Don't "Drink the Kool-Aid"


I hate the phrase. I have heard it in both the blue-chip and startup companies I've worked at, and I continue to hear and read it in the industry news all around me. In Silicon Valley, "drinking our own Kool-Aid" refers to the things we tell ourselves regarding the culture of innovation, disruption, and startups that are meant to inspire us to work hard, sacrifice everything, and don't listen to the naysayers. 

In general usage, this phrase has come to mean blindly following without regard for the consequences. I stopped using this phrase a few years ago for two reasons:

  1. We need fewer blind followers. We need more skeptics. 
  2. The etymology of the phrase is simply horrible. Really. 


At Xbox, we used to say that we were all drinking the Kool-Aid and that our VP was the guy mixing it up. This was meant to be a good thing since we felt like we were part of something cool and different within this corporate behemoth that was Microsoft. It felt great to be part of this tribe that gave us insider status, and it was intoxicating. We believed in why we were doing what we were doing. And you know what? We delivered something we are all still rightfully proud of. 

I was a part of this, too. I'm not saying  everything  I was a part of was awesome. 

I was a part of this, too. I'm not saying everything I was a part of was awesome. 

I've also worked in organizations where the culture was quite different; not only was there an assumption that it was obviously going in the right direction, but it's doing it in the right way as well. Get in line, or get out of the way. Disbelievers not welcome. If you don't like the way I'm doing it, that's your problem. 

Understanding why is far more powerful than being told how to go about it. The gap between the why and the how makes all the difference. 

Knowledge workers are better utilized when we are able to align our purpose with that of the organization's goals and then are asked to figure out how to go about achieving it. When we are told prescriptively how we go about doing that, it saps our energy and motivation. 


Jonestown. If you don't know about it, spend a couple minutes just to catch up on its history. 

‘Jonestown’ was the informal name for the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project formed by the Peoples Temple, an American religious organization under the leadership of Jim Jones, in northwestern Guyana. It became internationally notorious when on November 18, 1978, 918 people died in the settlement, at the nearby airstrip in Port Kaituma, and in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital city. The name of the settlement became synonymous with the incidents at those locations.
— Wikipedia (November 2014)

The mass suicide (or mass murder, as many would say) was done through cyanide poisoning. It was mixed into a drink that was given to infants and children via a squirt from a syringe while the rest drank it from cups. 

Although Jones used Flavor Aid in the poison, the drink mix was also commonly referred to as Kool-Aid due to its status as a generic trademark. This has led to the phrase ‘Drinking the Kool-Aid’, referring to a person or group holding an unquestioned belief, argument, or philosophy without critical examination
— Wikipedia (November 2014)

This happened less than forty years ago so you can find a lot of information about it yourself; be forewarned, you'll find gruesome pictures and video of the aftermath. I won't post any here. 


If the sad etymology of the phrase isn't enough to make you stop using it, then consider what it's saying: to drink the Kool-aid is to have an unquestioned belief without critical examination. That's a very bad thing. Critical thinking and approaching things with a healthy skepticism is good. However, being a skeptic doesn't mean not believing in anything for no reason. 

The true meaning of the word skepticism has nothing to do with doubt, disbelief, or negativity. Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s the process of finding a supported conclusion, not the justification of a preconceived conclusion.
— Skeptoid (

A healthy amount of debate and skepticism makes any organization and discipline stronger. That's what makes a culture, like the best parts of Silicon Valley, one that promotes innovation and discovery. Nothing is sacred. Assumptions are questioned. Speak truth to power. 

Sometimes people go too far and believe their own press and generate little beyond hot air. Sometimes (okay, often) they'll fail, but once in a while, something truly special comes out of someone's garage, dorm room, or lab and changes the world.