The World Needs More Tonys
“No matter what your past has been, you have a spotless future.” — Tony Hsieh
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One quick bit of personal news, I submitted a nearly 4,000-word nonfiction story to Slice Magazine exactly on the submission deadline yesterday. Yay, procrastination! I won’t know if I got in for months, but you all will be the first to know. Actually, that’s not true. I’ll for sure tell my wife and family first. If nothing else, I’m proud of myself for getting it done and I’m definitely not at all fishing for compliments in the slightest.
Aaaannnnnyyyywwwaay…I hope you enjoy today’s read.
“No matter what your past has been, you have a spotless future.”
— Tony Hsieh
There’s a stoic philosophy concept called Momento Mori that I think of often. Translated from Latin, it means “remember that you will die.” The idea is that you regularly remember that someday your life will end—as it does for all of us. There’s no escaping it. Unless Elon Musk decides to take that on next.
The exercise isn’t designed to make you feel depressed or that life is hopeless. Instead, it’s to remind you that your time on this Earth is precious so you should savor life and not waste your days away.
Those of you who work in tech undoubtedly heard the news that Tony Hsieh passed away last week. If you’re not familiar, he was the distinctive and idiosyncratic founder of Zappos, the online shoe retailer. He became famous in tech circles for his book “Delivering Happiness” about the company’s ground-breaking approach to customer service, as well as his manager-less experiment called holocracy. More recently, he spent millions of dollars and played a large role in the revitalization of Downtown Las Vegas where Zappos is based.
I never met Tony, but I’ve always admired his approach to business and life from afar. By all accounts, he was an incredibly generous and magnanimous human being. The outpouring of support shared on Twitter has stuck with me since I heard about his death nearly a week ago.
Tony died at the age of forty-six of complications from smoke inhalation during a house fire. It’s always sad when someone who had such a positive impact on the world dies. It’s even sadder when that person dies at a young age.
Part of the reason his death has been on my mind so much is that he was only three years older than me. That hit me hard.
Tony’s death not only reminded me that I will die but also reminded me that I could die tomorrow, or months from now, or three years from now when I’m his age. Yet thinking about everything he accomplished and all the people he impacted during his short time on Earth left me feeling inspired and motivated. Odds are I will live well past forty-six, but that doesn’t mean I should fritter my time away now.
My grandma Elaine on my mom’s side passed away on October 22nd at the age of eighty-nine. She was my last living grandma. She was generous and savvy. Yet she was stubborn and tough, as well, which is probably why she lived for so long.
She once fell down at her house and belly-crawled to her phone. Not to call 9-1-1. No, to call my aunt Barbara first and ask her to come over and unlock her front door before the paramedics got there so they wouldn’t bust through her screen door to get into her house.
There were many struggles in her life, but she was always stoic. My mom recently told me she doesn’t ever remember my grandma crying. I never saw that either. I remember her laughing, but never getting emotional in other ways.
Her first husband, my mom’s father, died in a car crash on New Year’s Eve when my mom was only six months old. My grandma was in the car at the time, as well, but she wasn’t seriously injured. Later on, she and her second husband Vic (who I called grandpa growing up) also got in a crash in their camper van. Her right forearm was crushed and she had to have reconstructive surgery and skin grafted onto it. It was virtually unusable for the rest of her life. Grandpa Vic wasn’t hurt in the crash, although he died years later in 2005 due to other unrelated health issues.
Every year since her accident, she gave all her kids and grandkids a generous check around Christmas time. That’s how she showed her love for her family.
Until Vic was in the picture, she raised five daughters as a single mother. She outlived her first and second daughters and her first grandson—my cousin Greg who died of a heroin overdose in her house and who I think might’ve had an undiagnosed learning disability.
That was the confounding thing about her. She had built up fairly substantial wealth by buying properties throughout the years—an incredible feat considering she only ever worked as a grocery store butcher and had no college degree. She could easily afford professional in-home care as she aged. Yet she allowed people to live with and care for her who traded their time between her house and a prison cell. It was baffling to me. She must have felt indebted to them or thought she was helping them in some way. My parents and many others spent an inordinate amount of time trying to convince her to change her ways, but as I said, she was stubborn.
I wasn’t all that close to her in her later years. Conversations with her often felt stilted and forced. But I knew she cared deeply about my daughter Em who has cerebral palsy. It showed in how often she asked about Em in conversations with both me and my mom. It showed in her generosity when she bought toys and an iPad for Em for no reason other than she wanted to.
This is weird, but I think in my grandma’s eyes, Em and my cousin Greg were similar. They both were dealt a tough hand in life and she loved them and wanted to help take care of them.
I wish I could’ve heard more stories about her life, but she was guarded about sharing them. Even without those stories, she taught me that there are myriad ways to show love.
My dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the spring of 2017. It came as a complete surprise. He received the unexpected news when he was at home in Las Vegas and my mom was in Sonoma, CA where I live. She received the call from my dad and I booked a flight for her to get back home that same evening. Their life hasn’t been the same since.
My parents had retired and moved to Vegas from Los Gatos, CA only a couple of years prior to getting his diagnosis. They were enjoying the retired life in the 55+ community they live in called Sun City. My dad was getting into woodworking, he was riding his new road bicycle, they made lots of new friends, and threw parties at their house occasionally.
It’s unfair that he worked his ass off for so many years to then retire and only get to enjoy it for such a short amount of time. But as the old adage goes, life is unfair.
He’s been put through so many different types of treatment I couldn’t possibly name them all. But recently, his doctors have hit a wall. The chemo he was on until about a month ago is not working anymore. His lab numbers are headed in the wrong direction. The cancer is spreading and he’s starting to feel more pain.
Since his diagnosis, we have been much closer. We talk more often and talk about fewer superficial topics. That’s been one positive that’s come out of it. I wish we could visit in person more, but alas Covid makes that difficult. Not to mention the regular treatment and testing appointments he has.
I can’t begin to understand what it feels like for him to have something growing inside his body that’s slowly killing him. He’s forced to live each day with the uncertainty about how much time he has left. Memento Mori—remembering he will die—is a daily occurrence for him, whether he wants to think about it or not. Every little pain is a reminder of what’s to come.
He’s told me he isn’t afraid to die. I believe him. He’s sad that he’s going to miss seeing his grandchildren grow up. And he’s going to miss seeing my brother and me grow older (and hopefully wiser). I’m going to miss him too. There will be times when I’ll want to pick up the phone and share some good news with him, but he won’t be there to answer.
In a way, I’m thankful for the perspective his cancer has given me. It’s better than him suddenly passing away without warning. It has made me more mindful of how short life can seem and it has impacted how I think about my family, career, health, and creativity.
These experiences with death and impending death have a way of snapping the rest of life into focus.
I want to live my life as Tony did. Be generous with family. Be generous with friends. Be generous in public. Be ambitious. Be mindful. And enjoy the life I have left—even if it might end tomorrow.
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I cried reading this piece. Well done!
Lyle, this was so beautifully written, and so very powerful.