Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Lessons From Elon Musk

Years ago, working through Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, I wrote a post entitled “Lessons from Steve Jobs.” Among them—

Be as meticulous with the unseen as you are with the seen

There is great power in intensity and focus.

It’s not a sin to steal great ideas

Ideas mean little without execution

Having high expectations and demands can lead to greatness

This week, I finished Isaacson’s latest biography, Elon Musk. He is a man who is “an admixture of historically transforming achievements along with wild flameouts.” He runs such enterprises as Tesla, SpaceX, Starlink, The Boring Company, Neuralink, and X.AI. He is worth some 231 billion, making him the richest man in the world. Like Jobs, he has had a sizeable (how can one even quantify?) impact on the world. I approached the book with the same curiosity that I had regarding Steve Jobs. Here are some of the insights that stand out—

1-The past is not what we have left behind, but what we carry with us

I borrow this line from James K.A. Smith’s How to Inhabit Time. It’s especially true of Elon Musk. Growing up in South Africa, he was often picked on. Some of it was caused by his inability to read social cues, leaving peers to consider him an a-hole. He has carried the effects of this bullying with him. He continues to be a street fighter. Most devastating is the emotional abuse he suffered from his father. He was often told how pathetic and worthless he was, that he would never be successful. These have ganged up to plunge Musk into dark and demonic moods that continue to work to turn off fear—as well as joy and empathy.

2-People who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world sometimes do

I am not sure I have read of anyone so fiercely determined to impact humanity, and so confident in himself as indispensable to the progress of humankind. Musk seems to be a man summoned to solve humanity’s problems. From the beginning, Musk has thought about the things that truly affect humanity. For him, they are the internet, sustainable energy, and space travel. His stated mission in life is to make mankind a multi-planetary civilization. This is what will preserve human consciousness in the event of world war, asteroid strikes, civilization collapse, or superintelligent machines that might surpass us and decide to dispose of us. True world changers do not merely have a worldview—they have a cosmic view. As a result, Musk has brought the world into the era of electric vehicles and commercial space flight. It has led Bill Gates to ask, “Has anyone done more to push the bounds of science and innovation?”

3-With vision comes risk

Changing the world involves both a clear mission and imagination. Musk always seems to have a “visceral sense of the possible.” He views his endeavors into the future as having epoch-making significance; he passes off his dreams as a mandate from above; and he is fearless when it comes to the risks involved. Musk is fine with burning the boats so that there is no possibility of retreat. Unless one puts everything on the line, there will not be change.

4-An inability to relate to others often plunges one into a world of escape

Like many, Musk is somewhere on the autistic scale. Most would say he has Aspergers, joining the likes of Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, and Alfred Hitchcock (oh, and my son Nate). Musk has an intuitive feel for engineering issues, but his neural nets have trouble when dealing with human feelings. In social gatherings, he would rather retreat into the future. At other times, Musk becomes lost in the closed world of video games, especially in strategy games like Civilization and Warcraft and Polytopia. He has a fanatical love for them, occasionally going on a binge where he escapes for hours if not days.

5-There is great power in intensity, focus, disruption, innovation, and determination

All of these describe Musk. This is why he has been so impactful. He has a laser focus and an intellectual surety that edges into arrogance. Some go so far as to describe Musk as a force of nature. Part of this is due to the fact he has little regard for a life of balance. The work at hand comes first. Ever restless, vacations are viewed as interruptive; time with the family is, at best, secondary. For Musk, life outside of work is an “unpleasant distraction.” Productivity, efficiency, and the results that follow are what matter. “What did you get done?” is a default question. As difficult and ruthless as Steve Jobs was, Musk seems to operate at an even more demanding level. If this means offending, intimidating, or firing people, so be it. Hoping to win people’s affection is counterproductive. Caring about the success of the enterprise trumps caring about someone’s emotions. Purchasing Twitter, he shifted a culture concerned with psychological safety to a hard-driven environment “where rabid warriors feel psychological danger rather than comfort.”

6-Pressing people to their limits can lead to extraordinary results

Driven by his mission—and his indomitable, “reality bending” willfulness—Musk has a tendency to make insane deadlines. A maniacal sense of urgency is his operating principle, pressing people to their absolute limits. Hence, he looks for people who make things happen and fires those who believe it can’t. He values a hardcore, fanatic work culture. His expectations often demoralize those he leads, and many have ended up as refugees from his hardcore all-in approach. But Musk also drives people to do what they thought was impossible. He inspires people to do things bigger than themselves. He models this by striving to press the envelope, by what Isaacson calls “wild surges of work” sleeping on the floor of his factories and playing the role of a feverish field marshal. Musk recognizes and fears that if his, and anyone else’s, pace slows, if there is even a scent of complacency, there is the potential that endeavors like Tesla and SpaceX will soon become flabby, slow, and sclerotic.

7-Offending people can break worlds apart

For all of his achievements, Musk has a dreadful track record when it comes to relationships. He would acknowledge that he was not bred for domestic tranquility. His strong will and emotional distance serve him well in industry, but they also killed his marriages. He has a brain, as one former wife put it, where “intensity takes the place of intimacy.”  While there are moments when he reaches out to his kids, determined to be the father he never had, there is also some alienation, the inevitable price of making family a secondary priority.

8-Money isn’t the key to happiness

To Musk’s credit, he doesn’t come off as a man obsessed with gaining wealth. His ongoing vision of the future and his fixation on achieving are what drives him. If there is a preoccupation at times to gain currency, it is to fund his next project. Still, when, on January 7th, Musk became the world’s richest man, it did not put him in a celebrative mood. It didn’t seem to matter. His mind was elsewhere. As is often the case, the good times unnerve him. Drama is what sustains him.

9-Living a life without faith leaves a man with lusts that are never satisfied and a soul that is ultimately empty

Musk does not seem to have ever embraced a faith in God. For him, science explains everything. There is no need to conjure up a deity. If humanity is to be saved, it will be because of advances in AI, as well as the establishment of colonies on Mars. But underneath his impressive exterior is a man who comes off in this story as rather vacant and empty. He is in an endless pursuit, one that can never bring ultimate satisfaction. He epitomizes Mark 8 :36—“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”

10-The church can learn from Elon Musk

Some may wonder why it matters to read a book like Elon Musk. My short answer is this—if a man can be so driven for a cause that is so temporal and superficial—and effective in achieving it—then why is the church often so inefficient, ineffective, so sclerotic, and unwilling to risk? We seldom press people to their limits for fear of offending. We make little demands, preferring an environment of comfort. We often are unclear of the mission and clueless as to our vision.

It seems we are not crazy enough to believe we can, in the power of God, change the world.

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