Elon Musk & the quest for a fantastic future: 5 learnings

My limited view of Elon Musk had been that of a silicon valley serial entrepreneur, the one behind Paypal, SpaceX, Tesla and Solar City. And the top-of-mind recall had been of his comparisons with Tony Stark, the fictional Iron Man, as an uber-cool inventor, playboy & eccentric industrialist, for real.

“Anywhere on Earth in under an hour” — Musk’s teaser for rapid travel (Source: SpaceX)

Of late, I’ve been intrigued by the spate of social media attention that Musk has been commanding, whether its the landing of SpaceX’s reusable rocket back in earth, launch of the next sexy vehicle from Tesla or his grand blueprint for interplanetary and rapid Earth travel.

Book cover (Source: Amazon)

Elon Musk’s Biography

I just read the book by Ashlee Vance titled “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a fantastic future”. And was I fascinated. His story is both inspiring and eccentric, with events worth well over 5 decades packed into his 20 years of working life, which the book has chronicled until 2015. There’s more of Musk to come, and going by what I read, thats an optimism for the long-term prospects of the entire human race!

The book also had a lot of subtle tidbits and behind-the-scenes details from Musk’s life, apart from his ventures. From a man who’s disrupted not one but several industries at a time, who has not only laid down his blueprint for all of mankind, but has also led people firmly down that path, there’s a lot to learn.

Here are my top 5 takeaways from the book:

1. Continuously set bigger goals with an overarching purpose

Musk’s vision has always been grand, and atleast 10 years ahead of his time. That explains why all his ventures initially seemed like crazy concoctions: Dotcom in 1994, e-banking in ’99, Space travel in ’02 and Green energy in ‘04.

Not resting on the windfall of millions or celebrity status that he achieved after his very first startup, he has been rethinking on what could be the next big thing. What struck me most was that, venture after venture, he consistently threw away all that he made, one grand bet after another, & poured his heart into the next big goal.

2. Learn, relearn and re-invent yourself to push limits

It was fascinating to trace how Musk reinvented himself with every new venture — from a naive programmer whose code had to be rewritten in his first startup, a fledgling & insecure CEO who investors didn’t trust with the top job even in his second company, to an executive who had challenges in holding a large company & its talent, he learnt and overcame weaknesses.

He seemed to be a learning machine, soaking in knowledge all along — whether it was devouring encyclopaedias in childhood, learning entirely new disciplines from scratch, or maturing as a leader by combining vision with execution through decisiveness, hands-on approach and attention to detail.

At the recent launch of Tesla’s new Roadster (Source: Pixr8)

3. Woo the best of talent and push them for (more than) the best

Its obvious that his achievements have been possible because he had also been ably supported by a stellar team in each of his ventures (though there are accusations that he often takes all the credit). Musk is known to woo & win-over the best of talent, no matter what, and the book cites several examples.

Surrounding himself with the top performers, he drives them crazy in pursuit of a singular goal. This is another grey area often highlighted wherein he comes across as excessively hard on his team, at times even appearing cold, opportunistic or ungrateful. But given that his people deliver on unrealistic goals & vehemently stand by him hints of some mixed leadership qualities.

4. Don’t just sit in a corner doing great stuff, sell it to the world

One of my key learnings was Musk’s quality of showsmanship and marketing savvy, which along with his other talents becomes a killer combination. This is an area that warrants some obvious comparisons with Steve Jobs, where I could see parallels. Both used their wizardry to sell a vision to the world, even without the product, to win over crucial supporters & push for the goal.

A leader’s job is not done with converting a visionary idea into a great product which in itself is no mean task. But they must be armed to fight bigger ensuing battles like competition lobby, market regulations, un-like-minded investors and genuine product lifecycle issues like protracted user conversion.

5. Adversity is just another experience, take it in your stride

Overall, Musk comes across as one who actively courts adversity by acting like a compulsive gambler, addicted to living life on the edge with all-or-none bets. Whats striking is how he weathers the troubles that he so diligently invites, and how he single-handedly pulls himself out of the deep pits dug for himself.

Through his life, the never-failing and alternating cycle of miraculous good-fortune and horrible hard luck, seems to have endowed him with nerves of steel & indomitable superhuman powers to maintain sanity in the downturns, while staying immune to the hazards of success.

To get a sense, the year 2008 quoted as one of his lowest, was when both his companies (SpaceX and Tesla) were weeks away from bankruptcy, while he went through a bitter divorce, faced a scathing personal vilification campaign, and had to borrow money for his living expenses after losing all of his hard-earned fortune. And he bounced back from this.

Source: Boreme

Overall a compelling story, and I’d highly recommend this book if you’re looking for inspiring life accounts to read.

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