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Tony Hsieh’s ‘fatal quest’ for happiness revealed in new book

Updated March 15, 2022 - 6:12 am

A new book on Tony Hsieh aims to offer insight into the former Zappos CEO’s quest for happiness and his untimely death.

Authors Kirsten Grind and Katherine Sayre, both Wall Street Journal reporters, found Hsieh’s search for happiness and peace often masked his own difficulty in personally realizing those ideals.

Those external goals are perhaps best exemplified through one of his last projects in 2020, a tech utopia in Park City, Utah.

“He had this idea that he would create world peace starting in that mountain town, build this utopia, bring these thinkers and creatives and artists,” Sayre said. “He was thinking about others all the way to the end of his life.”

The duo’s book, titled “Happy at Any Cost: The Revolutionary Vision and Fatal Quest of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh,” publishes on Tuesday.

Grind and Sayre offer an in-depth portrait of Hsieh, who died in a Connecticut house fire in November 2020. Through 200 interviews, thorough readings of Hsieh’s book “Delivering Happiness” and other research, the pair details how he neglected his own mental health and well-being in his search for happiness. The pair began writing about him shortly after his death.

The authors said they found Hsieh’s creativity admirable, his passion inspiring and his quest to find happiness, despite his own struggles, fascinating.

“At the face of it, you have this guy whose whole career was clearly about happiness. Even as we were beginning to unpeel the layers of what happened and how he died, it became very clear that he was not happy,” Grind said. “Towards the end, he was in some pretty terrible circumstances. He had lost a bunch of weight, he was using nitrous oxide, he had this group of enablers around him. So we were just like, we need to look more closely at his whole life and what led to this.”

The journalists’ additional reporting sheds further light on Hsieh’s use of nitrous oxide canisters — commonly known as whippets — as a way to fuel creativity for his plans for the Park City project. They also found that many of Hsieh’s friends and family, including the singer Jewel, tried to save him during 2020 through multiple interventions.

His health had declined so much that he suffered a breakdown while on the phone with an official at Amazon, Zappos’ parent company, resulting in an informal leave of absence and his ultimate departure from the company in August 2020, according to the book.

Grind and Sayre said the book is an exploration of how mental health struggles are often hidden. They said they hope Hsieh’s story is one that can shed light on how many people can suffer quietly or portray contentedness to cover their own pain.

“It’s about the dark side of happiness and the stigma of mental health; it’s even the pressure these Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are under,” Grind said.

Still, friends and colleagues interviewed for the book emphasized that Hsieh’s last year does not represent who he was. Instead, they highlighted his unique vision and emphasis on collaboration — qualities that made him a rising star in Silicon Valley and a visionary developer in Las Vegas.

“The book does capture what the world really lost when Tony died, all the great things he did, including the great things he did for Las Vegas,” Sayre said. “It looks at some of the causes for his death, and maybe things that could have prevented it. I hope readers, including readers in Las Vegas, will appreciate that.”

The 320-page book was published by Simon & Schuster. Hardcover copies are listed for $27.99.

In an homage to one of Hsieh’s passions — RVs — the authors will drive the Grind family’s 24-foot 1999 Jamboree from the California Bay Area to Las Vegas in April for a book signing and meet-and-greet. The event will be held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on April 8 at the Intuitive Forage Farmers Market, 300 N. Casino Center Blvd.

McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at mross@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mckenna_ross_ on Twitter.

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