taboo

As anyone in the medical field knows, if you are caught with illicit drugs, you’ll lose your license to practice. It’s why many physicians and nurses don’t seek treatment. And why many CEOs don’t either. Leaders like Tony may not have a license at risk, but they will lose their seat in the C-suite. The stigma attached to mental illnesses is still very much alive and well in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. For Tony, it was better to be seen as a heavy drinker and experimental drug user than mentally ill.

The More Successful, The More At Risk

People like Tony and my sister suffer without help for decades because their intelligence makes them crafty at hiding their addictions and the mental disorders they disguise. Their natural charisma makes people adore them and not want to risk their friendship by calling them out about their troublesome behavior. And being in a career that the stigma of mental illness could ruin, they don’t seek treatment. Instead, they find better ways to hide it.
The details of Tony Hsieh’s death were shocking and in stark contrast to his generous and happy character. The coroner’s report said he died in a tragic accident from smoke inhalation, but after reading about the years that preceded this “accident,” I think it was anything but. It was death by untreated mental illness. We lost a beautiful visionary in Tony Hsieh. His death was preventable and taught us that oodles of money, love, and success can’t outrun mental illness.

Addiction Often Goes Hand In Hand With Mental Illness

My sister lost everything, including her livelihood, before she was diagnosed and treated. But in sobriety, she earned back her nursing license. It took her a decade, but she did it, and I am still in awe of her determination and perseverance. I learned from Maun that sometimes the people who are the most difficult to be around are in the most pain. She’s alive and thriving today because she was successfully diagnosed and treated. I wish Tony's family and friends could say the same.


Further Reading

Entrepreneurs & Mental Health

The Wall Street Journal published The Death of Zappos’s Tony Hsieh: A Spiral of Alcohol, Drugs and Extreme Behavior. The CALDA Clinic published The Truth About the Mental Health of CEOs.

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