How to become the Elon Musk of X

The beauty of biography lies in its ability to uncover the origin story of our heroes. Ashlee Vance does a stellar job telling Elon’s story in Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. The following is my attempt to distill Elon’s approach to success.

In order to become the Elon Musk of X, follow these 7 Steps to Success:

1. Figure out your X

X is the industry you wish to disrupt. In the case of Musk, he is the Elon Musk of space travel, electric cars, and solar-energy. Obvious, I know.

Choose your X wisely. Ideally the industry you wish to engage in, whether it be bubble gum or deep sea exploration, will be inherent to your life philosophy and experiences. As a bubble-gum enthusiast maybe your childhood was spent living near a bubble gum factory that poorly treated its workers, focused on volume rather than quality, and polluted your entire neighborhood. Or as a deep-sea enthusiast your parents may have died during a dive due to inadequate equipment.

Your chosen X should have a flaw that resonates with other people due to authenticity of your story and its potential impact on a large number of lives. #AllXsMatter. If you’re stuck, you should probably stop here and really reflect on your life or live more, observantly, for the young-ins. Alternatively, Medium has a gold mine of articles that will help you find your X like the ones here, here, here, and here. Either way, you need to have a long term vision for your industry that incumbents can’t or won’t subscribe to and will fuel the pursuit of excellence.

2. Become an expert at the fundamentals, or at least formidable

Awesome. Now that you have a target all the easy work that could be done has been done. You know what they say about ideas … What matters now is that you establish yourself as well versed in the subject. Elon did exactly that for each of his companies. When starting Zip2 which turned into Paypal , “Musk had a modicum of banking experience and had resorted to buying a book on the industry to understand its inner workings Pg. 82.”

In prepping his foray into the space industry he’d read at least some of Rocket Propulsion Elements, Fundamentals of Astrodynamics, and Aerothermodynamics of Gas Turbine and Rocket Propulsion. His friends could testify to his deep devotion.

“We’re all hanging out in the cabana at the Hard Rock Cafe, and Elon is there reading some obscure Soviet rocket manual that was all moldy… Pg. 98” — Kevin Hartz.

He spent months studying the aerospace industry and the physics behind it. We have to keep in mind that Musk had also completed a dual degree in physics and economics, and was therefore in a prime position to consume the content. Fun fact: He also read the Encyclopedia Britannica as a child.

The point here is that you should find the books that are critical to understanding your industry on a fundamental, highly granular, and detailed level and read them. Read voraciously and bounce ideas off of friends to translate new knowledge into interesting ideas.

3. Join your X’s society

Ideas left in a vacuum will die. If an idea is created in a forest without anyone to witness, does it even exist? Elon Musk’s vision thrived because it was surrounded by the ideal idea cultivators. He spoke with The Mars Society, proponents of exploring and settling on Mars. (Yes I know, this falls under “things you wouldn’t think existed until you hear about it”, there’s also a Moon Society and a Pluto Preservation Society. ) He brought together and networked with key people in the space industry including people like James Cameron and Michael Griffin building contacts in the industry. He was still in the pubescent stages of his idea as we know it now. He was more interested in accelerating the Society’s mission to send mice into space, instead sending them to Mars. At a point of time he was even on their board. Of course, Musk also supported the Society financially.

You probably don’t have 100k to drop on a society. Neither do I. Your network is your net worth, though. What that really means is that the knowledge gained during your society’s meetings, networking, or conferences that reveal the unknowns is indispensable to the progression of your idea.

4. Find your Mueller(s)

Tom Mueller was your typical high school rocket engineer. He grew up with a tinkerer’s mindset eventually working at TRW Space and Electronics while pushing the limits of amateur rockets on the side. When Musk first met him he grilled him on his experience and ability to drive the building costs down. Mueller had been courted by crazy rich space guys, but Musk “seemed to know what he was doing.”

“Musk knew he had found someone who knew the ins and outs of building rockets Pg. 111.”

Likewise J.B. Straubel rebuilt the electric motor of a golf cart at age 13. After Stanford building an electric car was a sideproject he pitched to Elon “who had been think about electric cars for years”.

In both instances Straubel and Mueller were domain experts with credibility. To this day they serve as key pillars of Tesla and SpaceX. No matter your industry technical competence is absolutely essential within the founding team. In the cases of these two, it was not only their abilities as individuals that were appealing, but the harmony of unorthodox views with Musk’s.

5. Build a spreadsheet

After unsuccessfully trying to purchase ICBMs from the Russians, Elon and the dream team (Ressi, Griffin, and Cantrell) were particularly pissed. On the flight back his friends noticed Elon was doing his possessed coder thing, but then it turned out he wasn’t. Musk whipped out a spreadsheet that broke down the cost to build each part of the rocket along with the performance specifications. The end result was that he believed they didn’t need the Russians and could build the rocket themselves. He was able to credibly do so because he had in depth knowledge of the workings of rockets from reading books, Mars Society insider information and perspectives, along with a contrarian technical specialist who was Mueller.

In your case, model the problem you’re trying to solve at a granular enough level so that the effectiveness of your cost savings and unique strategy become apparent.

6. Execute

I’m not going to tell you how to run your company. Sure you’ll need to build it, hire people, definitely correctly implement buzzwords like lean startup, agile, scrum, kanban, customer development, court investors (if necessary), market, sell, manage churn and burn …the whole shebang. There are books for that. What I did find interesting about Musk was his commitment to execution.

Questions to ask yourself while executing:

  • Am I having pillow-talk update meetings with my employees?
  • Did I buy LASIK surgery for an employee that’s been too busy working to go buy new glasses?
  • Am I personally visiting suppliers/distributors and demanding quality from their employees?
  • Am I doing everything the incumbents aren’t doing better, faster, and stronger?
  • Am I building infrastructural, software, and people networks that haven’t existed before?
  • Am I willing to go to zero or even negative to see the vision fulfilled?

Elon did, Elon does, and Elon will probably continue to do the above. While the brilliant tactics and strategies can be copied to a degree, what stands out is Musk’s willingness to sacrifice.

The proof of desire is pursuit — Mike Murdock

One more thing. Step 0 — Believe.

This list should actually begin with a few critical steps. The steps outlined above do not consider the realities that so many people face; Lack of time, lack of funding, lack of above average intelligence, and lack of access. These are very interdependent properties of Elon’s life that put him at an advantage, so it seems. The pundits and critics would also argue that Tesla and SpaceX’s successes depended on Elon cashing out so early in life via PayPal or some version of that argument. This is true. I could tell you to hedge your bets and begin with a less ambitious goal like upending finance before you pursue your real X. Listening would have you fall into the pattern matching, hyper-function fitting tendency intrinsic to human nature. Don’t listen to me. Instead, listen to yourself and believe in yourself.

Instead, listen to yourself. Believe in yourself.

There was a point where Musk started from zero. At the genesis of each idea he had to draw from the experiences that helped him believe in the new, impossible, and opportunities. Don’t let disadvantages, mistakes, inferiority complexes, or fear dissuade you. Let them empower you. There are many ways to climb a mountain, however we each have our own mountain to climb. The first step to reaching the top is believing that you can.

**The complexity of Musk’s work should not be underestimated. Neither can one expect to be able to replicate the intangibles of his life, the darkest moments, or the brilliance necessary to achieve as much as he has. The goal should not be to copy his actions blindly, but to adopt the mindset and philosophies behind his decisions that will push you to become the You of X.**

If you liked this post, please recommend this approach to someone IRL when the opportunity presents itself.