Elon Musk is fascinating. He’s not your average CEO, in fact he’s not even your average billionaire. He’s leading a vision so huge that most people think he’s mad (or did think he was mad before he started proving them wrong). I think what separates him from ‘normal’ people is that his vision is so important and so urgent to him, that he will settle for nothing less than completely devoting his life to pursuing and realizing the vision.
From reading his biography, I came across certain trends in the way he acts and what he has experienced throughout his life that have made him the unstoppable force he is today. So here’s my summation of his biography and the key ‘secrets’ to his success, so that you can get an insight into what is required to literally change the world.
His tough childhood
“Asked how he survives this schedule, Musk said, “I had a tough childhood, so maybe that was helpful.” … “He has a level of stamina and an ability to deal with levels of stress that I’ve never seen in anyone else.”
Musk’s resilience is shown in his gruelling work schedule:
- Sunday:Travel if necessary. Spend time at Bel Air mansion.
- Monday:Work at SpaceX in Hawthorne. Take private jet to Silicon Valley. Crash at a friend’s place.
- Tuesday:Work at Tesla’s offices in Palo Alto and/or factory in Fremont.
- Wednesday:Work at Tesla’s offices in Palo Alto and/or factory in Fremont.
- Thursday:Fly back to Los Angeles. Work at SpaceX.
- Friday:Work at SpaceX.
- Saturday:Work at SpaceX and/or spend time with five young sons he shares custody with first wife Justine (has them four days each week).
He is quoted to have worked 100 hour weeks ‘for a while’ when Tesla and SpaceX were still in start-up stage. Even now he’s working between 80-90 hours per week.
I believe his tough upbringing, which involved bullying at school and a tough relationship with his father, instilled in him a tenacity that he now exploits, enabling him to endure extreme stress and a highly demanding work schedule. Being incredibly smart obviously helps in becoming successful, but being able to work smart and hard makes for an unstoppable force.
From studying many highly successful people, I have come across a common theme of tough childhood’s and massive success later on in life. Arnold Schwarzenegger was disciplined heavily by his father, who made him ‘earn’ his meals by doing exercise before them. Gary Vaynerchuk was an immigrant from soviet Russia who realized the amazing opportunity he was given so exploited everything he could from it.
I believe discipline and drive often emerge from childhood experiences, and this is something I will go into in a future blog post about what creates the entrepreneurial spirit.
Musk’s vision is so large that time is his biggest barrier. And I’m not talking about simply not having enough hours in the day. I’m talking about not having enough years in his life. He wants to colonize mars and provide affordable sustainable transport and energy to the entire world. Effectively he is saving the planet and the entire human race.
He sees this point in time as a window to expand the human race to become an interplanetary species, because as space technology advances, our home planet is at an increasing risk of being destroyed by its inhabitants. He’s figured that this opportunity is too good to miss, and he’s devoting his entire life to making it happen. So obviously, it’s pretty urgent. One of his employees commented on this sense of urgency:
“everything he does is fast. He pees fast. It’s like a fire hose – three seconds and out. He’s authentically in a hurry.”
His urgency is often transmuted into ruthlessness:
“When Musk sets unrealistic goals, verbally abuses employees, and works them to the bone, it’s understood to be – on some level – part of the Mars agenda. Some employees love him for this. Others loathe him but remain oddly loyal out of respect for his drive and mission.”
In focusing on the bigger picture, he neglects the needs of humans, including himself. His weight fluctuates massively in times of stress and when he is working longer days.
He learns from everyone
As mentioned in a previous blog post, Musk takes every opportunity to leverage the knowledge of others. When starting SpaceX he initially relied on textbooks to form the bulk of his rocketry knowledge, however he realized he could tap into his own engineers’ knowledge, using what they know to refine his ideas and carry on leading the vision forward. They actually thought he was quizzing them at first, when in fact he was shamelessly sponging off their knowledge.
Obsession and focus
A college friend of Musk’s stated “When Elon gets into something, he develops this different level of interest in it than other people. That is what differentiates Elon from the rest of humanity.”
In his younger years, when focusing on something like reading he would completely zone out and be unable to interact with other humans. He seems to have an innate ability to focus 100% on one thing without distraction.
This is also shown in his ability to deal with adversity:
“Most people who are under that sort of pressure fray, their decisions go bad. Elon get hyper rational. He’s still able to make very clear, long term decisions. The harder it gets, the better he gets.”
The achiever trait
Musk is unable to let himself down. Anything he commits to he must see it through to its end. “He was willing to stake his existence” on Zip2, his first tech company. He even explained to venture capitalists “My mentality is that of a samurai. I would rather commit seppuku than fail.” He would literally rather die than fail.
He’s explained this in other interviews, too. When asked about whether he considered giving up when SpaceX’s third rocket launch failed, he said “Never… I don’t ever give up. I mean, I’d have to be dead or completely incapacitated.”
This do or die attitude comes from the ‘achiever’ trait that Musk has. This means he has a constant desire to achieve, and without getting things done constantly; feeling completely satisfied every single day with the amount of progress made, he feels inadequate. Therefore, he never under-achieves.
The achiever trait shined through in every aspect of his life, even in personal affairs. Musk once went on bike ride to bond with employees of Zip2. He was nowhere near fit enough for the bike ride, and he arrived at the end 15 minutes after everyone else. Ambras, his cousin, stated “Anyone else would have quit or walked up with their bike. As I watched him climb that final hundred feet with suffering all over his face, I though, That’s Elon. Do or die but don’t give up.”
Building and motivating a highly skilled team
Musk was not good at communicating with employees in his early days, which is probably why he was never CEO of his first company. He has learnt to communicate over the years and stated recently “You have to put yourself in a position where you say, ‘Well, how would this sound to them, knowing what they know?”
An interesting method he uses to make employees self-motivating is explained by Brogan: “He doesn’t say, ‘you have to do this by Friday at two P.M.,’ He says, ‘I need the impossible done by Friday at two P.M. Can you do it?’ Then, when you say yes, you are not working hard because he told you to. You’re working hard for yourself. It’s a distinction you can feel. You have signed up to do your own work.”
Before motivating his employees however, he ensures his recruitment process finds only the most talented people who are the perfect fit for the company.
Dolly Singh, ex head of talent acquisition at SpaceX, would trawl through academic papers to find specific skills, cold call researchers at labs, and pluck engineers out of college to work for the company. She effectively sold the vision, not the job.
SpaceX would hand out blank envelopes to potential employees to meet at a certain place at a certain time. “They were immediately made to feel special and inspired.” – Musk wants them, so he makes them want him and his vision first.
This is similar to the way Steve jobs would unveil the original Macintosh computer in interviews and judge the candidates based on their response. If they were amazed by it, he knew they’d be good for the team. Finally, before candidates got the job, they’d be made to write an essay detailing why they want to work for Musk. This way he is guaranteed to hire only people who share the vision.
Check out the book here, it’s 100% worth a read: https://www.amazon.com/Elon-Musk-SpaceX-Fantastic-Future/dp/0062301233