Attending a rave changed Tony Hsieh’s life. The Zappos CEO says it started him on the path to creating a new kind of business. What did Hsieh experience at that rave?
Tony Hsieh made a fortune by the age of 24, having sold his start-up to Microsoft. For the next few years he wondered what to do with his life. Then he attended a rave. There, Hsieh felt “a single unifying group consciousness.” The experience awed him, shrinking his “I,” expanding him into a big “we.” It was a turning point in his life.
Hsieh seeks to recapture that sense of “we” at Zappos. In April 2015, he shifted the company to an approach called Holacracy. Teams work in circle groups, collectively deciding how to get their work done. The results have been uneven. Some Zappos workers love it. Others have left the company. Not easy to shift to “we.”
Holacracy is the brainchild of Brian Robertson. Ten years ago he began asking if there is a better way to organize a business—one that doesn’t rely on top-down reporting lines. He studied the Quaker meetinghouse decision-making work circles. The result was Holacracy. In 2012, Robertson spoke on Holacracy at the Conscious Capitalism conference. Hsieh was in attendance. He decided to put Zappos on the path of “we.”
Hsieh is headed in the right direction. The ancients, including the church, believed circles best reflect reality, including the Divine. In the 5th century, a young man named Benedict founded a series of monasteries where monks worked in “monastic circles.” These became centers of commerce, as did Celtic Christianity “round” communities, and later, Quaker work circles. Then spherical thinking began to disappear.
Credit some of it to René Descartes who said, “I think, therefore I am.” The 17th century French philosopher was searching for certainty. He decided the only thing you can be certain of is the fact that you think. The autonomous individual became the most reliable authority—“I.” I will… figure this out… decide what’s right for me… etc. This infects the Western church, which Tim Keller defines as individualistic.
Numerous surveys reveal that Americans, more than other contemporary societies, use the word “I” more than “we.” Western societies do this non-consciously, unaware of their speech pattern. This is why Tony Hsieh is not walking a level path. He’s climbing a steep Western mountain, for while Descartes didn’t single-handedly create the Western mind, he went a long way towards defining its contours. It’s “I” more than “we.”
This sounds odd elsewhere. In African traditions, a newborn baby acquires selfhood through others. This is captured in a Zulu phrase, Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, “A person is a person through other persons.” As the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti put it in African Religions and Philosophy: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”
This is a better account of human nature than “I think, therefore I am.” We are made in God’s image. God is “we” more than “I,” as when the Father, Son, and Spirit say: “We will make them in our image.” In God’s image, we are individuals but we are more we (“them”) than I. That’s God’s design. And that’s why a rave changed Tony Hsieh’s life.
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage, 2003), pp. 268-269.