Tony Hsieh’s Madness Deserved Better

The entrepreneur’s death highlights society’s role

Jenara Nerenberg
5 min readDec 9, 2020

Tony Hsieh, the beloved entrepreneur and bestselling author, died just shy of his 47th birthday due to a house fire during a time of his life that can best be described as a hazy blazing fire as well, as reports come out about his final days and months on drugs and attempting to create more utopian communities. As the founder of the online shoe retailer, Zappos, he was widely known as someone who cared immensely about his customers, colleagues, and friends.

I didn’t know him personally, but like Tony, I grew up in the Bay Area, and like Tony, I struggle with cascades of mental health challenges. Our lives were very different. Our intense curiosities drove us both to intellectual pursuit, attending the same university, but while he chose entrepreneurship, I chose writing — about psychological research — a pursuit that no doubt helped me navigate my own world of madness. I fear that Tony was never offered — or never accepted — that chance, the chance to better understand psychosis or help those around him better understand it.

The way we talk about his madness matters.

As it stands right now, mental health challenges are met with one of three responses from loved ones and society, none of which are helpful: the person is either 1) shunned, 2) indulged, or 3) punished.

The way we talk about his madness matters. His lows matter just as much as his highs, and the response of friends, colleagues, and media highlight the ways in which we as a society need to speak more compassionately about madness, addiction, power, and success.

To be shunned is to be a castaway — told you don’t belong, furthering isolation.

To be indulged, like Tony was — with reports out now that friends were actually paid to indulge his utopian fantasies and drugs and act like “yes men” — is to be denied the full picture of reality.

And to be punished is to be told that you are bad, criminal, and undeserving of mercy.

It’s obvious that we need an alternative to all of these responses and the answer lies within the very narrative we hold about madness itself. Social norms are powerful…



Jenara Nerenberg

Author, Divergent Mind (HarperCollins). Journalist at UC Berkeley & Garrison. Founder, The Neurodiversity Project.