What do Artificial Intelligence, space exploration, electric cars, and planetary transportation tubes have in common? Aside from being common fixtures in Science Fiction, what unites these ideas is the one man behind them all, the man who plans on sustainably bringing them into existence for the benefit of all humanity: Elon musk. In this article Dima Issa takes a candid look at this Innovative icon.
It’s rare to find a man whose work involves saving the planet, exploring the cosmos, and understanding the nature of consciousness in one, as each is a task befitting a lifetime. So how did it come to be that the 53rd richest person in the world (according to Forbes magazine) and the 21st most powerful person became determined to use his power for planetary change?
Early life Musk was born in 1971 in South Africa. He was a self-described geek, voraciously read science fiction, and had an aptitude for self-learning. As such, he had a tough time at school in Pretoria, and was perceived as an outcast. He was badly bullied, to say the least, and ended up in hospital on a few occasions. In spite of, or perhaps because of the animosity he faced, he would often read for 10 hours a day — a lot of science fiction initially, and then a lot of non-fiction too.
At the age of nine, his fascination broadened to technology, when he got his hands on his first computer. It came with five kilobytes of memory and a user manual that was supposed to take the user six months to complete. Nine-year-old Elon finished it in three days. Not surprisingly, by the time he was 12 he had designed and created his own computer game, Blaster, which he sold to a PC company for $500.
By age 17 he left South Africa forever. He hadn’t been able to identify with the culture there, and had a vision of living and working in Silicon Valley — which he saw as the Promised Land of futurism and technology. He immigrated to Canada, thanks to his mother’s Canadian citizenship, and then a few years later transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, as his golden ticket into America.
Early career In college, his love of science-fiction literature led him to ask himself a very powerful question, “What will most affect the future of humanity?” and the answer he came up with was a list of five things: the internet; sustainable energy; space exploration, in particular the permanent extension of life beyond Earth; artificial intelligence; and reprogramming the human genetic code.
He decided to pursue sustainable energy initially, enrolling in a Stanford PhD program to study high energy density capacitors, a technology aimed at finding more efficient ways to store energy than the non-renewable form of the battery. However, two days into the program he got itchy feet. The year was 1995, and the internet wave was growing into a tsunami — which Elon intended to surf!
The internet so he crossed off sustainable energy as his starting point (intending to return to it at a later time) and embarked on a journey following the first item on his list to change the future of humanity: the internet. He tried interviewing with Netscape, but was too shy to secure the position, and instead teamed up with his brother Kimbal (who had followed Elon to the United States) to start their own company — Zip2.
Tim Urban, the mind behind the WaitButWhy blog, describes Zip2 as being “like a primitive combination of Yelp and Google Maps, far before anything like either of those existed. The goal was to get businesses to realize that being in the Yellow Pages would soon become outdated, and that it was a good idea to get themselves into an online directory.”
Taking risks just like anyone taking a risk and starting their own company, out of college, times were tough initially for the ‘just out of college’ brothers. They had to resort to sleeping in the office and showering at the local community center.
Their hard work paid off and in 1999, at the peak of the internet boom of the nineties, they sold their company for $307 million. Musk, who was 27, made $22 million in his share.
Empire building any other 27 year old might have seen this as the apex of their career, and would have folded their arms smugly as they embarked on an early retirement. However, Musk had four more items on his list of changing the world, and wasn’t about to stop there.
He invested three quarters of his net worth into his new idea of creating an online banking system, called X.com, where everything could be done online.
Back then; it was a fringe concept pushing at the boundaries of what the internet was capable of, however in current times it has become very much the norm. X.com paired up with a finance company called Confinity, run by Peter Thiel and Max Levchin.
PayPal was born both companies began to notice a strong demand for their money-transfer services, which suddenly pitted the two companies against each other. They decided to merge into a new company and PayPal was born. However, there was still trouble with the upper echelons of leadership.
In 2000, when Musk left on honeymoon, Thiel and Levchin staged a coup and removed Elon as CEO, replacing him with Thiel. He stayed on in a senior position, continuing to invest in the company, and later was rewarded when eBay bought PayPal in 2002 for $1.5 billion (Musk’s share was $180 million).
Just as before, instead of buying an island and living out the rest of his days in a breeze, Elon used the earnings to solely fund his even bigger, even more mind-bending next project: space exploration.
The start of SpaceX and Tesla SpaceX was born in 2002, and its initial purpose was to make humans into a multi-planetary species by colonizing Mars over the next century. Musk was on a roll, and in 2004 decided to pursue two of his dreams simultaneously — space exploration, and sustainable energy. This is when he launched the electric car company Tesla, which sought to revolutionize the world’s transport, and which as of February 2018 has produced 300,000 vehicles, and sent one Tesla Roadster successfully into space.
In 2008 times were tough for SpaceX! Their first three rockets exploded upon launch, and the damages put an enormous drain on the company’s funds. Rather than accept defeat, Elon turned to books and research, determined to find a solution. When he started SpaceX, he was coming from a coding background. But now, more than ever, he took it upon himself to learn and master the fundamentals of rocket science. One of the books he credits his success to is “Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down” a book about structural engineering by J.E. Gordon, a British scientist.
Falcon 1 Gets Launched
Musk got intimately involved with the planning and design of SpaceX’s Falcon rocket, and Falcon 1 became the first privately developed rocket to successfully launch and go into orbit around earth. This is when SpaceX caught NASA’s interest, and NASA offered SpaceX a $1.6 billion dollar contract to help with the next 12 Falcon launches. Since then, SpaceX has launched 20 rockets — each of them a success and NASA is a regular client.
The Tesla Model S has become a smashing success, with a consumer report rating of 99/100 (the highest ever) and a safety ranking of 5.4/5. Musk’s ventures are all on an upward spiral of success, and is he ready for early retirement now? Of course not! There are still items on his list to develop, and he still has the dream of saving the future of humanity.
No stopping Elon his newest and possibly most ambitious project to date is Neuralink, which is a startup that is centered on creating devices that can be implanted in the human brain, with the eventual purpose of helping human beings merge with software and keep pace with advancements in artificial intelligence. These enhancements could improve memory or allow for more direct interfacing with computing, in addition to downloading and preserving your consciousness forever! A lofty task, but if we know anything about Elon, we know that his sight is set on the stars, and his mission is to help humanity achieve the future we’ve all been imagining.
Elon Musk’s central force is all about turning our wildest science fiction dreams into reality, a concept of which he has proven himself more than capable. Therefore, as lasting thoughts, who better to quote but Philip K. Dick, an author of science fiction who states; “The measure of a man is not his intelligence or how quickly he rises in the establishment. No, the true measure of a man is this: how quickly can he respond to the needs of others and how much of himself can he give.”
Lets take a look at Elon Musk’s trailblazing leadership style and inspirational quotes from this amazing business icon with associated action steps:
“Really pay attention to negative feedback and solicit it, particularly from friends. Hardly anyone does that, and it's incredibly helpful." Elon Musk
Criticism is like exercise. In the beginning, it's tough. But it slowly leads to many long-term benefits. He is regularly heard saying: "I think it's very important to have a feedback loop, where you're constantly thinking about what you've done and how you could be doing it better."
Action steps: Write down five people who would give you brutally honest criticism. This could be your coworkers, direct manager, significant other, close friends, or even your parents. Then ask them about what you should fix right now.
"Boil things down to the most fundamental truths. Then reason up from there." Elon Musk
People have said battery packs will always be expensive, because they’re expensive to make, and that’s just how it is. Yet Musk realized that when you break down batteries into their fundamental components (cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, polymers, and a steel can) and build your own batteries, costs go down dramatically. This led to Tesla Energy.
Action steps: Write down your biggest challenge right now, whether personal or professional and break down that problem to its most basic components. After understanding the fundamental inputs, work out how each of those smaller components can be improved upon, changed, or executed completely differently?
Keep the focus
"Will this activity result in a better product? If not, stop those efforts." Elon Musk
Elon Musk preaches the power of focus. For example, many companies put more money into marketing than they do engineering. Musk would rather minimally promote an incredible product than promote the living hell out of a mediocre one: “At Tesla, we’ve never spent any money on advertising. We’ve put all our money into R&D, engineering, design, and manufacturing to build the best car possible. When we consider spending money, we ask, 'Will this create a better product?' If not, we don’t proceed with spending the money.”
Action steps: Create a list of 20 goals you have for the next year, and then reduce that list to five goals. It’s incredibly challenging to narrow these down, but once you do, you’ll experience rapid progress.
Don’t be afraid of failure
"Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough." Elon Musk
When you’re starting a company with a mission for interplanetary exploration, failure is a viable option. Instead of throwing in the towel, Elon Musk plans for anticipated failure and creates contingency plans. “If we don’t get the first SpaceX rocket launch to succeed by the time we’ve spent $100 million, we will stop the company. That will be enough for three attempted launches.”
His first launch for SpaceX rocket failed and cost $30 million. The second attempt failed and cost $60 million. On the third and last attempt, it successfully launched and won a $1.6 billion contract from NASA for 12 resupply flights to the station. Was Elon Musk concerned about failure? Absolutely! But did he create a plan to address possible failure? Yes! And that’s precisely what allowed him to put rockets into space.
Action steps: What’s a project you’ve been meaning to take on but haven't gotten round to yet? Have you convinced yourself that you don't have enough time, or some other reason? Write your project down and work out the absolute worst-case scenario. Then discard the problems you have no control over and create a contingency plan for each problem you can control.
"I figured if I could live off a dollar a day then, at least from a food stand point, it's pretty easy to earn $30 a month." Elon Musk
After defining worst-case scenarios and addressing solutions to potential problems, the best way to remove fear is by literally putting yourself in that worst-case situation and seeing how you feel. For example, when Elon Musk decided he wanted to be an entrepreneur at 17 years old, he forced himself to live off $1 per day and lived mainly off hot dogs and oranges. Elon didn’t do it because he was poor. He did it to see if he had what it takes to lead the life as an entrepreneur. And since he was successful with this experiment, he knew that money would not be an issue. so he went out and did what he does best and took the risk!
Action steps: Imagine you’re living that worst-case scenario right now. Write down how you would feel in detail. If you believe you could get through your worst-case scenario (after imagining how it feels), go out and take the risk.
Solve problems beyond yourself
"If something is important enough, even if the odds are against you, you should still do it." Elon Musk
A lot of people focus on finding a secure job that makes them happy. They ask about the salary, the benefits and the culture. But rarely do they ask if their work is going to make an impact on the world? Elon Musk didn’t ask himself, “What are some of the best ways I can make money?” Instead, as he left PayPal, he asked himself, “What are some of the problems that are likely to affect the future of humanity?” Musk never mentions profit in interviews. He discusses SpaceX's goal to make humanity into a multi-planetary species, or Tesla's goal to accelerate the world's movement toward having mostly electric cars.
Action steps: Write down the projects you are working on right now. Then ask yourself, "Am I solving a problem beyond myself?" If not, write down the steps needed to reach that level.
And a final quote from this tycoon that has such a relentless drive (and is obviously a workaholic)
"Work like hell. I mean you just have to put in 80-to 100-hour workweeks. If other people are putting in 40-hour workweeks and you're putting in 100-hour workweeks, then even if you're doing the same thing, you know that you will achieve in four months what it takes them a year to achieve.”