The Elon Musk problem

For a few months, applications to positions at Founders ended with a question: “who is your hero”? Not that I expected to disqualify anybody through this question — or better, not that I expected anybody to offer a disqualifying answer — but I was curious to read what candidates would write. Knowing who people look up to says something about who they are and who they want to become.

The most frequent answer, by some distance, turned out to be “Elon Musk”, followed by a long tail of other people among which “my father” came up a lot [1]. At first, I didn’t read too much into it. After all, if you run two (almost three) visionary companies at the same time — and successfully so — you are bound to get some fans among entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs. Then one day I saw this image going around Twitter under the headline : “Elon Musk is Benjamin Button”.

I don’t mean to comment on Elon Musk’s hair [2]. The issue, or what I came to think of as “the Elon Musk problem”, is that we invariably look up to people once they have made it. Not before, or in the process of, doing so. Successful people are typically well groomed, confident, charismatic — all carrying that aura of inevitability only hindsight can give. People in the process of (trying to) become successful, on the contrary, are tired, overworked, underslept, insecure, worried about a million things and, frequently, certain that they are never going it make it. Becoming the Tesla Elon Musk doesn’t work without first becoming the Elon Musk and then PayPal Elon Musk.

This “problem” applies to companies just like it does to people. That’s why a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs look at ways to start the new Airbnb without appreciating the fact that you cannot start Airbnb without renting out your air mattress, or without designing and selling politically inspired cereal boxes. Starting companies is a messy process and the photos taken in the midst of it are depressingly unglamorous.

What answer should we expect instead? It is difficult to think that prospective jobseekers would indicate some obscure garage-dwelling entrepreneur as their idol. It is also difficult to imagine a world without role models. Emulation is a powerful force, and whatever moves people to punch above their weigh class is good. Maybe we could stimulate a more nuanced view on the stories that inspire us by rephrasing the question: “Who’s you hero and what part of her/his life inspired you the most”? What’s most fascinating about a celebrity, in any field, is indeed the journey and not the point of arrival.

That’s also why I like stories centred around beginnings and why “Founders at Work” remains my favourite entrepreneurship and startup book. You can learn about how your hero of choice got lucky, made a stupid mistake, and (occasionally) executed on a perfect plan. Beginnings humanise celebrities and show possibilities in our imperfections.

If you are a founder at beginning of your journey and you look yourself in the mirror, you won’t see the shiny face of today’s Elon. More likely, you will see a tired, pale, baggy-eyed, balding, stressed out version of it. And that’s just fine.

[1] The fact that nobody answered “my mother” tells a big deal about the culture we have been brought up with, but that’s another story.

[2] This despite me being from Italy where it is apparently a sport to comment on other people’s “magical” hair recovery. Which is even more ironic considering that Italy must be among the countries where the most hair-loss-prevention products are sold, judging from the amount of tv commercials. For the record, I am bald(ing).