The Four Laws of Elon Musk
words by Colin Hobbins
Illustration by Alexander Grahovsky
Ashlee Vance’s recent book, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, does us all a favor by covering a billionaire alpha nerd as something other than an impenetrable genius. Make no mistake, Musk is a freak. All of the typical references - young Musk reading every book at the local library, a photographic memory, etc. - are there. But when you look deeper at his successes, you’ll notice recurring themes that have little to do with being a genius and more to do with discipline and an intolerance for mediocrity. The principles aren’t rocket science. Pay attention and you’ll be able to apply the same concepts for a more productive and efficient life.
Never Stop Learning
Musk is essentially a software developer who became a rocket scientist and renewable energy industrialist after making his first fortune. Do you have the same limitless curiosity and a refusal to settle? Vance tells the story of Musk trapping an engineer at SpaceX to grill him on some highly technical points. At first, the engineer assumed Musk was challenging him but later realized that “he was trying to learn things. He would quiz you until he learned ninety percent of what you know.”
Musk recently demonstrated how seemingly unrelated skills can come together in unexpected ways. Debuting Powerwall - a sexy home battery (who knew those words could ever be placed beside each other?) and associated utility-scale product - he showed how its modular design could elegantly scale up from a household to a massive power station. Modularity and scalability are basic pillars of good software design but looked uniquely inventive when applied to power generation. There’s a good chance your vision isn’t unique. What is unique, however, is your particular combination of skills and perspectives. If you’re a believer in networking, diverse expertise may mean you actually have something memorable to say.
Musk is willing to suffer for his vision and expects that others do the same. Tell him a particular task is impossible and not only may he fire you, but he’ll take over your duties until that task is complete. When his long-time assistant asked for a significant raise, he sent her on a long vacation and said he’d do her job to assess whether the raise was justified. When she returned, he fired her. Your lesson here isn’t to be heartless, but to accept the responsibility of leadership. If you believe in what you’re doing, that it’s bigger than any one individual, then hard choices will have to be made. If your co-founder sleeps until noon, lose them now (even if you’ve known them since the eighth grade.)
When NASA is close to launching a rocket and finds a defective part, they cancel the launch, losing weeks to months of valuable time. When SpaceX finds a defective part, Musk has the rocket lowered and partially disassembled on a Sunday morning, finds a supplier that’s open on the same day in Minnesota, throws a technician on a plane to retrieve the part, has the exhausted messenger back in California on Monday for testing, and then immediately puts them back on a long flight to a remote Pacific launch platform, placing the new part inside the rocket in under 80 hours. Peter Thiel, Musk’s Paypal co-founder, defines a startup as “the largest group of people you can convince of a plan to build a different future.” If you build a team that shares your vision, you can and should ask extraordinary things of one another.
In Musk’s startup days, when he would go long stretches sleeping beside his desk, his employees knew to wake him as soon as they got to the office. An old teammate summarized Musk’s work ethic: “We all worked twenty hours a day, and he worked twenty-three hours.” What does your team say about you?
Musk is willing to suffer anything but fools to achieve his goals. He is constantly flying to split his time between SpaceX and Tesla. He’s sometimes stuck away from home and sends a late night text to a Google co-founder (or some other genius) and asks to crash on their couch. Your lesson is simple: grinding and comfort are often mutually exclusive, even for a billionaire. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Have Conviction In Your Ideas
SpaceX suffered several high-profile launch failures. When a rocket malfunctions during a launch, years of work literally blow up in your face. Tesla flirted with bankruptcy several times. You can never allow doubt to creep in. Imagine being Elon in 2007 when Valleywag calls the Tesla Roadster the ‘No. 1 Fail of the Year’. Now you’re Elon in 2012 and the Tesla Model S wins the Motor Trend Car of the Year and is recognized by others as “likely the best car ever built”. You have to believe that you’re better than your critics, that they don’t understand what you’re trying to do. If your startup is a year old and a few people warn you it’ll fail, perhaps there’s a reason you took a risk on something you believe in and they’ve been in the same cubicle for 19 years. Put your head down and keep working.