The Falling of Elizabeth Holmes and What We Learn from It

I’ve read about the notorious Elizabeth Holmes and how she dropped out from Stanford to launch her startup Theranos in Silicon Valley. Theranos promised to deliver a game-changing blood-test service that would be astonishingly affordable and accessible. The company failed terribly. Disclosed by the Wall Street Journal [link to the article], the company secretly paid other labs to run tests then claimed them as the results from Theranos’s prototypes, which did not work at all. The snowball effect started. Following stories covered how she planned, step by step, along with her partner, to make up her lies and suck money from investors. She also forced her employees to sign confidentiality agreements with unfair items.

It wasn’t until I finished the documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley that I felt emotional about this story. Mostly, I wasn’t angry or worried. I was sad for Elizabeth Holmes. Why?

In the documentary, she always gave people a very assured look, be at the kick-off meeting with the whole company, or when she was inquired about the lab data after the Wall Street Journal investigation article came out. Even when Fortune anchor kept questioning if Theranos was lying about the data result, she carried on with certainty in her eyes and denied it with her typical expression - she hardly blinks. She added: “maybe we failed once, we failed twice, but we will succeed eventually, just like how Edison made the first light bulb.”

When one has such a strong conviction of what she does, she will do whatever it takes almost religiously. 

The Inventor Out For Blood in Silicon Valley, HBO, 2019

The Inventor Out For Blood in Silicon Valley, HBO, 2019

I doubt if Holmes considered herself  “lying” to anyone. From her perspective, this is her effort to change the world - if her theory works, instead of taking five tubes of blood to get the data, a pinprick of a finger would do. How blessing would this be? Not to mention this “technology” was much cheaper than the similar service offered by the other labs. It would empower people of poverty who can’t afford any insurance. 

Yet Holmes is far away from the path. Her vision and dream was real, she might even have felt genuine. Without realist self-understanding, she overpromised. Her overestimation led to the failing of Theranos and whatever she represented.

How do we explore ourselves with the reality intact? Acknowledgedly, each of us might be good at something, and the level of that expertise vary. Some might benefit from their expertise and receive money and reputation, others maintain what they are good at as a hobby. Today, if you know how to code or do big data analysis, and you nailed it, your work will satisfy you materially. If maths or data is not your thing, and you thrive at writing and literature, it’d be harder to make a living. Were it a time that values poems more than anything else, the destiny of these two kinds might switch.

Individually, we need to tackle a series of self-knowledge questions - who am I? What do I want to do? What do I not want to do? What am I good at? What am I not good at ? - for the sake of finding our balance point, not getting lost in all kinds of “what to do with life” statements. 

I recently invited a life coach to Professional Women’s Society for Development, a professional women’s group I started with a few peers. The coach shared a system of Core Values which can assist with our self-understanding. One’s core values consist of many keywords: family, career, health, relationships, friendship, self-fulfillment, money, social status, freedom, study, equality, loyalty, and so on. To find what’s the most important, one has to pick one keyword from a group of two and do the same to this winning value and another chosen one - just like how a tournament runs - until there is only one keyword/value left. This core value is the one that this person cares the most, and it will inform this person when s/he needs to make a difficult decision in life. I’d like to add that this core value will change in one’s lifetime, for example, what means the most in one’s 20s might be insignificant when it comes to the 30s. It might also change as a consequence of significant life events. All we know is we need a reflection routinely, to review the core values and to gain self-understanding and further balance as our journey continues.

Self-knowledge is philosophical, it deals with where we are from and where we are going to. There is no single way to fully serve our curiosity of ourselves, and it shouldn’t be. We read history to learn about the past. We explore new technology to connect with the future. We discuss and debate with friends to exercise our logic, and reflect on ourselves routinely. Hopefully, we get one step further on the human endeavor of self-understanding.

By Yanan Ma, translated and edited by Qionglu

- About The Author -

Yanan is a water engineer based in Kansas City. She is passionate about plugging artificial intelligence into the traditional industry. Yanan is the founder of a book club podcast of 200,000 followers, and the co-founder of Professional Women’s Society for Development.

“I always love to connect with people who have a passion for his/her life. Life is short, please explore it and enjoy it.“ Yanan wants to hear from you, you can reach her here.

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