Delivering Happiness and Depression

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Poor Tony Hsieh. He had such ambitious plans to build a startup city in Downtown Las Vegas, and personally invested $350M towards the project.

But the going was rough. Outside money failed to appear, Hsieh stepped down, 30% of the staff was laid off, and three of the entrepreneurs involved in the Downtown project committed suicide in 13 months. That was 1% of the 300-person community.

In an article about the Downtown Project this week, Re/code asks: Can the pursuit of happiness kill you?

The Downtown Project has a strong focus on happiness that comes from Hsieh’s company and global movement, Delivering Happiness. Here’s how they deliver happiness:

Community. Whether it’s online on, Facebook or Twitter, or offline at our DH Town Halls and community events, we’re bringing people together. And these aren’t your ordinary folks – these are VHPs (Very Happy Persons) inspiring individuals that have made the commitment to make this world a happier place.

That might work at a rave, but just thinking about being in a room full of Very Happy Persons is enough to make me feel stabby.

Happiness does not come from osmosis. It comes from knowing what you truly value, and behaving in a way that’s consistent with those beliefs.

Delivering Happiness Bus

Every startup is a hypothesis formed from a set of beliefs. Maybe the hypothesis is that people will want to hitch a cheap ride in a stranger’s car, or that homeowners want their houses cleaned by homeless people working for minimum wage.

Growing a startup is then the execution of the scientific method. Sometimes the hypothesis is proven wrong and founders and investors learn that there were fatal flaws in their beliefs. For founders, these beliefs were so integral to their core identities that they made huge sacrifices in their pursuit. Crushing those beliefs results in the opposite of happiness.

Very Happy Person is neither a goal nor an achievement; it’s a side effect. It isn’t possible to feel happiness without making yourself vulnerable to an equal and opposite feeling. In life, there’s no downside protection for emotions, but that’s okay because the upside is limitless.

So, NO the pursuit of happiness can’t kill you. But it can make you feel pretty damn crappy sometimes.

The Asshole Correlation

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I decided I’m gonna become a badass hacker. I’ll grow into a shiftless blob and drink lots of Red Bull. And I’ll sit at my computer til the wee hours of the night, only getting up to pop another Hot Pocket in the microwave. Maybe I’ll hang out on EFnet. I don’t really want to spend a lot of time coding, cuz that’s hard, but I think I can make up for it by being extra amorphous. That’s what hackers are like, right?

Similarly, aspiring managers should follow the models of highly successful CEOs: Steve Jobs, Travis Kalanick, early Bill Gates, and Ev Williams were all relentlessly greedy assholes. The more ruthless the founder, the more successful the company. Clearly.

Travis Kalanick

Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography did the world a disservice by bringing to light all the actions Jobs took on his rise to success. Jobs withheld stock options from early team members, threw tantrums, fired employees without warning, all while building the most valuable company in the world.

With a publicized exemplar of such a successful asshole, raging egotists in management positions saw ringing endorsement for behavior they might otherwise suppress.

We don’t often cite the counterpoints: Tony Hsieh, Larry Page, and Elon Musk are genuinely nice people who built just as successful companies. But it’s more fun to talk about the assholes.

In the end, all these people built bajillion-dollar companies not because they were or were not assholes, but because they created value.

[Steve Jobs] succeeded because he was Steve Jobs. He had an uncanny sixth sense about what consumers wanted, an unmatched ability to adapt existing technology and turn it into something new, and a commitment to quality that turned ordinary Apple customers into fans for life. Being an asshole was part of the Steve package, but it wasn’t essential to his success. But that’s not a message most of the assholes in the corner offices want to hear. [1]

The problem with being an asshole is that you end up losing your allies. Jobs was fired 9 years into Apple, at the age of 30, because people finally got tired of his crap. But way back in the early days, Jobs famously screwed his cofounder Wozniak by lying about the payouts they received from Atari so that he could keep the money for himself.


It took Woz a decade to find out. Had he learned sooner, he might have decided against teaming up with such a turd. Then no one would have built the Apple I, Jobs would have had nothing to sell, and Apple as we know it would not exist.

Fred Wilson writes today that being nice pays dividends in the form of reputation. If people like you, they’ll bring you opportunities [2]. As a startup, when there isn’t a lot of capital, people aren’t just the most valuable asset, they’re the only asset.

Being a greedy asshole may generate quick returns, but it isn’t sustainable. Eventually you run out of allies.

See Also:
1. Be a Jerk: The Worst Business Lesson From the Steve Jobs Biography –the Atlantic
2. Be Nice or Leave –AVC