Business Standard

A Silicon Valley flameout

Wonder Boy, written by the journalists Angel Au-Yeung and David Jeans, tells it from start to finish. It is a gripping, uncomfortable read

WONDER BOY: Tony Hsieh, Zappos and the Myth of Happiness in Silicon Valley

WONDER BOY: Tony Hsieh, Zappos and the Myth of Happiness in Silicon Valley

WONDER BOY: Tony Hsieh, Zappos and the Myth of Happiness in Silicon Valley
Author: Angel Au-Yeung and David Jeans
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
Pages: 384
Price: $32

A few chapters into Wonder Boy, Tony Hsieh sells his first company to Microsoft for $265 million. At 24, he is fabulously rich and one of the rising stars in the tech firmament. But he is unaccountably sad — aware, suddenly, that what he has is not enough.

So he sits down to write a list of the happiest periods in his life. “Connecting with a friend and talking through the entire night until the sun rose made me happy,” he writes. “Trick-or-treating in middle school with a group of my closest friends made me happy.”

If this moment in Hsieh’s story is suffused with dread, it is because we know how the story of this man, who so valued friendship, ends.

He died under horrifying circumstances. At 46, traveling with a crowd of personal assistants and hangers-on, he locked himself into a friend’s storage shed and asked an employee to bring him nitrous oxide, marijuana, a lighter, pizza and candles. The assistant did as he was told, and Hsieh, inebriated, started a fire. Lying on the freezing ground on a filthy blanket, he suffered smoke inhalation that would kill him.

Hsieh was a public person — lauded for his leadership of Zappos, the online shoe retailer — and much of his story appeared in the press as it unfolded. Wonder Boy, written by the journalists Angel Au-Yeung and David Jeans, tells it from start to finish. It is a gripping, uncomfortable read.

At its heart, this is a story about addiction. The child of Taiwanese immigrants, Hsieh spent his early years under extraordinary pressure to succeed. Only when he got to Harvard did he fall in with a close-knit circle of friends, enjoying a warm flush of belonging that he would spend the rest of his life trying to recreate. In his 20s, partying became wrapped into his work persona. San Francisco’s rave scene introduced him to club drugs like MDMA; and Burning Man, fatefully, to ketamine.

Au-Yeung and Jeans, who covered Hsieh’s death for Forbes, want to tell another story, though, about the dark side of the tech boom. There is something to this. In the 1990s, investors liked their founders to be risk-takers, a little extreme. In those days, the brilliant, off-the-wall founder was the brand, holding court at panel discussions before an audience of MBAs and plutocrats who lived far more careful lives.

Hsieh certainly fit the bill. He threw off grandiose ideas like sparks, scribbling them on Post-its as his subordinates scrambled to keep up. He plunged into a study of the science of happiness, an idea that had taken hold in Harvard’s psychology department, and looked for ways to engineer it. In his 30s, he announced a $350 million project to transform a corner of Las Vegas into a tech utopia, and persuaded friends to move with him into a kind of urban commune, a collection of Airstream trailers in a vacant lot, where nights ended with campfires and jam sessions.

But there was a flaw in Hsieh’s social engineering: He was trying to create community by distributing money in giant gobs. As he aged, his friends were getting younger, and less able to say no to him. His drug use, once confined to festivals, came into plain view. By 2020, Hsieh was snorting between three and five grams of ketamine daily, the authors say. He lost weight and barely slept.

Friends and family tried interventions, but his assistants found ways to deflect them. After a visit that August, his friend Jewel, the singer-songwriter, wrote him a stern letter, warning him that “when you look around and realise that every single person around you is on your payroll, then you are in trouble.” But it was too late. He was dead by Christmas.

Why didn’t anyone force Hsieh into treatment? Au-Yeung and Jeans have performed a true service by trying to find out, interviewing many of those in his inner circle. Their writing is frustratingly clunky, as if written in haste. But the material is compelling, with the gathering tension of a slow-motion disaster. The final chapters, documenting a series of interventions that went nowhere, are riveting.

The account of these last months is almost entirely drawn from anonymous sources, presumably the same friends who were there to watch him spiral. Hsieh’s family did not cooperate with the project, and one wonders how their perspective would have changed the story. Journalists tend to bend toward their most helpful sources, and this appears to have happened here. In the end, the authors default to a conclusion worthy of a TED Talk: That Hsieh was doomed because happiness is an intrinsically unreachable goal.

This is an unsatisfying ending, given the evidence they have laid out in the preceding pages.

We live in a society where people in crisis are often left to deteriorate, though seldom in such a visible and florid way. The reason to unpack these tragedies is to try to be better, to patch the holes. Our culture gives elites a pass for substance abuse. Our laws make it difficult to treat people without their consent. When wealthy celebrities unravel, they do not need sycophants. It is an ugly story. There is plenty of blame to go around.

The reviewer covers mental health for The Times; ©2023 The New York Times News Service

Don't miss the most important news and views of the day. Get them on our Telegram channel

First Published: Apr 30 2023 | 11:01 PM IST

Explore News