My Battle with Misdirected Ambition
Wanting—my book about mimetic desire—is now out. Here’s a sneak preview of the Prologue.
This is a special midnight edition of the Anti-Mimetic newsletter because my book, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life, is now out. Below is the prologue.
In the summer of 2008, I experienced the moment many start-up founders live for: I learned that I would be able to cash out on my company’s success. After an intense period of courtship spanning several months, I was on my way to have celebratory drinks with the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh. Zappos was going to acquire my e-commerce company for wellness products, FitFuel .com.
About an hour earlier, Tony had sent me a direct message on Twitter (his preferred form of communication at the time) asking me to meet him at the Foundation Room, a bar on the sixty-third floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas. I knew that he had attended a board meeting earlier that day and that one of the agenda items was the acquisition. He wouldn’t be inviting me to the Strip if the news was not good.
I’d been pacing around my house all day. I needed the deal to go through. Fit Fuel was burning through cash. Despite our rapid growth over the past two years, the coming months looked ominous. The Federal Reserve had gone into bailout mode and held an emergency meeting to keep the giant investment bank Bear Stearns from going under. The housing market was crashing. I needed to raise a round of investment, but investors were spooked. All of them told me to come back in a year — but I didn’t have a year.
Neither Tony nor I knew at the time how volatile 2008 would turn out to be. At the start of the year, Zappos had exceeded its operating profit goals and decided to award all of its employees generous bonuses. By the end of the year — only eight months after the bonuses were doled out — Zappos would have to lay off 8 percent of its workforce. Already that summer, Zappos’s board members and experienced investors, led by Sequoia Capital, were tightening their belts.
When I got the invitation from Tony, I sped from my home in Henderson, Nevada, to the Strip, blasting old-school hip-hop and letting out intermittent yelps of relief and excitement through the sunroof so that by the time I got there I might seem calm.
In those days Zappos was a nine-year-old company that had recently surpassed $1 billion in sales. Tony conducted unorthodox social experiments, such as offering new hires up to $2,000 to leave the company after their orientation (the idea was that this would separate out employees who were not passionate enough about working there from those who were). The company was well known for its idiosyncratic culture.
Culture is what Tony seemed to like best about Fit Fuel. When he and the other Zappos top brass came to visit our offices and warehouse, they told me how much they liked what they saw: we were scrappy (because understaffed), zany (because everyone at the company was a character), and just the right amount of weird (because we had the trappings of a start-up, like hookah pipes and beanbag chairs).
Tony told me that he wanted me to run the operation as a new division within Zappos. I would build the company’s next billion-dollar vertical. Shoes had been the first. Wellness would be the second.
In addition to life-changing money and Zappos equity, I’d be part of a respected leadership team and get paid a nice salary. (I hadn’t drawn a regular salary from my companies, ever, and I craved that stability.)
I was not what anyone would call a Zappos “culture fit.” But since we were talking about joining forces, I started conforming myself more to the mold of the Zappos culture to make things work.
In my desperation to sell the company, I told Tony everything that I thought he wanted to hear. I had heterodox views about the Zappos culture, out of step with the media’s portrayal — but I buried them. It’s easy to be an armchair contrarian. It’s hard to take contrarian action: to question the dominant narrative, to be honest with yourself, to tell the truth even when the immediate outcome is pain — like losing the chance to sell my company, and instead getting buried under an avalanche of debt.
I try to have skin in the game. This time I had too much.
I’d spent the last few months getting to know Tony. We met after I sent him a cold email and he invited me to lunch at Claim Jumper, a restaurant near the Zappos HQ in Henderson, a suburb of Las Vegas. When I showed up for what I thought was a casual get-to-know-you lunch with him, at least six senior executives were sitting around the table waiting for me. It was an interview. I never had time to touch my clam chowder.
After lunch, Tony and I walked back to his office together. He stopped along the way and put his hands in his pockets as if he was fumbling for change. “So I wouldn’t be doing my job,” he said, “if I didn’t ask you if you’d be open to joining forces.” I said yes, and the next few months seemed like a wild engagement period. I was invited to Zappos happy hours, parties at Tony’s house, and early morning hikes up Black Mountain.
Tony didn’t look like a guy who had millions. He had sold the first company he co-founded, LinkExchange, to Microsoft for $265 million in 1998 at the age of twenty-four. But he dressed in plain jeans and a Zappos T-shirt and drove a dirty Mazda 6. Within a few weeks of hanging out with him, I ditched my True Religions (I know) and started shopping at the Gap. I began to wonder if I should drive an older and dirtier car.
I had co-founded Fit Fuel about three years before I met Tony, in 2005. We had a grandiose mission statement to make healthier foods more accessible for everyone in the world. I chipped away, day after day, making steady progress and learning how to lead a growing company. But even as our sales increased and accolades rolled in, I experienced a declining desire to go into the office every day.
Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9–5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich hit shelves while I was struggling to figure things out. If I’m working more than four hours a week, I must be doing something wrong, I thought. I began frantically looking around for better models of entrepreneurship, but I couldn’t be sure who was telling the truth.
Meeting Tony only amplified my despair. I was shooting for $10 million in sales. Zappos was doing $1 billion. From my perspective, Tony occupied an alternate reality — the one in which unicorn founders live. I couldn’t seem to break in.
I experienced a sort of existential vertigo, like I was jumping off the top of a skyscraper onto a giant trampoline that catapulted me back to the top before I plunged back down again. What I wanted seemed to change daily: more respect and status, less responsibility; more capital, fewer investors; more public speaking, more privacy; an intense lust for money followed by extreme bouts of virtue signaling involving the word social. I even vacillated between wanting to bulk up and trying to slim down.
The most troubling thing to me was that the desire that led me to start and build my company was gone. Where did it go? Where had it come from in the first place? My desires felt like rom-com love — things I fell into rather than things I chose. (By the way, did you know that in almost every language in the world, people fall in love? Nobody rises up into it.)
Meanwhile, the internal conflict between my co-founder and me got worse until we agreed to go our separate ways. I took over as sole leader of the company at the very time I had lost the desire to lead.
It was clear that there were mysterious forces outside myself that affected what I wanted and how intensely I wanted it. I couldn’t make any serious decisions until I knew more about them. I couldn’t start another company. I was even hesitant about the thought of getting married someday, knowing that my desire for something (or someone) one day might be gone the next. Discovering what those forces were seemed like a responsibility.
The day after my celebration drinks with Tony on the Vegas Strip, I took a friend on a tour of the Zappos headquarters, excited to show him my future home. As we walked by Monkey Row (Zappos jargon for the place where the executives sit), I noticed that the execs’ faces looked like they’d seen a ghost. We had an awkward exchange.
It was the bad feeling before a breakup.
My friend and I went out for dinner later that night. In the middle of our pastas I received a call from Alfred Lin, who between 2005 and 2010 was the CFO, COO, and chairman of Zappos.
Alfred sounded somber. Then he told me why.
After the official board meeting, the Zappos board of directors had had a second meeting on the plane back to San Francisco and decided to put any immediate plans on hold. There would be no acquisition. “They changed their minds,” he said.
“They changed their minds?” I asked.
“Yeah. I don’t know what more to say,” Alfred said. “I’m sorry.”
“They changed their minds?” I kept asking the same question, and Alfred kept telling me the same thing. I kept mouthing the words after I hung up the phone, but this time as a statement, not a question. “They changed . . . their minds.” I repeated it as I walked back to the table, sat down, and stared into my bowl of bad spaghetti, prodding and twirling it endlessly, making perfect bites only to unravel them and start all over again.
There would be no life-changing exit, no windfall, no second home in Sicily. Worse, my company was on the rocks. Without the Zappos deal, I’d be bankrupt within six months. As the full import of how my life was about to change sank in and I drained my Chianti, something changed.
I was relieved.
Note: I learned of Tony’s tragic death last year shortly after this book had been written. My heartfelt condolences go to his family and all those who knew and loved him.
The first 25 people who place an order for Wanting starting June 1st and send me the receipt (firstname.lastname@example.org) will receive access to a free motivational profile (which I explain in Chapter 6 of the book)—normally a $49 cost. Winners will receive the gift by June 7. (Order must be placed on June 1 or later to qualify. If you’ve already ordered, thank you! You can still enter this giveaway by ordering a copy for a friend.) And I’d be very grateful if you share this with at least one person you know.
Adapted From WANTING: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life by Luke Burgis. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.