Regular readers of the EVANNEX blog will need no recap of Elon Musk’s super-heroic achievements. Forbes recently estimated that he has amassed a personal fortune of $15.3 billion, but the man himself would likely consider that one of his lesser triumphs. Musk is much more than a successful businessman - he and his companies have set events in motion that will completely transform our society.
Above: Tesla CEO Elon Musk in New York (Instagram: parlakjurnal)
Be that as it may, his success is based in large part on his business skills, and he has much to teach the aspiring entrepreneur. Fortunately, Musk has a gift for explaining how he does things, and he is generally quite happy to do so. Over the years, he has generated a huge body of eloquent/folksy advice for those who would follow in his footsteps (although your results may vary).
A recent CNBC article summarized some of Musk’s most important lessons for 21st-century businesspeople. Another good source of pearls of Muskian wisdom is the book Rocket Man - Elon Musk In His Own Words.
Musk is very much a hands-on manager - he believes in soliciting feedback from subordinates and peers alike. “Take as much feedback from as many people as you can about whatever idea you have,” Musk told Google in 2013. “Seek critical feedback. Ask them what’s wrong. You often have to draw it out in a nuanced way to figure out what’s wrong.” He also emphasized the importance of “getting your hands dirty” - experiencing the minutiae of a company for yourself. “You’ve got to do all sorts of jobs and tasks that you might not wish to do, that are not intrinsically interesting to you,” he said. “No task is too menial. I think that’s the right attitude for CEO of a startup.”
Above: Elon Musk at work on a tunnel project (Twitter: @SandyMazza)
While accepting critical feedback is important, being discouraged by negativity is quite another matter. Every one of Musk’s enterprises has faced withering criticism from the “old guard” every step of the way. Even now, there’s a constant chorus of naysayers who insist that the whole Tesla empire is poised to fall apart at any moment. Is Elon bothered by these croakers? We may never know, but we do know that he has never let them slow him down for a second. “Whatever skeptics have said can’t be done, Elon has gone out and made real,” Richard Branson wrote in a 2013 Time profile.
One of the hallmarks of Musk’s companies is a willingness to discard the established way of doing things, cutting through layers of time-wasting process and procedures. “I don’t believe in process,” Musk said in a 2012 Wired interview. “In fact, when I interview a potential employee and he or she says that ‘it’s all about the process,’ I see that as a bad sign. At a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking - you’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows you to keep people who aren’t that smart, who aren’t that creative.”
Perhaps the most important principle of all: Don’t focus on money - focus on the problem you want to solve. If you get that right, money will follow. “This is not about wealth accumulation for me personally,” Musk told PBS in 2008. “It’s just that I think this is a very important problem and it’s got to get solved, and if we don’t solve it we’re in trouble.”
Above: Time to get some Elon Bucks (Instagram: carolinebpark)
Of course, great achievement does not come solely from following a set of principles, however wise - it also involves great sacrifice. A recent article in Quartz details Musk’s formidable daily schedule. Elon says he has cut back his famous 100-hour work weeks to a mere 80 or 90 hours, but the extent of his work commitments surely leaves little time for the sort of recreational and family-related activities that most of us take for granted. He does make time for his five sons, taking them along on his rounds of the various Tesla and SpaceX facilities, and on an annual camping trip. “I’m a pretty good dad. I have the kids for slightly more than half the week and spend a fair bit of time with them. I also take them with me when I go out of town.”
Musk makes a point of getting just the right amount of sleep - too much means lost time, but too little means lost productivity. “The right number for me is around 6 to 6.5 hours per night,” says he. “I find if I don’t get enough sleep I’m quite grumpy. [If I] drop below a certain threshold of sleep, although I would be awake more hours I would get less done because my mental acuity would be affected.”
In the end, however well-organized one may be, changing the world is probably not compatible with maximizing one’s personal happiness. Musk acknowledges as much in a poignant passage from his speech at the recent meeting of the National Governors’ Association (near the end, in response to a question). People’s expectations of a superhero sometimes get “out of control,” and meeting them is “a pretty tall order,” Musk soberly says. “A lot of times it’s really not fun...a whole lot less fun than it may seem.” For a moment we see the man behind the Iron Man. “I really wouldn’t recommend anyone to start a car company. It’s not a recipe for happiness and freedom.”
Above: A look at how Elon Musk spends his time (Image: Quartz)
If anyone understands the sacrifices that Musk has made, it’s probably his ex-wife Justine Musk - she offered some interesting insights in a recent post on Quora. “Extreme success results from an extreme personality, and comes at the cost of many other things,” Ms. Musk writes. “Extreme success is different from what I suppose you could just consider ‘success,’ so know that you don’t have to be Richard [Branson] or Elon to be affluent and accomplished and maintain a great lifestyle. Your odds of happiness are better that way. But if you’re extreme, you must be what you are, which means that happiness is more or less beside the point.”
As Justine sees it, those who attain “extreme success” are, quite simply, obsessed. They combine brilliance and talent with “an insane work ethic.” They tend to have “superhuman energy and stamina,” and can handle “a level of stress that would break most people.” They do not fear failure, or if they do, they keep going anyway. “They will experience heroic, spectacular, humiliating, very public failure but find a way to reframe until it isn’t failure at all. When they fail in ways that other people won’t, they learn things that other people don’t and never will.”
While following Elon Musk’s advice may make you a better businessman, it won’t make you become like him. “Don’t follow a pre-existing path, and don’t look to imitate your role models,” says Justine. “Extreme success is not like other kinds of success; what has worked for someone else probably won’t work for you. They are individuals with bold points of view who exploit their very particular set of unique and particular strengths. They are unconventional, and one reason they become the entrepreneurs they become is because they can’t or don’t or won’t fit into the structures and routines of corporate life.”
Above: A behind-the-scenes look at Elon Musk's demanding work schedule (Youtube: Complex Hustle)
Still think you have what it takes to become a super-entrepreneur like Elon Musk? Then stop reading articles like this and get out there and start doing. Justine Musk concludes her essay by noting that the super-successful are unlikely to spend their priceless time surfing the web.