Hubris

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Elizabeth Holmes has been featured in an episode of 20/20 and in an HBO documentary. A movie starring Jennifer Lawrence is in the works as well. Her story is rather amazing. She founded a company at the age of 19 that at one time had an estimated worth of billions of dollars. She was a young woman with a vivid imagination who graced the covers of magazines. Her ideas began to unfold when she was still a child drawing detailed diagrams of a time machine, and other flights of fancy. As a freshman at Stanford University she came up with an idea for a patch that would be able to detect an infection and then administer a dose of antibiotics. She applied for a patent for her idea but sadly such a mechanism was entirely infeasible and came to naught. She moved on the the big invention that would make her one of the youngest CEOs and billionaires in the country.

Elizabeth wanted to create a simple way of testing blood for disease. She hated the way blood is drawn with needles and multiple tubes. She wanted to create a machine that would be able to perform all of the necessary tests from only a pen prick of blood. She imagined a way of getting the blood and then testing it in a machine so small that it might be carried into a battlefield. She was so proud of her idea that she called it” the Edison” in honor of the famous inventor who had inspired her from the time she was a child. She called her company “Theranos”, an amalgam of the words therapy and diagnosis. She saw her invention as a revolutionary way of delivering diagnoses that would change medicine all over the world. Her backers were so excited by the possibilities that they gave her hundreds of millions of dollars without securing any evidence that she was indeed capable of creating the needed technology.

Elizabeth hired a team of experts and filled her board of directors with some of the biggest names in the world. She built a magnificent headquarters in the heart of Silicon Valley and staffed it with brilliant and  innovative young minds. She fashioned herself as a new Steve Jobs dressing all in black and creating advertisements for her company that were sleek and exciting. Unfortunately even after years her idea did not work. In spite of all of the assertions that she was on the cusp of a whole new world, she was chasing after a dream that was probably never going to happen. After an journalistic expose revealed that “the Edison” did not work her company began to collapse. In the end it was worth less than zero.

When I heard about Elizabeth Holmes I wondered how she was able to muster the confidence to scam people with little more than an idea and nothing to prove that the technology would be effective and reliable. A bit of research into her background gave me some insights into the workings of her mind, or at least provided me with some theories about what made her tick.

Elizabeth was the granddaughter of a physician who founded a hospital and enjoyed a notable and productive career, so there is little doubt in my mind that she is a highly intelligent woman who came from intelligent stock. Her genetic background as well as her education seem to prove that Elizabeth had great potential. She lived for a time in my city, Houston, while her father was a vice president at Enron, a company that was built on smoke and mirrors that ultimately collapsed. She attended St. John’s School, an elite institution with a long waiting list that only the best, brightest and wealthiest children are able to attend. The school exists in  a rarified atmosphere of influence and power. It would be easy to see Elizabeth developing an exalted opinion of herself from being one of the chosen few able to go to such a prestigious place. Being accepted to the Engineering program at Stanford University would have reinforced her feelings about her self worth.

Elizabeth must have seen herself as someone who was going to change the world, and she was in a big hurry to do so. Her professors realized that she was brilliant and even one of the top students that they had ever met, but for some of them she was annoying in her insistence that she knew more than they did. She sought them out as mentors and then ignored them whenever they honestly critiqued her ideas. She often spoke of how Thomas Edison had to make ten thousand mistakes before some of his inventions worked. She truly believed that she was able to see the world more clearly than even her more experienced teachers.

She parlayed her connections and her confidence into a business that fooled even brilliant people like Bill Clinton who was one of her admirers. It’s possible that she believed her own press for a time, but at some point she had to realize that her company was little more than a scam much like Enron where her father had once worked. If she did continue to believe that she was on to something big, then she was quite deluded because it was clear to many of the employees that nothing was working as it should even as she advertised untruths. Evidence seems to indicate that she knew exactly what was happening and did her best to cover for the lack of progress by instituting an atmosphere of secrecy.

Most children have fantastical ideas. Some even make those ideas become reality. My brother dreamed of sending humans to the moon. The work of thousands of talented scientists and engineers made it happen. We need people who think out of the box and take us into uncharted territory, but they have to be honest about what they are actually achieving. Elizabeth Holmes was not. She lied again and again perhaps to keep the funds rolling in because she really did think that one day a eureka moment would occur, or maybe she was just hiding her failures. Sadly her actions hurt every person who attempts to find support for a reasonable idea.

I know some young men who worked very hard to find backers for what might have been an amazing tech company. I have rooted for a man who wants to make wind power a reality for anyone who wants to install his equipment in the backyard. Most people provide evidence that their inventions will actually work before they ask for funding. To make untrue claims in the hopes that they will one day come true is a fraud.

Elizabeth Holmes is a fascinating young woman, but also someone who seems to have little concern for all of the people that she scammed. That is the definition of a sociopath. While her idea was grounded in good intentions she was unwilling to do all of the hard work that is usually required of anyone who wants to change the world for the better. Perhaps her grandiose opinion of herself along with a great deal of immaturity lead her to her ultimate failure. Somewhere along the way she might have done the right thing by admitting that she was stumped. Instead she lied and even sent faulty test results to patients who were grievously harmed. She has yet to admit her responsibility for a fiasco. Her hubris is a tragedy not just for her but for everyone who believed in her. She has cast a shadow of doubt on anyone who is attempting to launch the next truly great idea. Who will now believe?