An open letter to Tony Hsieh from former DTPer David Gould

David Gould left a teaching position at the University of Iowa for a job with Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project. He tendered his resignation to Hsieh this week in an open letter.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

September 29, 2014

An Open Letter to Tony Hsieh

Dear Tony,

We met in the fall of 2010, when your “Delivering Happiness” book tour stopped by my University of Iowa class. I could never have imagined how dramatically that hot August afternoon would change the course of my life. I have retold the story many times of how the students spontaneously followed you out of the classroom that day. Exactly three years later, I left my home, and position at the university, to follow you as well.

The decision to join the Downtown Project’s $350 million revitalization effort was based on three core beliefs:

1. The project was engaged in a fascinating “social experiment.”

2. The project offered a unique opportunity, to not only make a meaningful difference in Downtown Las Vegas, but also enrich the lives of people living in cities around the world.

3. It was led by a generous spirit.

I was not alone. Some 400–600 people pilgrimage to Las Vegas each month to walk your 19-block footprint, and ponder the ideal that simply focusing on ROI (Return on Investment) is not enough. You claimed that the city of the future would require equal attention on ROC (Return on Community), and I intuitively knew you were right. Though I have come to understand the formidable challenges inherent in transforming a city, the story you crafted was not only visionary, but attainable.

So what happened?

Artist Donovan Fitzgerald's work at the Window.

Tomorrow, many of the people who merged their voices with yours will find themselves without a job. While their names have yet to be revealed, the disillusioned expressions I conjure up are keeping me awake tonight. This group will undoubtedly include numerous young adults, who have not yet found your good fortune. As they have naively purchased homes and started families, this decision will impact them greatly.

“Business is business” will be the defense from those you have charged with delivering the sad news. But we have not experienced a string of tough breaks or bad luck. Rather, this is a collage of decadence, greed, and missing leadership. While some squandered the opportunity to “dent the universe,”others never cared about doing so in the first place. There were heroes among us, however, and it is for them that my soul weeps.

My heart also goes out to those whose jobs are spared. While that might seem a bit ridiculous, they will surely expend energy trying to understand the secret of why they were kept and others let go. In the end, the only thing they will know for sure is that their leaders lied to them in order to hurt their friends.

While reason might conclude that I should wait to either identify a new job, or collect my severance pay, I am compelled to tender my resignation instead. Compensation was never my primary concern. Doing meaningful work, however, is.

When artist Donovan Fitzgerald began depicting the ideal American city on the cement pillars at The Window, he made the unique choice of shunning physical structures in favor of three female characters. Noting my surprise, Donovan explained that while buildings rise and fall, great cities each require the same principles: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. “The women,” he clarified, “are meant to represent each.” I remember staring at the figures for some time before requesting one addition. “What is it?” Donovan asked. “A North Star,” I replied, “so that we don’t lose our way.”

I wish you health and happiness.


David L. Gould

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