We are nurtured to have heroes, and we all choose our heroes for the qualities that they have that speak to us directly.  Our heroes to us often fit the narrative that we want them to fit and like us, our heroes are flawed, and that’s ok.  Because from those heroes we find aspiration and dreams. My childhood heroes were astronauts and athletes, and growing up in a world before the internet, my knowledge of them was left up to the pages of books, or maybe short stories on the television.

As an adult our heroes change, and mature, again, like us. When I was going through my Guide training for the Horizons, Huntsman Leadership Summit one of the activities that we participated in was a listing and discussion of our “Leadership Heroes”.  The name that I put on that board was the name of a man that I didn’t know in person, but had interacted with in an online space, via a much friendlier and happier Twitter. That man, leader, was Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos.

Hsieh passed away earlier this month and like many heroes, the stories at the time of passing don’t paint the picture of the man you once looked up to so much.  That is very ok to me because the value of my fallen hero is not tarnished by his personal struggles, but my heart is heavy that his own quest for happiness was never reached.

A photo from the conclusion of our Zappos Headquarters tour in 2009.

I first heard of Tony in an Inc Magazine story that talked about Zappos core values. I was intrigued by this soft-spoken genius, his desire to create something that nobody was doing and to have fun do it. Tony at that time was very approachable on Twitter and was often quick to respond. One conversation with Tony led to an invitation for us to come to Las Vegas to tour the headquarters of the Zappos.  I will never forget that trip, my wife, 10 months pregnant and sister came along in tow. Both of them had heard of Zappos from me, but neither knew much about the company, the culture, and I’m sure were quite curious about why we were there. The tour was an amazing experience, with cubicles of fun, friendly, and smiling faces who would cheer and celebrate as we passed by. I never met Tony on that day, although, I spent the entire tour hoping that he would be present and we could meet in person.

I was drawn to Tony and Zappos for a few reasons – the main reason, however, I love serving others and helping others find happiness, often putting the needs of others ahead of myself, but I love that feeling of creating moments of happiness.  I became obsessed with corporate culture and building my team at work to be a fun, and positive place to be. I still pride myself on that today. Zappos, built to serve the way that Tony envisioned was all about “putting the wow in service.” Myself working in the hospitality industry, where the level of service matters – Zappos was a great case study.

I also remember when Tony’s book, Delivering Happiness, was announced.  That was the first book that Every Day, Getting Better, got an advanced copy of.  My copy came signed by the author himself, a softbound book, like many pre-release versions, are, I devoured the book.  Still today, I giggle about Tony’s worm farm as a child – the drive and desire to do more, faster, better.  I even purchased a dozen of the books when it was published and gave them as gifts – it is still my most gifted book.

The interaction with Tony that stands out the most was in July 0f 2008.  I had been selected to give the closing keynote to a group of emerging college leaders for the Sigma Chi Fraternity. These undergrads were young men who were aspiring towards leadership positions within their chapter but were still sharpening their tools as far as how to lead.

My question to Tony was simple but potentially hard to fit into 140 characters.  “Tony, If you had a chance to sit down with 200 young college leaders and give them advise*  on life and their decisions, what would it be?”
*(looks like I chose the wrong word in my tweet)

Tony’s reply has resonated with me every day for the last 12 years, also crafted into 140 characters. “advice: make sure whatever u do, it’s something you’re so passionate about doing you would enjoy doing for 10 yrs (years) even if no $ (money).”

Tony Hsieh advice

That message is one that I continue to share with undergrads every opportunity that I get. So often we chase short term gains and do not explore the impact on our choices over time. Likewise, as it applies to the pursuit of happiness, the luster of those short-term gains diminishes, but over the course of a decade, the motivation of that pursuit, if something that you still love will have lasted the ultimate test, of time. Very few people do something that they do not like for ten plus years, without compensation.

I want to explore that tweet as it applies to my life and also how it applies to Tony’s last days. For myself, let’s start with the activity that spurned that interaction with Tony, my volunteer work with the Sigma Chi Fraternity. I have proudly served as a volunteer in many roles since my graduation from college (2002). My wife will often joke, when will they start to pay you for your time? That time, which often adds up to multiple hundreds of hours per year, thousands of miles flown, and weeks of nights away from my family. All done with passion and without any monetary compensation. This alumni journey and call to serve was just starting to take root back in 2008, when I received the direct message from Tony, which was rooted in those who mentored me during my undergraduate days and through friendships formed during my alumni journey. Today the friendships that I hold most significant in my life, are Brothers who have chosen the same transaction for their bank of time.

Outside of Sigma Chi, my coaching in high school basketball is my next most passionate pursuit. I started coaching in 1997, only taking two years off while in the middle journey of my undergraduate education. The opportunity to mentor young student-athletes has always been less about X’s and O’s, win and loses, and more about life. I have coached with many coaches over the years who could tell you their win and loss record. I even remember an ass chewing from a coach in high school after his team lost because that loss would give that coach his first losing season as a player or coach. This season marks my 22nd season as a coach, and as if Tony was in my ear, the first in that I will forgo the stipend and coach as a volunteer assistant.

This decision was less about the financial loss and more about that pursuit for a new experience, a place where I felt that my time and talents could be most beneficial and being part of a program that I take great pride in. While this may break the mold of the tweet, the intention is not lost – it’s about finding happiness.

While I only know what the media has shared about Tony’s last months, it has been reported that he was paying his friends “twice the largest salary they had ever made”, as a trade-off to live and party with him in Utah, just be present and be happy. The irony is not lost on me that the monetary bribe created an atmosphere where when Tony’s self-destructive behaviors were at their worse, his friends were not in a place to help. Maybe they tried, but in the end, it doesn’t appear that their efforts were impactful.

**I am making the conscious decision to not link to stories about Tony’s last days, as that is not the focus of this story**

I am thankful for all of the lessons learned from Tony, perhaps his influence on my life was greater than any other person whom I never met in person. As we embark on 2021, and all desire to break the “new normal” that became the last 3/4 of 2020, I would encourage you all to go out and chase something that gives you passion. Chase it with your heart and chase it for happiness.

In like manner, take care of your friends, if you see them struggling, step in, and help them.

Thank you, Tony, I will continue to live in the wow! You will be missed, my friend.

Delivering Happiness autograph