5 surprising lessons I learned reading Elon Musk’s biography

Last year I read an authorised Elon Musk biography called “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future”. I was quite impressed by some of the things I learned about him, especially about his strong work ethics and unbelievable perseverance. It’s easy to look at all he’s achieved and assume that everything in his life must therefore be easy. His rockets successfully launching and returning, Tesla getting bigger and bigger, not to mention new evolving ventures from Hyperloop to the Boring company (and flamethrowers?). However, if you look at what he’s gone through and how he overcame what others might have considered unbearable challenges, it really helps to get a bigger picture of him as a person. And you realise that there’s a price for everything.

I’m going to go over a few of my takeaways from that book here as they’ve really inspired me. I’ve seen that to really make the most of your potential requires a massive amount of work and I simply wanted to share some of those observations which I think are most noteworthy. They surprised me, perhaps you can find something interesting for yourself as well.

What struck me the most was the fact that a lot of Musk’s success is attributable first of all to his character. It’s not simply that he’s a genius or has lots of money. Anyone can be like Musk if you’re willing to push hard and pay the price.

The stronger the commitment the further you go

In the book Musk is quoted as saying:

I will spend everything I have to the last dollar on these companies. If we have to move and live in the basement of my wife’s parents, we will do that”.

That’s a pretty strong commitment. What I love about this is how deeply he believes in what he’s doing, to the point where he’s ready to put everything on the line. He’s ready to do anything and everything within his power to make it work. I find that inspiring and challenging at the same time. Could I say the same thing about the projects I’m working on now?

Build personal resilience in preparation for times of crisis

Here’s a short paragraph from the book that I found interesting:

He is able to work more persistently and handle more stress than anyone else I’ve ever met in my life… The challenges he faced in 2008 would break any other person. But he not only survived, he continued to work and think only about his goal. This ability to stay focussed during times of severe crisis is one of the main advantages of Musk relative to other executives and competitors. Most people would not be able to handle that sort of pressure. They start making mistakes. Elon stays very rational. He can still make very clear long term decisions. The more complex the situation is, the better he handles himself in that situation.

“Be resilient” doesn’t really feel like advice. Either you are resilient or you aren’t, right? I’m not so sure. I think that witnessing or even reading about another person’s example of being resilient and focused on their mission during prolonged difficult times is genuinely inspiring and helps you to keep going through the tough times in your own life or company.

Be persistent

He called very insistently. You could be 100% sure that if the phone rings continually, it’s Elon. He does not understand the word NO. You cannot get rid of him. He is a terminator. He focuses on something, and says ‘it’s mine’.

Persistence might make you a little uncomfortable, but it works. Elon’s example of persistence is brutal. Would you want others to say of you “He doesn’t understand the word no”? On a personal level it might seem insensitive or rude, but when it comes to achieving your business goals persistence pays off.

Different leadership styles can still use the same tools

Having read quite a lot on theories of leadership as well as leading a variety of teams and companies myself and witnessing first hand examples of good leadership in others, I’d have to say that Elon’s leadership style as described in “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future”, is unorthodox and in many cases even questionable.

That said, elements of his approach still resonate with me and I think most business leaders could agree with the value in the quotes below:

What Musk could not stand were excuses or the absence of a clear action plan.

The longer you wait to fire someone the longer it has been since you should have fired them.

One 1st class engineer can replace 3 mediocre ones.

Musks actions have always been oriented on the long term perspective.”

If you ask the right question, it’s fairly easy to find an answer. The main thing is to think wider, and then it will become clear which questions to ask.

This goes to show that we can learn a lot even from those we disagree with and that many management tools are applicable regardless of leadership style.

Obsession drives innovation

I suspect we’ve all observed in the world’s most well-known founders that it takes a certain level of craziness and obsession to achieve extraordinary results. People telling you that you should take it down a notch and not be as aggressive or stop talking about the same thing all the time might be signs of business genius, they might also be signs of a genuine problem. The line is thin.

It looks like Elon Musk takes it up a notch and his passion towards the work of his life takes him to another level of obsession. He’s even quoted as saying:

If I could live without eating, and that would make more time for work, I would stop eating. Can it be possible to get nutrients without having to spend time eating?

Conclusion

There’s certainly a lot we can learn from Elon’s character qualities and work ethics. Some of the commitment, persistence and leadership approaches he’s demonstrated I’m keen to apply to some of my own projects. At the same time I can’t say that I’d want to be in Musk’s position. When you’re that obsessed by and focussed on your business goals, other areas of life inevitably take a hit. It’s important of look at life holistically and understand that there’s a lot more to it than just your job or just your development goals. In particular it’s important to invest your time into the people who mean the most to you. But perhaps we could all take a few pages out of Musk’s book and push a little harder for the goals we’re currently focussed on.

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