Elon Musk is one of the greatest business icons of the 21st century. With the passing of Steve Jobs he has rightly taken the pole position in the realm of business leaders who are considered visionaries. I read the book on Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance and it is a wonderful inspiring read. Here are the lessons I gleaned.
Be in it for the long haul– Irrespective of what our aim is unless we have decided to be in it for the long haul it is very difficult for us to scale the heights that we are capable of. Elon Musk in 2008 was in dire straits. Space X and Tesla were both running out of money but the man was in it for the long haul. He didn’t care about short term setbacks. He always looked to the future with hope and was over optimistic in most cases. He set unrealistic deadlines as that’s the way he thinks. Everything he does is fast and he is always in a hurry. He pays an obsessive attention to detail and for SpaceX he wants to reduce the cost of launches. For years Tesla looked like a disaster but he made it work staying in the game for the long term. At a time when most people had given up at least in the USA on the automotive and aerospace industry he showed enormous foresight to bet on these industries and succeed despite enormous obstacles. When the author asked what is he willing to give up towards realizing his dream he said “I am willing to give up everything that others hold dear.”
Lesson — Don’t give up. Keep your end goal in mind.
Have a long term vision– He first founded a company called Zip2 and then he went into PayPal once he sold Zip2 to Compaq for 307 million (He made around 22 million there). He poured that money into a startup that morphed into PayPal. He netted enough money to retire into the wilderness when eBay bought PayPal but he had the audacity to dream bigger. The thing is he is not here to make the quick buck but he is interested in the long term. He put 100 million in Tesla, 70 million in SpaceX and was considered crazy at that time. His ability to plan for the future is the stuff of folklore. By the time he is in his 50’s his aim is to have weekly flights into space. He plans to send rockets for a couple of laps around the moon and back. Even the folks who were fired by him still worship him like a super hero. It is similar to the reality distortion field of Steve Jobs. He also told the author that he would like to die on Mars that’s how much he wants his vision of colonizing Mars to come true. He has also said that he doesn’t need to be the first person on Mars as he has to be sure that SpaceX can survive without him. His main aim is to increase the probable life span of humanity by colonizing Mars. The unifying vision of putting a man on mars is the overarching vision which propels all his enterprises to chase excellence and history.
Lesson — Commit to your long term vision and ignore every setback along the way.
Endure Pain– This is the key to his success. People close to Elon Musk say that they have not yet met anyone else who has the tolerance to pain that he has. Alas that is the key to his success or for that matter anyone’s success. He doesn’t care about failure and is able to endure whatever pain is needed to overcome all the setbacks thrown at him. He is unstoppable. In 2008 his personal life was in tatters, his companies were not doing well but despite all this he bounced back brilliantly to show the world the kind of stuff only very few people can. The harder it gets the better he gets. He has the amazing ability to work under tremendous pressure. Musk credits his tough childhood for his ability to tolerate immense pain. He also says his toughness might have come from his grandfather.
Lesson — If you want to win BIG then be prepared for a lot of pain.
Continuous Learning– Elon Musk is a passionate learner. Apparently in his 4th grade he read everything he could and he ran out of books in the library and he then read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Once school was over at 2 pm he read from 2 pm to 6 pm before going home. He also reportedly completed at least 2 books every weekend reading 10 hours per day. He didn’t know anything about rockets but he read everything he could and eventually was an expert on it. There are very few who know more about rockets than him. He had a prodigious memory and this could be probably due to training his mind on an incessant basis. The point here is no one else can do it for us. If we want to win BIG we need to learn everything we can about our field and go all out for putting ourselves on the cusp of greatness.
Lesson- Commit to learning and learn as if there is no tomorrow.
Work like there is no tomorrow– He works 100 hours per week and he slept in the office at many times. First off I really don’t recommend to this philosophy but it is obvious that he wouldn’t have achieved what he has without this outrageous work ethic. In his initial days he worked 23 hours straight many days and slept in the office. He also worked 7 days a week. Unless you want to get sick I would never recommend that. However I still think hard work is the key to success. The phrase work life balance is not in Elon Musk’s dictionary. He also reportedly said “If I can find a way to work and not eat I would do that.” When he does decompress he does something which is totally unique. For example he celebrated his 30th birth day by inviting 20 folks to a castle in England and they played a hide and seek game called Sardines from 2 am to 6 am. I just read that Sardines is an active game that is played like hide and go seek — only in reverse! One person hides, and everyone else searches for the hidden person. One of his management styles is not tell the person complete this project by Friday 5 pm. He instead says “I need the impossible done by Friday. Can you do it?” Once the person accepts the ownership is transferred.
Lesson — Hard work is the key to your success.
Passion for his vision– It is obvious that he has a passion that outlasts him as a person. For example when a lot of SpaceX employees were getting disgruntled that there would not be an IPO anytime soon he sent a long email clarifying the reason. He basically said that if you are that good in selling a stock you can do that with other companies and don’t need a SpaceX IPO. However Elon said if they go public they can’t take the risks which are necessary to achieve his long term vision. The point is Elon is so passionate about his vision that he doesn’t allow anything happening around him even things that might disrupt his business to get him to change his views. Even in his school days in South Africa he argued fervently for Solar against fossil fuels. He was firm in his beliefs and was passionate about his cause from an early age. He showed his talent and passion early in his life when at the age of 12 he developed a video game called Blastar and sold the code to a magazine called PC and Office Technology. He oozed passion from a very young age and already had visions of grand conquests at this young age. Another example is when interviewing candidates for SpaceX they look for Type A personalities according to the author and they also have a standard SpaceX problem which requires 500 lines of code to be written. They want people who ooze passion.
Lesson — Passion trumps talent anytime and every time.
Strive for Perfection– I know we have always been told go for excellence and not perfection. For example Elon Musk wanted the Tesla model to be perfect and he didn’t want any errors. Model S outclassed many other cars. Model S provided an internet connection, the car started on its own and it received highest safety rating being a model of efficiency. Tesla sold through its own stores. The Model S didn’t require oil changes. Tesla engineers were updating software while the driver was sleeping and when the driver woke up to drive the next day they were pleasantly surprised that what didn’t work earlier was working now. Tesla transformed the car into a gadget computer on wheels. In 2013 Model S was named car of the year by Motor Trends and this was an enormous accomplishment. I read that Tesla claims the Model S outperforms federal crash standards, having been impact tested at 50 mph (the mandatory standard is 35 mph) and exceeding the roof crush requirement by a factor of 2. I think perfection depends on which field you are in. If you are building a part for an airplane then there is no scope for error and it requires perfection. What is perfection for one person may be just meeting spec for another. I don’t think it matters whether you go for excellence or perfection. Bottom line is we need to produce work that matters.
Lessons — Strive for perfection based on your definition of excellence.
It was a wonderful inspiring read. The author has made the book really interesting right from start to end. Just like Steve Jobs the author notes that it is not easy for folks to work for Elon Musk. His standards are impossible to match and he can be curt. I think there are always things we shouldn’t learn from visionaries but what we can appreciate is Elon Musk’s audacious vision and his capacity to dream of a bigger world. He is marching towards his vision with relentless passion, hard work and phenomenal capabilities. Ashlee Vance writes that Musk’s vision is to save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation and for the benefit of humanity I hope he does.
The views expressed in this article are my own and does not represent my organization.