When Robert Downey Jr. found out that he was going to play Iron Man in the movies, he said, “We need to sit down with Elon Musk.”
That’s because Musk — colonizer of Mars, transformer of cars, shepherd of solar panels — is the closest thing we’ve got to a superhero.
Born in South Africa, he sold his first software — a game called Blastar — when he was only 11. He went on to found and sell a startup to Compaq for $US300 million in 1999, and parlayed that into a major stake in PayPal, which eBay bought for $US1.5 billion in 2002.
With that dough, he got into three world-changing companies: Tesla, SpaceX, and Solar City. And though Tesla and SpaceX nearly went bankrupt, each of the companies is now shifting their industries.
Yet Musk — with his 100-hour workweeks, estimated $11.7 billion net worth, and habit of never taking a note in meetings — remains enigmatic. So we went looking for clues to his vision, goals, and thinking process.
Here’s what we found.
'My background educationally is physics and economics, and I grew up in sort of an engineering environment -- my father is an electromechanical engineer. And so there were lots of engineery things around me.
'When I asked for an explanation, I got the true explanation of how things work. I also did things like make model rockets, and in South Africa there were no premade rockets: I had to go to the chemist and get the ingredients for rocket fuel, mix it, put it in a pipe.'
'Going from PayPal, I thought well, what are some of the other problems that are likely to most affect the future of humanity? Not from the perspective, 'what's the best way to make money,' which is ok, but, it was really 'what do I think is going to most affect the future of humanity.''
'I don't believe in process. In fact, when I interview a potential employee and he or she says that 'it's all about the process,' I see that as a bad sign.
'The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking. You're encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows you to keep people who aren't that smart, who aren't that creative.'
'Talent is extremely important. It's like a sports team, the team that has the best individual player will often win, but then there's a multiplier from how those players work together and the strategy they employ.'
'You have to have a very compelling goal for the company. If you put yourself in the shoes of someones who's talented at a world level, they have to believe that there's potential for a great outcome and believe in the leader of the company, that you're the right guy to work with. That can be a difficult thing, especially if you're trying to attract people from other companies.'
'You encounter issues you didn't expect, step on landmines. It's bad. Years 2 to 4 or 5 are usually quite difficult. A friend has a saying, it's 'eating glass and staring into the abyss' ...
'If you're cofounder or CEO you have to do all kinds of tasks you might not want to do ... If you don't do your chores, the company won't succeed ... No task is too menial.'
(Business Insider, August 8, 2013)
'Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world's factories every day.
'We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform ...
'We believe that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla's position in this regard.'
'I've thought about it quite a lot ... We could definitely make a flying car -- but that's not the hard part ... The hard part is, how do you make a flying car that's super safe and quiet? Because if it's a howler, you're going to make people very unhappy.'
'The thing that I got hung up on was the rocket. Getting there in the first place. The U.S. options from Boeing and Lockheed were simply too expensive. I couldn't afford them. So, I went to Russia three times to negotiate purchasing an ICBM.'
'There's a fundamental difference, if you look into the future, between a humanity that is a space-faring civilisation, that's out there exploring the stars … compared with one where we are forever confined to Earth until some eventual extinction event.'
'There will be those who can afford to go (to Mars), and those who want to go. I think if we can achieve that intersection, then it will happen … and, hopefully, it will happen before I'm dead.'
'If humanity is to become multi-planetary, the fundamental breakthrough that needs to occur in rocketry is a rapidly and completely reusable rocket ... achieving it would be on a par with what the Wright brothers did. It's the fundamental thing that's necessary for humanity to become a space-faring civilisation. America would never have been colonized if ships weren't reusable.'
'The United States -- it's sort of like that comment about democracy -- it's a bad system but it's the least bad. Well, the United States is the least bad at encouraging innovation.'
'I came to the conclusion that we should aspire to increase the scope and scale of human consciousness in order to better understand what questions to ask. Really, the only thing that makes sense is to strive for greater collective enlightenment.'
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