Tiffany Chang – We’re in the Business of Happiness

(Photo: Karen Almond, The Dallas Opera)

The Evolving Vision of Zappos

Zappos, the online retail company, is well-known for its obsession with providing the best customer service. The record for the longest customer service call is currently at 10 hours and 43 minutes.[1] Of course, that employee’s goal was not to beat the previous record (because he would’ve stopped at 9 hours 38 minutes—one minute beyond the previous record). Instead, he was living out one of Zappos’ core values of “delivering WOW through service.”

It’s interesting to track the evolution of Zappos’ vision, because it didn’t start out (nor stop) with customer service.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh first started in 1999 with a vision of “having the largest selection of shoes.” In 2003, it became “providing the best customer service” and in 2005, “to use culture and core values as their platform” because that was where the great customer service really came from. Then in 2007, they decided to focus on “developing a personal emotional connection” as a way to define their unique customer service. And finally in 2009, they took a step back and said this is all about “delivering happiness to people” – customers, employees, and partners alike.[2]

There is a lot to take away from this vision transformation, and I want to share two aspects that are worth exploring for musicians:

1) Using culture and core values as a platform for an organization’s vision

2) Tony Hsieh’s three types of happiness


Using Culture and Core Values as a Platform

Work culture is generated through people and their collective shared values and behaviors. We can usually identify our organization’s core values by asking “what do we stand for?” or “what are we like?” or “what does the company mean to you?”

Some of Zappos’ core values include: deliver WOW through service, create fun and a little weirdness, pursue growth and learning, and be humble.[3] When its employees live out these core values, amazing customer service simply was a natural byproduct—a result rather than being the vision or goal itself.

When Zappos realized this and graduated their vision from “best customer service” to focus on “culture and core values”, it not only reaped the benefit of continued top-notch customer service, but it also strengthened its responsibility to employees by nurturing them as people (foreshadowing its later vision shift to something bigger—delivering happiness).

This shifts their vision away from the customer and onto the people who serve the customers.

It also allowed Zappos to get the “right people on the bus,” a crucial notion for creating high-performing teams from Jim Collins’ book Good to Great.[4] Here are some ways Zappos found the right employees and nurtured its culture:

  • They interview cautiously for culture fit and alignment of values – not just for skills. For example, they ask the shuttle bus driver afterwards how they were treated by the interviewees. And they actually ask the question, “How weird are you?”[5]
  • They give new hires a $2K incentive to quit after their initial training if it’s not the right fit. This encourages the new hires to carefully consider whether they indeed are in the right place.[6]
  • Performance reviews are 50% based on core values – as Hsieh puts it, “whether you’re living and inspiring the Zappos culture in others.”[7]
  • They also empower employees to celebrate the core values in their colleagues. Once a month, each employee is given $50 to reward as a bonus to a fellow coworker.[8]

It is clear that Zappos emphasizes committable values for their people—ones that they’re willing to hire or fire over.

Jim Senegal, former CEO of Costco (another employee-centric company), said, “Of every dollar that we spend on our business, $0.70 is on people. It doesn’t do much good to have a quality image, whether it’s with the facility or whether it’s with the merchandise, if you don’t have real quality people taking care of your customers.”[9]


How many times have you heard that an orchestra is responsible for serving its audiences (or customers)? Probably a lot. How often do you hear that an orchestra is responsible for serving its musicians? Probably never.

We can learn a lot from companies like Zappos that serve their customers by taking care of their employees—who are the ones really serving the customers. When we neglect the well-being of employees, we actually sabotage how effective we could be at serving our customers.

When we hire musicians, we focus on mostly observable, measurable skills. While artistic skills are crucial, it doesn’t have to be 100% of the evaluation process. We don’t officially consider if the musician would be a good culture fit. We don’t ask if the musician would subscribe to and live the values of the organization. We don’t know if the musician would find meaning in the organization’s purpose. What would they bring to the organization and the customers besides the artistic skills?

When we don’t have the “right people on the bus,” the culture suffers. Levels of purpose, trust, happiness, belonging all decline – ultimately jeopardizing the artistic product for the customer.

At the same time, we can’t blame ourselves for hiring through an entirely skills-based approach, because we can clearly justify our decisions. We find comfort and safety in knowing that we relied on hard rules, metrics, and boundaries to hire those with the best artistic abilities, to hit revenue targets, and to top the charts. And when problems with culture arise, we can safely fall back on our vetting criteria: “they were the best players” or “they did graduate at the top of their class” or “they did win this competition.” We don’t realize some criteria are missing, like core values. So we are used to building culture and solving culture problems using these tangible metrics – thinking that better skills, better pay, and being number one will automatically equal better culture.[10]

But things like belonging, trust, and happiness are feelings. And at the center of feelings are human beings, not numbers.

In fact, metrics offer a false sense of security that limits us. It’s where we go to hide when things go wrong. It blinds us to our problems and potential solutions. Sure, we want the outcomes of artistic excellence, appropriate compensation, wide audience engagement, and high standing in the industry. But they don’t exist in a vacuum.


What we are really dealing with are people who hold these values and people who are driven by these goals. We can reframe our focus to serving these people by cultivating a meaningful connection between their skills and their values and goals.

Here are some thoughts for us to consider:

  • Instead of only seeking to hire all the best talent, also help musicians to always become better than they were the season before. The sky’s the limit if people have a growth mindset.
  • Instead of simply advocating for increasingly better wages, also focus on establishing maximum transparency in acknowledging the financial worth of the people’s work and how that specifically correlates to plans for improving pay.
  • Instead of dictating the ways educational concerts build audiences or hustling to reach a numerical goal, also explore how musicians’ passion side-projects may be catalysts for meaningful audience engagement. Connect the people with the people.
  • Instead of fighting to become number one, also evaluate internally how musicians feel about themselves, about each other, and about the organization’s development. While external affirmation is great, people have a hard time lying to themselves. An accurate internal compass is more sustainable for fulfillment and happiness in individuals.

Notice these thoughts are not either-or, but both-and. We don’t have to give up the metrics. The problem is that metrics should not be arbitrary, lofty directives, nor externally implemented. When we can motivate people from within to live a set of shared values and work toward shared goals, the metrics become merely the byproducts.

And what if we thought like Zappos? What if our interviews and performance reviews included criteria that measured how we would live/are living the core values? What if we incentivize people to leave if they know it’s not a right fit? What would happen if one of our core values was “delivering WOW through service” and we lived by it every day?

How would our behaviors and attitudes change? How would our product change? How would our interactions with our audiences change?

Thinking about all this will eventually serve the audience more. But first it will help us realize that 1) the musicians are the ones who are serving the customers and 2) their well-being is paramount to customer service and to quality of product.

Maybe we’ll even be able to inspire the musical equivalent of the 10-hour, above-and-beyond Zappos customer service call.


Getting to “Delivering Happiness”

We know that “to use culture and core values as their platform” eventually evolved to a vision of “delivering happiness to people” for Zappos.

Tony Hsieh was interested in three types of happiness[11]:

  1. Happiness of pleasure (Hsieh calls this “rock star”) – this is a temporary high, where you’re always seeking the next source of stimuli. It’s difficult to sustain.
  2. Happiness of engagement (Hsieh calls this “flow”) – losing a sense of time, being in the zone, feeling passion for being engaged in the activity.
  3. Happiness of meaning/purpose – being a part of something bigger than yourself

As professionals in any industry, we primarily focus on chasing the first type of happiness, but the research Hsieh explored shows that it pays off to focus on chasing the third, more sustainable, and long-lasting type.

Considering these types of happiness, I was particularly intrigued about how arriving at “delivering happiness” perhaps was not accidental for Zappos. It seems like the company’s vision journey itself maps perfectly onto a progression from the first toward the third type of happiness:

  1. It began with the “largest selection of shoes,” where it’s seeking to be in the position of number one, chasing the metric. And when they are, they get a pleasure high; when they’re not, the happiness fades quickly.
  2. Then, they were able to arrive at an environment of “flow” through cultivating a culture of belonging with like-minded people who share the same core values and passions.
  3. And finally, articulating a vision of “delivering happiness” unified the purpose of the shared values and passions of the people. Simply serving that calling, a purpose bigger than any single employee, provides a self-generating and self-sustaining reserve of happiness that lasts a long time.


Especially in the arts, we think that achieving metrics or recognition will make us happy, but it ends up being short-lived or we feel empty inside because it doesn’t have much meaning beyond ourselves. We are always searching for that next hit of pleasure. Hsieh insightfully shares that, “People are bad at predicting what will make them happy.”[12]

“Rock star” happiness: An organization may rank as number one in something, but then what? Will the people be happy about it beyond this year, this moment? You win the job, but then what? Will you be happy in it or will you be looking immediately for the next job? If we as individuals or as organizations seek this type of happiness, we sacrifice filling our lives with meaning for chasing the metrics.

“Flow” happiness: We may play a great concert and we feel fantastic, but then what? The feeling wears off after a few hours or days, and we yearn for the next time we get to feel that way again. We’d be lucky if you feel that way on a daily basis as a musician. Even if we perform every day, we may not achieve a “flow-state” performance every day. What happens when we don’t? What keeps us going? What gives us happiness then?

What does the third type of happiness mean for musicians? What is a purpose that is both larger than ourselves and that is specific enough to be actionable and serve as a compass?


This is a very hard question, simply because as artists we are fortunate to have an intrinsic love for our work. We often don’t think (or perhaps don’t feel like we need to think) about why we love it or why we do it. Without a bigger-than-us purpose driving and unifying our actions and decisions, however, we fall into the trap of chasing external metrics as a purpose. And we end up feeling unfulfilled or unhappy as individuals, or messy and directionless as organizations.

We are also victims of education systems and workplaces run traditionally by extrinsic motivation. For an activity that is intrinsically motivating (like playing music), there is actually a negative effect to the enjoyment of that work when we introduce extrinsic rewards that turn “play into work.” Daniel Pink calls these if-then rewards in his book Drive [13]: if you do this, then you get that. He shares that social science reveals that if-then rewards work well for simple, algorithmic, short-term tasks, but are not as effective for more complex, creative tasks – such as music performance.

Pink further adds that this is due to the fact that if-then rewards require people to forfeit some of their autonomy. This is built into our schools via grades and our workplaces via pay incentives. An authority figure decides the nature and conditions of that if-then relationship, so we lose some autonomy to make decisions for ourselves. We become more risk-averse in fear of not doing the right thing to get the reward. And this prescribed relationship of action to reward has the potential to erode our intrinsic motivation over time. We may even get to the point where we are not motivated to act unless we expect the reward. This is especially tricky with compensation as it is often a well-intended incentive, but yielding a negative effect. Pink advises that the “best use of money is to take it off the table. Get it right, and then get it out of sight.”[14] 

So, happiness in our intrinsically-driven field can be threatened by both 1) striving toward the short-lived happiness of pleasure via achieving metrics, and 2) if-then rewards that decrease intrinsic motivation as well as stifle creativity and risk-taking. Simply our willingness to see these as factors in play can help us to begin changing things around for a more fulfilling workplace for musicians.


Inspiring Change for our People

Companies like Zappos can inspire artistic organizations to change for the sake of its people.

We can define the culture of our workplaces via articulated and shared values. We can use our values to drive how we hire, evaluate, and reward employees. This clarity positions an organization to stand out from the rest of the market. More importantly, it broadcasts a clear signal that attracts like-minded people who want to join the same cause.

It helps align values that determine every employee’s motivations, mindset, and actions from the top down. There is a deep commitment to work for the cause, and beyond the paycheck. It creates a workplace where everyone feels camaraderie, personal accountability, belonging, and pride.

Simply aiming for the metrics will not lead to long-lasting happiness for our people. And like Zappos, we can strive to discover and evolve our selfless purpose as individuals and as organizations over our lifetime.

Ultimately, caring for the well-being of the people who serve the customers will result in higher achievement of metrics and surpassing set goals, naturally leading to a meaningful product for the customer and more happiness all around.

Hubert Joly, former CEO of Best Buy, beautifully states in a shareholder letter, “…we will do well by doing good. Simply put, purposeful leadership recognizes that all companies are human organizations composed of individuals working together for a collective purpose. And the magic happens if you connect what drives individual employees to the purpose of the company in an authentic fashion.”[15]

Clear purpose helps articulate “people like us do things like this,” à la Seth Godin.[16] Simon Sinek calls it “just cause.”[17] David Burkus calls it “Pick a Fight.”[18]

Whatever we call it, it can lead to the type of happiness that will last a lifetime.


To visit Tiffany’s blog on leadership click here.


[2] Talks at Google with Tony Hsieh:

[3] Ibid.

[4] More information on Collins’ Good to Great:

[5] Talks at Google with Tony Hsieh:


[7] Talks at Google with Tony Hsieh:


[9] Quote taken from Jim Collins’ Good to Great

[10] Here’s a portion of an interview with Simon Sinek with Big Change that inspired this paragraph:

[11] Talks at Google with Tony Hsieh:

[12] Ibid.

[13] More information on Pink’s Drive:

[14] Ibid.

[15] Quote taken from Ron Carruci’s interview with Hubert Joly:

[16] Read more about this here, and via the link in this blog post:

[17] Read more about this:

[18] Find out more about the audiobook by the same title: