Rating for Bad Blood: 10/10
Rating for Man’s Search for Meaning: 7/10
Best line from Bad Blood: I’m fairly certain that she [Holmes] didn’t initially set out to defraud investors and put patients in harm’s way when she dropped out of Stanford fifteen years ago. But in her all-consuming quest to be the second coming of Steve Jobs … there came a point where she stopped listening to sound advice and began to cut corners.
Best line from Man’s Search for Meaning: What [people] actually need is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.
The first chapter of Bad Blood is titled “A Purposeful Life”. Within the first few paragraphs, we learn that Elizabeth Holmes had a strong purpose fully established at a very young age. She wanted to be a billionaire.
From the instant I read this, I thought of Victor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning. There was a clear and obvious connection between Elizabeth Holmes and Frankl’s central thesis. As seen in the quoted line at the top, Frankl claims that we all need to strive and struggle towards a worthwhile goal. Emphasis on the term “worthwhile”.
Is the desire to become a billionaire a worthwhile goal? I doubt it. What Carreyrou demonstrates in Bad Blood is pretty evident: the all-consuming quest to achieve such a goal can lead to a great deal of harm. The ends do not justify the means.
Articles on this site are categorized by the three Greek elements of persuasion: logos, pathos, and ethos. This week is the first time to dive into topics that touch the ethos. Logos and pathos, aka the head and the heart, are easy topics. Ethos is a bit harder. I think it’s partly because the stuff of ethics feels preachy or just plain obvious. There is little surprise there. We all know what is ethical. Sortof.
Yet stories like Bad Blood abound. Today’s effort is to combine the lessons of both books to make the ethical choice either more easy or, at the least, more obvious.
The Difficulty of Two BHAGs
Elizabeth Holmes had a big goal, the kind of goal that constitutes BHAG status. A BHAG is a term coined by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. It’s an acronym that stands for “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal”. These goals are naturally the stuff of meaning and purpose. Collins takes a lot of effort in his book to make sure people develop the right BHAG. He fully recognizes that the wrong one can be a disaster.
At first introduction, it appears that Holmes is someone whose BHAG is clearly wrong. The lifelong goal of becoming a billionaire seems quite shallow.
It’s only part of the story, however. Carreyrou does a great job of showing that a billion dollars isn’t the only thing Holmes wanted. To put it simply, she also wanted to “make a difference”. It is wrong to describe her in any other way. Over time, she developed her concepts for medical devices to a level that seemed quite impactful—assuming the devices worked. With the salable idea, she started her company and it was off to the races, chasing a two-part dream of becoming a billionaire and making a difference.
Two BHAGs. That’s a problem. The complexity behind Holmes’ motivations creates a lot of confusion and mistakes. After all, what matters more? The billion dollars or making a difference? They aren’t mutually exclusive but the order matters a lot.
Bad Blood is essentially a story of what happens when the financial (extrinsic) motivation takes precedent over the compassionate (intrinsic) motivation. I think Holmes tried really hard to maintain both at all times. This is exhausting if not impossible. Ultimately, the financial rewards won out and the fraud began. Sure, it was well-intentioned fraud (sortof) but fraud all the same.
Selfless Purpose Can Fulfill Selfish Goals
To dive deeper into Holmes’ motivations, from which everything else emerged, I’m reminded of a passage from Frankl’s book:
Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.
That last part is the real distinction. Success must come as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself.
If Theranos had been built on the singular BHAG of advancing the human condition, with the whole billion-dollar goal essentially being secondary or nonexistent, the history would be radically different. They might not have enjoyed a billion dollars but they wouldn’t have been a fraud either. The more selfless purpose can, and usually does, fulfill the selfish goals.
This isn’t as pious as it may sound. It’s just good business sense. Customer service. A medical device company that doesn’t actually help people get healthier won’t be in business for long; even with the money Theranos had.
Simply put, the financial-first approach doesn’t have a great track record. This is what distinguishes the Scully vs Jobs era at Apple.
Never Make A Person Feel A Loss of Agency
As important as purpose and meaning is, a lesson from both books relates to the danger that comes when people are robbed of their sense of control. It’s a serious issue. One can manage without a sense of purpose for some time but I don’t think anyone can manage without a sense of control. There are extreme instances of this danger in both books and I cannot do proper justice to those stories. However, in the more rudimentary workplace version, there are still some valuable insights.
Throughout the story, the employees at Theranos were subjected to the worst security requirements I’ve ever heard. Everything was tracked and recorded—screen activity, printer usage, building entry and exit, total time. And all information was restricted from the separate departments. No one on engineering knew what was happening in the lab. Even in the lab, teams were kept separate with no information shared. On and on it went. You couldn’t use a USB stick. You couldn’t forward your emails to a personal account.
A person had no right to know what was happening anywhere else at any time.
It got worse if you were fired. The non-disclosure agreements and the heavy threat of litigation meant that many former employees were hounded, even watched by private investigators, for years after their departure. Any hint of a possible violation of the NDA brought immediate threats of lawsuits.
Everyone was expected to work long hours. No one was allowed to leave without permission. When Sunny was his usual black hat villainous self, you couldn’t fight back.
It recalled something from Frankl’s writings: Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
The trouble is always deepest when people no longer see that they have a choice. I’ve seen it in the workplace. It’s the highest form of trauma I think can occur. Is there a lesson?
Maybe. The best I can find is the emphasis from our previous insights from the book Influencer. A great leader must recognize that they cannot make anyone do anything without appealing to the two-part calculus of value and ability. A fine leader never flirts with another person’s sense of agency; instead, they cultivate it. Anything less is abuse. Wholly unethical and just plain lazy, too.
The Type Of Person Who Takes A Stand
There isn’t a One True Hero in Bad Blood but there are very brave individuals who risk their career, financial security, and reputation to put a stop to the harm Theranos created. These are the few who didn’t simply resign but also became the proverbial whistleblowers. Why?
To borrow from a great article, these individuals had a certain level of individuality, nonconformity, and deeper adherence to principles that allowed them to care less about social acceptance and material gain. This rare mix is necessary because whistleblowers are almost always thrust into some of the worst suffering imaginable. The highlighted article explains this well. But to further explain what makes the whistleblower unique, consider the following from Zeno Franco, a psychologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
“You have to almost have a social relationship with principles and with yourself. There has to be an internal space where you say, ‘I’m okay with these relationships being degraded because I’m strong enough in myself.”
This points to a finding from the research that whistleblowers are usually people who tend to value justice over loyalty to others.
I think this reflects Victor Frankl’s work quite nicely. A deep sense of meaning allows one to find the real priorities in a situation. What matters more? The safety and security of adhering to your non-disclosure agreement or stopping the abuse and fraud of a billion-dollar company?
That’s no easy question. There is one helpful factor, though: many former employees knew that the charade would not last for long. That knowledge helps the decision immensely because it becomes a question of which side of history you want to be on knowing the inevitable collapse will occur. The decision becomes as much a matter of expediency as it does justice.
The point is that whistleblowers of any kind are driven by a deeper sense of meaning; it’s the only way to weather the terrible storm that they face. To return to Frankl’s important line, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Passion Isn’t The Point
So it was a duel between two sources of meaning: one that was about becoming a powerful company built to “change the world” versus another set of meaning that was about protecting people from the harm the company would create. Both groups charged with their different sense of meaning fought all obstacles, all challenges, to try to achieve their goal.
Elizabeth Holmes was an total wunderkind when it came to using her sense of purpose to recruit investors, raise money, and build support. Tyler Shultz and others were genuine heroes for their ability to stick to their principles, their new sense of purpose, to stop the fraud amidst the social isolation, career threats, and legal pressure.
This is the stuff of every good story and, perhaps, a clarifying reminder of the fact that passion, in and of itself, does not matter. A person can be passionate and deeply committed to the absolute best and absolute worst of causes. The passion itself is just energy pointed in some direction.
The only way to distinguish the right from wrong direction is through the ethics underpinning each cause. So whatever we strive for, whatever strategy we deploy, we can’t get too romanced by the rationality or emotional pull; it is the logos, pathos, and ethos that matter.
Conclusion – Why Does Writing About Meaning and Ethics Feel Weird?
Meaning is clearly a very powerful, practically essential instrument for us all. But it’s difficult to discuss, hard to articulate, and a lot of books tend to just float above the core elements. Simon Sinek’s Start with Why is basically a modernized, slightly more sterile delivery of the ideas found in Frankl’s classic. Same goes for other popular leadership books like Extreme Ownership.
Those books are very popular but I don’t find a lot of people openly discussing the themes. Why?
We tend to squirm when there is talk about deep purpose in the workplace. I get it. It’s because work, as a rule, is just work. Few people try to derive a lot of personal meaning from what they do in their 9-to-5. I get it. “It’s just a job.”
But here lies the tradeoff: when it’s just a job, Theranos thrives. When it’s just a job, Flint finds lead in the water. I’m not about to make some grand claim that we need to solely do the work that gives us meaning. There will be pointless drudgery regardless. But we can’t go to the other end of this spectrum either. “Just a job” is a very depressing idea; to borrow from a 1990’s country song, “That Ain’t No Way To Go.”
We deserve better. It won’t come easy but that’s why Frankl’s title is the search for meaning. The search is constant.
In closing, these are important books. Everyone should read them. That said, Frankl’s book is a quite dated (the exclusive use of male pronouns is a mere relic but it always distracts me) and the wisdom is mostly intuitive. The power of that book is far more evident in the personal account of the holocaust. It’s incredibly moving. The same, of course, goes for Bad Blood—its story delivers the lessons more so than any direct instruction.
It’s the most engaging book I’ve read this year. Highly recommended.