I recently got stuck in my life journey. I know I have lived a good life so far, with two healthy and bright high school teenagers, a loving wife, and a great job. But I knew that there is more to life than earning a paycheck, adhering to corporate bureaucracy, navigating tricky office politics, and being in fear of losing a job. It seems that, once burning passion that made me think naively that everything was possible, seemed to have diminished to a tiny cinder over the years.
I have read success stories of Ford, Toyota, Nissan, WalMart, Walgreen, eBay, Google, Pixar, but Ashlee Vance’s recent book, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, allowed a rare opportunity to peek into the life of this brilliant man, Elon Musk, and completely opened up my perspective of life and purpose to new dimension, helping me get unstuck and begin the first step of the journey, mastering the Elonism.
Being a technologist, I couldn’t excuse myself for not knowing Elon Musk earlier. But hey, better late than never, right? Not only did he started his own business, Zip2, in his early twenties and landed with $22 million dollars in cash shortly there after, but invested $10 million dollars of that into the revolutionary financial service, X.com, which became PayPal. He made $165 million dollars from the startup, began shifting his attention to grandiose goals, spending his $100 million dollars towards founding of a private rocket company, SpaceX, to send the rockets into orbit but do it with only 10th of cost and still make 70% of profit margin, all to enable human to, one day, colonize in Mars and beyond. That is not all. While furiously building SpaceX, he co-founded an electric car company, Tesla, to aggressively aim to create an affordable, mass market electric vehicle to do something about global warming, and one day, help humanity completely stay away from dependencies of fossil fuel and toward the renewable energy sources like sun that has already been fueling Earth for 4.54 billion years. He is also the chairman and the largest shareholder of SolarCity, a second largest maker of solar panels. Each companies are valued well over several billions of dollars at the time of writing.
All these achievements weren’t easy. He certainly had his share of growing pain and many invaluable lessons learned to perfect his art. The more I read about him, listened to his interviews, I kept hearing the same fundamental values that Musk was holding up that shaped who he is today, that I couldn’t resist but to put my effort to simply and list them for us to learn and replicate them. These are the fundamentals of Elonism.
Trait #1 : Do you have a grand goal in your life that is beyond yourself? How about accelerating advancement of humanity?
We tend to get caught up with ourselves so much. We know in the head that we revolve around the world, yet, in every way, we act as if the world revolves around us. Our worldview is so limited to only ourselves. If anything, it has to be about me, my, and I. This is actually really bad because we are ultimately lying to ourselves and making us vulnerable to making mistakes.
There aren’t too many people that can live alone all by themselves for the rest of their lives. That is because we are very social animal. We care and want be cared by others whom we love. Our very individual survival is really dependent on existence of others.
If we make others to save time and money, and help live safer and healthier lives, and do that for masses, the bigger the number is, the better it will be for making our individual lives that much better. It is a win-win situation. Therefore, there is nothing better than to advancing the humanity as a whole.
Musk takes this advancement of the humanity business to ultimate level, his god given mission is to make human an interplanetary species: first, start by helping the humanity colonizing on our nearest neighboring planet, Mars. He has been called crazy countless times. But really, when you really think about this, it is not all that crazy thought.
We already know that there are about 400 billion stars in our own Milky Way galaxy. That is about 400 billion suns like our own sun. There are some bigger galaxies with 100 trillion stars. That’s not all. There are about 170 billion galaxies, yes, galaxies, not stars, out there in the Universe that we can observe with our current technology. Given that average stars in a typical galaxy is 1 trillion, there are about 170,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars or suns in the currently observable Universe.
Yet, human species living in one of these stars is not even advanced enough to get to its neighboring planet, never mind a neighboring star. This is incredible ridiculous and shows how much more work we have ahead of us. To add fuel to the problem, never mind furthering the advancement of the humanity, we only care about our own nano gains, destroying the environment that will ultimately come back to those that are destroying it. When and if the Earth is unlivable, what are our options? Either we would extinct, losing the very chance of exploring the Universe or try to move to neighboring planet.
Musk has set out to make an impact and help humanity accelerate the advancement by making space travel as easy as brushing your teeth every morning. But first, through Tesla, with its mission of producing mass market electric vehicles, it will significantly help cut down carbon emission and fighting the global warming head on, and through SolarCity, make solar energy the primary source of energy for an average household, therefore, removing ourselves from dependency of fossil fuel. Now, tell me who is more crazy?
Trait #2: Tap into vast human creativity, engineer innovative and revolutionary solutions that significant cut cost and time, and scale the solution to all humanity
Human intelligence is an amazing gift. We have achieved so many things that we once thought were impossible. Who knew we can get to the Moon, or fight diseases, or create computers that can be smarter than human. It is widely known that only 10% of human brain is utilized. Jeff Hawkins from his book, On Intelligence, attests that brain path continues to form even as we age and to the last minutes on our deathbed.
Musk, trained in physics, knows a thing or two about how things work and how to make things more efficient. His popular mantra has been “Take it down to the physics.” For example, when it comes to taking in data for himself, he preferred reading books to listening to lectures during his college years, “I thought why are they reading the book, and so slowly. I ended up not going to most of the classes since I can get them faster from books and use rest of time [coding].”
When SpaceX needed an actuator that would trigger the gimbal action used to steer the upper stage of Falcon 1, while suppliers asked for $120,000, his engineer, Davis, was able to design one for $3,900. If that didn’t convince you how we as humans can be creative, innovative, and efficient, Musk set out countless challenges for his engineers like creating $10 million dollar avionic system with just $10,000 budget with off-the-shelf computing gears and products.
He has set out a mission to pushing the boundaries of human engineering capacity and capabilities to its fullest limit and beyond. His executives describes, “It’s like he has everyone working on this car that is meant to get from Los Angeles to New York on one tank of gas. They will work on the car for a year and test all of its parts. Then, when they set off for New York after that year, all of the vice presidents think privately that the car will be lucky to get to Las Vegas. What ends up happening is that the car gets to New Mexico–twice as far as they ever expected–and Elon is still mad. He gets twice as much as anyone else out of people.”
In fact, Cowen, the author of The Great Stagnation, argues that we have been after “low-hanging fruits” and lack the big technological advances. As a result, income gaps are ever larger and we as humanity are not advancing forward as a whole but getting greedier and cannibalizing each other off to get bigger and richer, like tumor and cancer cells which ultimately lead into self destruction.
Trait #3: Opportunities lie where the human greed and bureaucracy is prevalent causing huge inefficiencies wasting money, time, and human capital.
Why is it that when companies become big, they become lazy, slow, and many ultimately face its demise. It is obvious. It is the human greed. If we look out for our individual well-being, we would only care for our own advancements at the cost of others, or do everything we can to protect ourselves from such cannibalism. Hence the born of bureaucracy: the red tapes, chains and chains of approvals, all trying to pass the accountability to the next naive and vulnerable, causing many unnecessary stops, delays, money and invaluable human capital, making such seemingly simple solution into long, boring, and mind-numbing exercises that make us brain dead, ultimately depriving ourselves of the god given gift, creativity.
Musk was different and saw that humanity as a whole will not only recognizes, but appreciates and adopts the innovation that enhances their lives, that is, allow them to do things faster, better, and cheaper. And only engineering smarts will achieve cost reduction that is ten-fold that mass market can adopt.
In his early years, he identified a huge inefficiency in banking system. Essentially, banks have been collecting huge fees for credit card transactions upwards of 2-4% of total transactions. What Musk identified was that by creating an online banking system where you connect merchants to consumers through verified ACH (Automated Clearing House) deposits, not only can you eliminate fraudulent transactions but also overhead of credit card processing itself since transactions would just be remained as a database record update which is virtually free. End result? Everyone wins by redistributing that fee back to merchant, customer, and the company. Hence, born of PayPal.
“None of these start-ups understand the objective. The objective should be–what delivers fundamental value. I think it’s important to look at things from a standpoint of what is actually the best thing for the economy. If people can conduct their transactions quickly and securely that’s better for them. If it’s simpler to conduct their financial life it’s better for them. So, if all your financial affairs are seamlessly integrated one place it’s very easy to do transactions and the fees associated with transactions are low. These are all good things. Why aren’t they doing this? It’s mad,” Musk said.
Another classic example of delivering value through engineering for masses can be readily seen with production of Tesla cars. Musk, having been a successful software entrepreneur, approaches production of Tesla cars very similar way. For all Tesla cars manufactured, whenever there is an enhancements to be made to the car, like adding cameras, radars, and ultrasonic sensors to enable auto pilot, auto parking, and collision detection, these features do not put back until next model update, but put into manufacturing right away. This might be frustrating for some customers missing key features but at the least, everyone gets the key software updates overnight that delivers better interface, battery life, and many countless enhancements, like how we get our update through our smart phones.
When it comes to safety, Tesla readily demonstrates its obsession with safety that’s unmatched in the industry, or rather, doing the obvious. J. B. Straubel shared, in the book aforementioned, “With the safety stuff, it seems like car companies have evolved to a place where their design objectives are set by whatever is regulated or has been standardized. The rule says, ‘Do this and nothing more.’ That is amazingly boring engineering. It leaves you maybe fiddling with the car’s shape or trying to make it a bit faster. We have more crumple zones, better deceleration, a lower center of gravity. We went in wondering, ‘Can we make this car twice as safe as anything else on the road?'” In fact, when Tesla discovered rather unusual collision that led to car fire, Musk ordered to add titanium underbody shield and aluminum deflector. Be sure to check out their awesome demo video.
Building rockets at SpaceX was no different. Traditional cost per launch of space rocket is upwards of $400 million dollars. With extreme engineering smarts, SpaceX team is able to bring the cost down to $57 million dollars per launch. Some may be satisfied here. Ten-fold saving is indeed extreme engineering. But Musk is not resting until we bring down the cost of rocket launch that of flying an airplane, making colonization of Mars a reality.
Trait #4: Do no BS. Be open, straightforward, and clear on goals.
Musk is able to distinguish what adds fundamental value and what doesn’t. With his engineering mind, he takes the problem down to its physics. If it is doable, he will do everything in his power to make it happen and push those around him to do the same. Why? Again, it goes back to the basics. When it adds fundamental value, then at the end of the tunnel, everyone wins.
If a rule is getting in the way, he will fight the rule. This was readily visible with the argument he had with FAA officers about the ridiculous delay introduced for doing a simple change of filter in the rocket all due to bureaucratic process.
With Musk’s ambitious goal of saving humanity from extinction by making us capable of colonizing on Mars in his life time, he know that there isn’t much time for BS. To his engineering mind, either you are helping him achieve the goal to your best ability or you are in the way slowing him down and need to get out of the way.
From time to time, Musk will let his employees know through a company-wide email, the things that bother him. One of those things were the prevalent use of acronyms. To Musk, acronyms became internal jargon that slowed down new comers and really did not add any value. To avoid any build up of such BS, he sent a proclamation that any new acronyms has to be approved by him moving forward.
Musk himself executes the no BS policy. Even as a CEO of three multibillion dollar companies, he shares an open cubicle in the corner just like rest of his employees. Not only will this enable others to see if he is around, but also he can see what others are up to, promoting open culture. His manager cubicles are placed in such a place that they would have to walk through the machines before they can get to their desk. Lastly, conference rooms are located in the center, with glasses so that those around can gauge what is going on.
Trait #5: Complete dedication
Albert Einstein famously said, “Genius is %1 talent and 99% percent hard work.” Musk is a genius. His absolute determination of the vision, ability to sell the vision to media and his team, and an absolute dedication of himself, and expectation of the same from his team, enable impossibles possible, even if it risks all of his fortune.
“I certainly don’t try to set impossible goals. I think impossible goals are demotivating. You don’t want to tell people to go through a wall by banging their head against it. I don’t ever set intentionally impossible goals.But I’ve certainly always been optimistic on time frames… I think future programs might be off by anywhere from like 25 percent to 50 percent as opposed to 200 percent,” Musk said.
In fact, it became obvious at SpaceX that one smart hard working creative person can actually do three medium workers’ jobs. There is one exceptional early employee at SpaceX, Steve Davis, the director of advanced projects whom Musk hired in the early days by calling Stanford professors to seek out those that are super smart yet with less ties to family obligations and Steve Davis matched that profile. Ever since he was hired, he has been working sixteen hours a day every day for years and his colleagues attest that he gets more done than eleven people working together.
Musk had rough childhood growing up, getting beating for no reason in the school, without much support from his family, this led him to be very independent, paved his way into colleges and universities, eventually landing at University of Pennsylvania where he found his new home amongst other intellectuals. He attributes his drive to this early suffering that gave him extra reserves of strength and will to propel forward.
Trait #6: Prepare yourself with both fundamental physics and business education
Musk has unique way of seeing the problem and solving it. He studied both physics and business, competed in public speaking contests. Not only is he able to see the problem and bring it down to physics to see if it is doable in time and produces fundamental value to human society, but also be able to plan and sell his ideas to investors and public, and help others to dream the dream he has been dreaming.
Page, the co-founder of Google, and a close friend of Musk shares, “I don’t think we’re doing a good job as a society deciding what things are really important to do. I think like we’re just not educating people in this kind of general way. You should have a pretty broad engineering and scientific background. You should have some leadership training and a bit of MBA training or knowledge of how to run things, organize stuff, and raise money. I don’t think most people are doing that, and it’s a big problem. Engineers are usually trained in a very fixed area. When you’re able to think differently and can dream of much crazier things and how they might work. I think that’s really an important thing for the world. That’s how we make progress,” holding Musk as a model that everyone should emulate.
So, how do you get started?
Musk shared his very entrepreneurial philosophy at Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2015, “Rather than you want to be an entrepreneur, or you want to make money, what are some useful things you can do, that you wish existed in the world? And then, try to get other people to work with you to create that thing. And keep making it better and better. And if you do create something useful, then money will be the result. But that’s just the way that the properly working economy kind of rewards the creation of useful, different services. And if you’re creating something that you love, and that you think other people will love, it’s much easier to sacrifice the time and expend the effort. and if it doesn’t work out, you don’t regret it. It’s a good way to go.”
Great job, Elon Musk! No one could have said it simpler than you. Thank you!
We shall go and start replicating your essential 6 traits and try as hard as we can to make an impact to advancing our humanity so that we as one humanity living in this tiniest planet called Earth has more chance of surviving the catastrophic event, and have the opportunity to explore this incredibly vast Universe.
Thanks for sharing such ideas!