Today's Reading

These days I spend part of my time mentoring aspiring entrepreneurs. Their ambition to build a better world and live full, meaningful lives inspires me. But I worry that if they don't understand how desire works, they'll wind up disappointed.

The idea of being an entrepreneur has high mimetic value these days. Nearly every budding entrepreneur I know is motivated to achieve some form of freedom. But running your own company does not automatically lead to more freedom. Sometimes it leads to the opposite. We think of entrepreneurs as the ultimate renegades, not bound to a 9-to-5 desk job or serving as a middle-management cog in a sclerotic machine. Yet thinking that you don't have a traditional boss might just mean that mimetic desire is your tyrant. I push my students to look deeper.

I can't guarantee them success in business, but I can guarantee that by the time they leave my class they will not be wanting naively. They will move forward choosing majors, starting companies, finding partners, and reading the news with a better awareness of what's happening inside them. That awareness is the precondition for change.

There are certain insights that, once you see them, begin to seep into your experience of daily living. An understanding of mimetic desire is one of them. Once you know how it works, you will start to see how it explains much of the world around you. And that will include not just the family member whose weird lifestyle you would never choose, or the politics in your workplace, or the friend who cares about social media too much, or the colleague who brags about their kid who got into Harvard. It will include you. You will see it in yourself.


PROLOGUE

Unexpected Relief

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).
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