The Theranos Disaster Shows Us the Dangers of Chasing Fame and Fortune

June 17, 2016, 1:00 PM UTC
Key Speakers At 2015 The Fortune Global Forum
Billionaire Elizabeth Holmes, founder and chief executive officer of Theranos Inc., speaks during the 2015 Fortune Global Forum in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Monday, Nov. 2, 2015. The forum gathers Global 500 CEO's and innovators, builders, and technologists from some of the most dynamic, emerging companies all over the world to facilitate relationship building at the highest levels. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Bloomberg Bloomberg via Getty Images

“May you live in interesting times” – Anon

People have been obsessed with fame and fortune since ancient times. I’m guessing it has something to do with biology: Since evolution favors the strong over the weak, whatever gets you to the top of the food chain is probably a good thing.

On the other hand, the human race has evolved over the millennia. Or at least that’s what I’m told. In these enlightened times, you’d think that maybe, just maybe, we’re past pursuing superficial goals like becoming a viral YouTube star and making megabucks.

Well, think again.

All you have to do is turn on the tube, scroll through your favorite online news feed or peruse any number of best-selling business books to see we’re not as evolved as we think we are. We’re just as obsessed with the personal habits of millionaires, billionaires and famous entertainers as we’ve ever been, if not more so.

I’m not here to judge, mind you. Far be it from me to comment on whatever your hopes and dreams may be. But if becoming a household name and getting checks with lots of zeros are what you’re after, let me explain why you might want to rethink your strategy and put those notions right out of your mind.

Related: No Work-Life Balance? Give Me a Break.

Think back to the last notable star you were stalking – I mean reading about. Whether it was an entrepreneur like Richard Branson, an athlete like Steph Curry or an actress like Jennifer Lawrence, I guarantee they didn’t get to where they are by seeking fame and fortune. They got there by pursuing their passions and striving for excellence. The rewards may come with the territory, but that’s rarely what they’re after.

I say rarely, not never. Like moths to a flame, many succumb to the fatal attraction of big bucks and bright lights.

Take Theranos’ embattled CEO Elizabeth Holmes, for example. If you had the chance to hear her speak about creating a world where patients can obtain quick and inexpensive diagnoses from a few drops of blood, you could feel her passion. I did — before everything began to unravel.

Now, I wonder: What possessed her to use the power of public relations to become an instant entrepreneurial icon, garner a $9 billion valuation for her startup and amass a $4.5 billion personal net worth based on overblown hype? What drove her to inflate her supposed breakthrough, ensuring that the technology was never vetted by the scientific community?


Much of Holmes’ fame and fortune has since evaporated after it was revealed that Theranos’ proprietary technology simply does not work.

Maybe Holmes wasn’t aware of what she was really after. You’ve got to admit, the notion of disrupting a $76 billion lab-testing market is pretty heady stuff. It’s easy to imagine the sort of attention she received became addictive. The limelight can be blinding.

Today’s entrepreneurs are fond of saying they want to change the world. The first time I heard Holmes use that phrase was in response to the Wall Street Journal’s initial blockbuster expose on Theranos. “This is what happens when you work to change things,” she said, “First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you and then all of a sudden you change the world.”

Her response evokes an ancient curse: “May you live in interesting times.” It’s what I tell starry-eyed entrepreneurs whenever they use that ubiquitous three-word phrase. Holmes is certainly living in interesting times now. I hear Lawrence has signed on to play her in a movie about Theranos by Adam McKay, who directed The Big Short. Not the sort of notoriety Holmes was after, I’m sure.

Anyone who has achieved material success or notoriety will tell you that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It comes with great responsibility, and if you’re not mature, savvy or sane enough to exercise some discipline and restraint, it will be remarkably short-lived.

Related: Tesla and Theranos Are Pushing the Limits of Silicon Valley’s Hype Machine

Unfortunately, we’re living in an age of instant gratification. With all the diet crazes, miracle cures and health fads, it should come as no surprise that a similar quick-fix mentality has bled into the business world through popular, self-help style books, blogs and websites.

But here’s the thing. If fame and fortune is what you’re after, you may very well find it to be fleeting — or even a curse.

And if you do aspire to the more noble pursuits of career success or financial independence, you’ll be wise to understand that those are all long-term goals. You achieve them by finding work you enjoy, working hard and making good choices. Your career is a marathon, not a sprint. There are no shortcuts.