David Perell

The Magic of Elon Musk

David Perell
The Magic of Elon Musk
“One night he told me, ‘If there was a way that I could not eat, so I could work more, I would not eat. I wish there was a way to get nutrients without sitting down for a meal.”

Elon Musk‘s accomplishments are both admirable and realistically unmatchable. We drool over his achievements with the feeling that he is simultaneously superhuman and just like us. While thousands of people dream of achieving at the level of Musk, actually doing so is both harmful and undesirable.

Musk judges his success by asking himself one question: is my work helping humanity become a multi-planetary species?

As biographer Ashlee Vance describes, the desire to save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation is the nucleus of Musk’s work. It guides every move he makes. Deep commitment and laser focus give Musk an unparalleled ability to out-work, out-think, and out-innovate everybody else.

Entrepreneurs who learn about Musk dream of emulating him. Who wouldn’t want the fame, the recognition or the pride? In our rush to both glorify and covet every aspect of Musk’s existence, we ignore the burden of his lifestyle. We’re intellectually unable to grasp the overwhelming exhaustion of all-nighters and immense pressure. Common priorities like personal health, tolerating legitimate excuses and even being kind to others are secondary. For Musk, they’re irrelevant and beside the point.

His lifestyle, and in turn, his achievements, come with a complete lack of empathy. In truth, we don’t want this lifestyle. We can’t handle it because it’s not who we are. It requires a rejection of both societal assumptions and waves of criticism. In turn, Musk’s employees criticize him for “a complete lack of loyalty or human connection.”

Musk’s standard of commitment and relentless drive is unachievable for the average person. Average people live in small communities; they prize deep relationships with friends, family and coworkers. Average people are average because they share the same anxieties and insecurities as everybody else. It’s an integral part of who they are and what they strive for. This drive for strong relationships is an integral part of the human condition.

The will to build strong relationships and defer to societal standards is a good thing. Without it, we’d have chaos and violence. But it means we can’t be like Elon Musk because our instincts wouldn’t allow it.

Musk is ignorant of social standards because of his childhood — an excruciating childhood which lacked normalcy in every sense. Growing up, he faced verbal abuse from his father and physical abuse from peers at school. To cope, Musk sought emotional safety in the library. As a result of his time spent reading, he finished all the books at both the local and school libraries. Musk’s curiosity was especially stoked by comics and science fiction books in which a hero or heroine was depicted saving the world. Though those books cannot be the only cause of his inhuman drive to improve the quality of life for the entire human race, they most certainly contributed.

Musk’s interests matured with age. He continued to read and learn, but diversified to more profitable endeavors, such as coding. By the age of 12, he was selling his work — a feat many twice his age would be proud of today. It is clear, then, that Musk was not a normal child, at least not in comparison to those with whom he grew up. I, for one, spent my time playing sports outside, trying to beat video games, and hanging out with friends. I was adventurous and physically active, which contributed to my carefree and curious nature. As a child, I was never exposed to the same torment that so affected Musk in his formative years; torment that inspired Musk to explore himself intellectually in a way that most adults still have not. Musk’s biography describes his laser focus and ability to tune out the world around him to focus on the task at hand, a skill that’s becoming rarer and rarer in our fast-paced, smartphone infused modern world. These are fitting characteristics for a man who sought sanctuary in the safe haven of his own curious mind during his tumultuous childhood.

The instincts Musk developed as a kid drive his actions today. Musk understands his obsessions and pursues them vigorously. His zeal for human prosperity drives — and some might say control — him, yet he maintains a level of productivity that has gained him international notoriety as one of the world’s leading minds.

His ability to weave together a complex childhood, encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge, and creative genius is exactly what enables each of his outstanding achievements. Musk’s unparalleled imagination comes from fictional tales like Lord of the Rings. His desire to create a multi-planetary species comes from fantastical book series such as Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. His ability to read for hours and seemingly retain everything comes from skills he developed to cope with his upbringing. Having conceptualized the vastness of the universe at a young age, Musk prioritizes the longevity of the human species over his own life.  

Musk’s unprecedented self-awareness, which could be better labeled as self-understanding, allows him to harness his quirks and unique insight in exceptional ways. However, that same sense of self makes him ignore societal norms in pursuit of grandiose visions for the future. He has endured three divorces, countless hours away from his children, and levels of stress that would tear the average person apart.

And yet, Musk toils on.

The same mindset that has hampered his personal life will eventually enable monthly trips to Mars, ubiquitous, battery-powered electric vehicles, and a sharp increase in the efficacy of solar energy. None of these achievements, however, would be possible without massive sacrifices — sacrifices Musk has made, and continues to make — in other areas of his life.

As with anybody, Musk’s strengths mirror his weaknesses with deep fears enabling each achievement. Because of this, Musk is able to ignore naysayers and push through physical and emotional pain. In some cases, it may be that he simply does not allow himself to feel the pain that others would characterize as a “uniquely human” experience. 

However, not having to deal with the same things the rest of us do provides him with a far clearer vision for the future than the rest of us will ever have. This, combined with his unique level of self-understanding, grants Musk clarity that most of us have never had, and may never know.

Goals breed commitment. Commitment breeds focus. Focus breeds achievement.

Musk reminds us of the need to understand the crux of who we are as individuals so that we can set goals and cultivate the focus required to acheive all we are capable of. Finding fulfillment in our own work at Musk’s level requires leveraging our perceived “weaknesses” — the same weaknesses that Musk turned into strengths as a young child. He has leveraged his anti-social traits, perceived rudeness, and nerdy-ness into life-changing businesses. In doing so, he’s earned tremendous respect and wealth.

Let’s chat! I blog at perell.com and tweet (obsessively) at @david_perell 😎

Special thanks to Zander Nethercutt for editing this post 🙏