Billionaire, inventor, entrepreneur, rocket scientist…
Meet Elon Musk.
Who is he? He’s the inventor of an all-electric sports car that does 0-60 in 3.7 seconds and gets 250 miles on a single charge. He’s the guy who designed a rocket that can blast off, hover in space and then land vertically precisely where it took off. He’s the guy who founded a company that was awarded a $1.6 billion contract by NASA to transport cargo to and from the International Space Station, and then made history with the first-ever successful docking of a non-governmental spacecraft at the Space Station this year.
I actually didn’t intend to do a story centered on Elon Musk.
I actually wanted to write about Tesla Motors, the manufacturer of a plug-in electric sports car. I am a big fan of, among other things, sustainable energy and really fast cars—admittedly two things you wouldn’t normally hear about in the same sentence. One day I stumbled across the Tesla Roadster and fell in love. I discovered there was a company out in California that had actually built a high-performance sports car you plug into an outlet at your house, like a cell phone. I was floored.
I always felt a bit guilty driving my car. I philosophically oppose fossil fuels on numerous counts, not the least of which is the fact that—global warming arguments aside—carbon pollution can’t possibly be good for the planet. Plus, Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez weren’t exactly pleasant. Besides, can’t we do better than that anyway? I mean, burning oil seems so… twentieth century.
Yet I felt like a hypocrite. How could I possibly hold a position that oil was an unintelligent source of energy when I supported it constantly? I buy as much gas as anyone else and, due to my heavy foot and turbocharger, probably wasn’t… as fuel efficient as I could be. You see my dilemma.
And then along came Tesla. Though admittedly a bit out of my price range, this little car was sexy—I mean, beyond cool. It looked like a Lotus or a little Lamborghini, but was a plug-in electric that could go nearly 250 miles on a single charge—approaching the range of a gasoline vehicle. Best of all though, it could do 0-60 in 3.7 seconds. I was in heaven. Finally someone had done what I thought inventors should be doing all the time—making awesome things. What was this company called Tesla Motors? And who was behind it?
If only I had known how surreal it was all about to become. When I started digging in, I left the mundane “real world” that we live in and entered the realm of comic books and fiction, the land of Tony Stark and John Galt, where billionaire visionaries create awesome futuristic inventions that change the world. You know—Batmobiles and jetpacks and stuff.
It was a world where self-doubt or failure didn’t seem to exist—where larger-than-life men confidently strode toward their goals, armed with the blazing invincibility of purpose inherent in the human soul. It seemed a world of inevitable greatness, where things happened according to a script of progress toward eventual triumph, where every setback is but a plot twist which is gloriously overcome in the final victory.
It was a world of the Expansion Formula brought to life.
In the Hubbard Management System, developed by author and philosopher L. Ron Hubbard, he writes of a fundamental formula of success so basic that he, indeed, calls it the “basic formula of living.” He states:
“The basic formula of Living (not Life) is:
“HAVING AND FOLLOWING A BASIC PURPOSE.
“Thus expansion is an increase in living. To increase living and heighten activity, one need only apply the expansion formula to living. Clean away the barriers, noncompliance and distractions from the basic purpose and reduce opposition and the individual or group or organization will seem more alive and indeed will be more alive.”1
By way of illustration, the life of Elon Musk is a true-life example.
Born in South Africa in 1971, Musk left home and emigrated to Canada at the age of 17 both to pursue the future he saw in America as well as avoid serving in the military of the apartheid regime, to which he was fundamentally opposed. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Physics from the University of Pennsylvania and a second bachelor’s in Economics from Wharton School of Business, he enrolled in Stanford’s PhD program to research advanced energy storage technology—high-tech batteries that could be used to power electric transportation. However, after only 24 hours he realized that this wasn’t where the future was happening and dropped out of the PhD program to start an internet company with his brother. With no cash and sleeping on futons in the office, Elon eventually built an extremely successful company, Zip2, which he sold to Compaq for over $300 million.
With the $22 million he made personally from the sale of Zip2, Musk was instantly rich. He easily could have retired for the rest of his life, a howling success. Yet he hardly paused before starting his next internet company, which became even more successful than the first. You may have heard of it. It’s called PayPal.
And this is where the story gets truly outrageous. Within less than three years Musk and his fellow co-founders were so successful that they were able to sell PayPal for $1.5 billion, a move which personally netted Musk $165 million. He was 31 years old at the time.
Now truly one of the dot com elite, Musk was poised for a charmed life in the ever-expanding online world. With his huge pile of cash and amazing entrepreneurial track record, what would be his next endeavor? The only logical thing for someone in his shoes: start a space exploration company with the ultimate goal of sending spaceships to Mars and making humanity a multi-planetary species.
I’m not joking.
With his sweeping vision of the future, Musk felt that Mankind had two choices: either become a spacefaring species and colonize other planets or stay on Earth and face an eventual extinction event. He felt the first option was a necessity for Man, besides being a far more exciting and inspiring future to live in. Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, was founded by Musk with his own money because it wasn’t exactly (ahem) a sure bet for investors. Although Musk had been wildly successful in Silicon Valley, this was a company that, according to its own website, was “…founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.” Crazy! Musk wasn’t even trained in rocketry or aeronautics. Had he gone out of his mind?
Apparently not. The next decade saw SpaceX embark on an almost mythical winning streak. Lead by Musk as lead designer, they streamlined and advanced existing rocketry technology with consistent breakthroughs until they finally achieved the impossible—in March of this year they were the first private company to dock a spacecraft at the International Space Station, delivering cargo and successfully making the round trip back to Earth.
Suddenly Musk’s visions of a human colony on Mars no longer seemed so unreal. He now owned the most advanced rocketry corporation in the world and was doing things that even governments couldn’t do—after having taught himself rocket design by, as he put it, “reading a lot.”
However, incredible as that was, it wasn’t the whole story. In 2004, with SpaceX still in its infant stages, Musk took on another venture. He had long noted that large amongst possible threats to humankind’s existence was its reliance on fossil fuels. For even if the atmosphere survived the massive pollution, most agree that there is only so much oil in existence in the world, and therefore at some point humans would use it all up. Yet no workable alternative had ever been achieved.
Burning billions of gallons of gasoline each year, the chief offender was the automobile. Cars all over the world were the main source of humanity’s addiction to oil. For nearly 130 years automobile manufacturers almost exclusively used the internal combustion engine. The solution was obviously a car with an alternative energy source. If a new type of engine could be brought to mass market, Earth’s consumption of oil would drastically change. The only problem was that no such technology existed—or so the experts said. Existing battery technology was supposedly far from being adequate in any practical electric car. And even if someone figured it out, it wouldn’t be economically feasible; the car-buying public would never go for an electric car—every automobile manufacturer on the planet knew that.
However, that was all about to change. Tesla Motors was founded with the express purpose of bringing an economical and practical electric car to market—one that consumers wanted to buy. The idea was that if Tesla could demonstrate that it was possible, then major car manufacturers all over the world would jump on the bandwagon with their own electric cars, creating a revolution in the automobile industry. People scoffed that it was impossible. Look at Tucker or DeLorean…Tesla was a pipe dream.
Fast forward less than 10 years.
Tesla has now not only produced the incredible Roadster mentioned earlier, but is actively churning out the Model S, a luxury sedan that was named Motor Trend’s Car of the Year for 2013 and which just passed the National Highway Safety Administration’s crash tests with the highest scores in history.
In the latest chapter of the Tesla saga, Musk is now constructing a massive network of “Supercharger” car charging stations across the United States, capable of delivering 180 miles of range in just 30 minutes. Characteristically, these Superchargers are powered by solar energy and will be free for Tesla owners…forever.
In the span of a decade Elon Musk has completely changed the face of what is considered “realistic” technology. He took wild sci-fi ideas and brought them to real-world economic reality. Mocked by reporters and scoffed at by experts, he not only managed to design and build the impossible, but he did it without government programs, initiatives or research grants…while personally becoming a billionaire many times over in the process.
He didn’t get a focus group together to see if it was possible. He didn’t conduct a survey of financial experts to gain a consensus as to whether his companies would work. He didn’t go to industry leaders to determine his chances for success.
He simply got to work teaching himself rocketry.
He saw problems—real problems—that needed to be solved. But rather than get embroiled in political debates, op-ed columns or public opinion campaigns, Musk simply pursued his vision. He ignored the naysayers. He ignored people who didn’t “get” his vision. He ignored people who couldn’t think big enough.
Steadfast in his belief in himself, confident in his personal capabilities and resolute in his indifference toward critics, Elon Musk’s success is a lesson we can all learn from. Often there are people who have a vested interest in holding others down—perhaps for financial reasons, perhaps just out of fear or spite. These people can make even the most likely success seem impossible—so impossible in fact, that there seems no reason to bother to try. As a result, many people never even have an opportunity to fail at their dreams—because they never start.
Musk didn’t get involved in regulating alternative energy into existence; he just set about building the coolest car ever. Why bother to legally require car manufacturers to make electric cars when every guy in America wants to buy one?
When people brought up that electric cars were impractical because there were no charging stations across the country like gas stations, Musk didn’t argue back. He just designed an amazing solar-powered station that could charge a car in 30 minutes, for free, and then started installing them all over the U.S.
When he saw that NASA had no plans in the foreseeable future to reach Mars, he didn’t “solve” it by publicly criticizing their lack of vision. He just founded a company to do it himself and started learning rocketry. He didn’t change the mission statement of SpaceX to sound more “acceptable” or “normal” to others. He just factually and confidently stated that his company’s purpose is to make it possible for people to live on other planets.
It wasn’t always easy and he wasn’t always successful. There were times when he was almost broke, his companies nearly out of money and his personal fortune at risk of being totally wiped out. Yet he never listened to critics or reasons why it was “impossible.” He just poured it on and pursued his vision. He skipped all the noise and confusion and kept playing his game. He didn’t fight with anyone, but won anyway, just by the fact of being so sweepingly successful.
Of course, the part of all of this that I haven’t mentioned is the fact that Elon Musk is a screaming genius. He has intelligence, insight and ability far beyond the norm. But that isn’t the point here. Maybe we aren’t all engineers who will build technological marvels, but we all have visions of a better future. And we all have naysayers. Every great visionary does.
The secret of Elon Musk is simply ignoring all the debate, the fighting and the strife. Just drop it. Go ahead and win anyway.
Everyone has a vision. Ignore the noise. Ignore the distraction. Be successful and make it come true anyway. Who knows? Maybe your creation will do something even cooler than 0-60 in 3.7 seconds. If so, let me know though. I’m interested in a test drive.
1 From an article of 13 March 1965, The Structure of Organization, What Is Policy?