So … today is the first Elon Musk day. Hopefully the first of many. While he has his ups and downs, and can sometimes be a lightning rod for criticism, there is so much about what he does that’s inspirational. I reached out to my supporters on Patreon and Twitter with the question, “What’s one thing that you admire most about Elon Musk?” The responses I got were really interesting. Let’s take a look at the 5 overarching reasons people admire Elon Musk … to celebrate this most hallowed of days.
As you can probably imagine, I got a lot of responses from different perspectives. But as I read through all of them, there were themes that came through pretty clearly. After sorting and grouping the comments based on those themes, here’s what I saw as the top 5 reasons why people admire Elon Musk.
Elon’s motivations go all the way back to when he was a child. Ashlee Vance, the author of “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” said this about Elon:
”Musk read a ton of science fiction as a child and took the ideas that mankind should try and save the world and spread out through the universe very seriously. He was bullied at school and unhappy at home, which made him turn inward and think of ways to improve his life and the lot of others.” -Ashlee Vance1
That’s definitely something I can identify with. I also found a lot of inspiration through science fiction books and movies as a kid (in case you couldn’t tell by the stuff I talk about … a lot). As a fellow science fiction nerd, it warmed my heart to see him reference Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series on Twitter as a fundamental reason for creating SpaceX.2
For those that don’t know the Zeroth Law from Asimov’s Robot books, it’s pretty simple and straightforward, “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”
This underlying worry about the future of humanity, and wanting to ensure that we have a bright future, is something that a lot of people called out in the responses I got on Twitter and Patreon. “His steadfast moral code,” or “His love for humans and the planet,” and “Overarching intent to create tangible benefits to society.”
At the National Governors Association Meeting in 2017, Elon was asked what motivated him. He said:
“The thing that drives me is that I want to be able to think about the future and feel good about that. We’re doing what we can to have the future be as good as possible. To be inspired by what is likely to happen. And to look forward to the next day.” -Elon Musk3
Elon’s vision builds right off of his motivations. Just start by looking at SpaceX’s mission statement, “The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.”4 Or Tesla’s mission statement, “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”5 He’s taken that concern for the future direction of humanity…
”Yes. It’s very important for the future of the world. It’s very important for all life on Earth. This supersedes political parties, race, creed, religion, it doesn’t matter. If we do not solve the environment, we’re all damned.” -Elon Musk6
And applied it in a pragmatic way:
”No, I think the electrification of transport, and there’s also an important part of Tesla which is solar and stationary batteries, because you need to generate electricity in a standard, sustainable way with solar and then store it at night when the sun goes down with batteries, and then use that energy from the sun to power cars. Without Tesla, this would still happen. There would still be a transition to sustainable energy, but it would take much longer. History will judge this, obviously, but I would say on the order of 10 years, maybe 20 years.” -Elon Musk7
But as one response I got on Twitter said:
”Doing what he says he will do. Actions speak louder than words.”
The clarity he has with his vision for the future is the driving force behind what each of his companies is actually doing. It’s that follow through on delivering reusable rockets at SpaceX that drives down the cost of space flight, and being able to do so repeatedly.8 The space shuttle cost about $54,500 per kilogram to launch a payload to space. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets cost about $2,720 per kilogram.9 And that affordable space flight is making the SpaceX Starship, their interplanetary rocket, possible.10
Tesla has been achieving its mission statement by delivering one of the best selling cars in the Model 3. In Q4 of 2019 it was the 8th best selling car in the US. And with the Model Y just having started deliveries, that one is expected to have even better sales numbers. In addition to the high demand, Tesla cars are winning awards around the world.11 Now car companies around the world are racing to catch up by building their own Gigafactories12, and transitioning most of their future cars to EVs13. Again, delivering on what he promised to do through Tesla’s mission statement.
#3 First Principles Thinking
Probably the thing a lot of people equate with Elon is his firmly held belief in first principles thinking, which is about breaking down complicated problems to generate original solutions. And he’s spoken at length in past interviews about how they apply first principles thinking at Tesla and SpaceX. Just look at the Cybertruck. If you’re trying to build a truck and using first principles thinking, you’d be asking yourself what features from a truck are important and creating a list of those things to include. Then figuring out the best method to deliver on those features without being constrained by the way things have been done for the past 100 years. You’d also be trying to account for how to keep manufacturing costs down, as well as the overall weight to improve range.14 It begins with questions rather than the answers. It’s about creating your own theories and how to apply those to a better product, experience, or manufacturing technique.
Tesla designed their own battery pack and cooling system instead of using third party suppliers with more generic, ready-made parts. One outcome of that is the super bottle, which you may have seen Sandy Monroe talk about in Sean Mitchell’s interview. And on the Model Y we have the new Octovalve. Instead of needing multiple coolant systems that cover the cabin, electronics, motors, and battery, there’s one system for all of it. Fewer parts and more efficient.
Tesla has also designed their own self-driving computer instead of continuing to use an off the shelf system from Nvidia or another company. This helps to make them a master of their own destiny. Reducing their dependence on a third-party supplier for a core piece of technology means that they won’t be held back in rolling out a new product or feature because that supplier’s hardware isn’t yet capable of what they need it to do. And Tesla is able to tailor the silicon and software to complement each other and achieve incredible efficiencies.
How many CEOs do you know that interact directly with customers day-to-day on social media? Asking questions for what they’d like to see in future products? Or taking feedback and criticisms and then quickly pivoting to address that feedback? Or just making jokes and sharing memes?
So … many … memes.
Some look at this as the cult of Elon15, but I see this as more first principles thinking from a business leader and innovator. Instead of pouring tens of millions of dollars into marketing campaigns to blanket the airwaves with car commercials, he’s generating a feedback loop with customers directly online for essentially free. There are costs to time spent and things like Tesla’s referral program, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to how every other company in the world interacts with customers.
Now, I don’t agree with everything he says in interviews or on Twitter, and sometimes he really puts his foot in his mouth, but this willingness to be open and share freely with others online can really pay off. And in the case of Elon, I think the scorecard falls into the positive territory more than the negative. I wasn’t thrilled with how he framed some of his initial take on the current health crisis, but when feedback came back at him he responded quickly, with purpose, and integrity. Tesla responded to the crisis by buying over 1,200 B-PAP machines and giving them away to hospitals in need.16 Tesla engineers have been coming up with creative solutions to repurpose car parts into ventilators as well.17
His motivations, vision, first principles thinking, and openness are incredible strengths, but they also open him up to attack. As an innovator he’s working on building companies in sectors that haven’t existed before, or working against the grain of existing business models. So his motivation and vision to transition to sustainable energy, and using first principles thinking to do it in a way that nobody has done before, is going to meet massive resistance. Entrenched players will fight and push back against what Tesla and SpaceX are trying to accomplish.
I spoke about this on my “Why we’re all wrong about the Cybertruck” video, but humans are hardwired to resist change. We’re hardwired in our DNA to fear new things because those new things might want to harm us. There’s also a societal angle with all of us collectively agreeing what’s pretty, what’s ugly, and what’s normal. Stray too far out from that and you might get shamed or shunned by others.
There’s an interesting book written by Calestous Juma, who’s a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, about “Why People Resist New Technologies.” He explores how throughout history, innovators have hit this natural resistance to what is actually in our best interest. From the battle between Thomas Edison’s direct current and Westinghouse’s alternating current electricity, which involved a lot of patent battles and smear campaigns to scare people away from AC power. Edison resorted to playing dirty when faced with strong competition. Or the music industries resistance to moving to online, digital distribution. The fear of job displacement is a huge source of concern when adopting new technologies. He even dives into the resistance to mechanical refrigeration … yes, refrigerators. There was a point where even that faced massive backlash.
Given all of the resistance that Elon has faced with Tesla, SpaceX, and even the Boring Company[^18], his willingness to keep pushing and moving forward is something I really respect. Even when he fails, he picks himself up and learns from those mistakes, and then moves forward again. The word that kept coming up in the comments I received was, “tenacity,” which I think is the perfect word for it. Elon Musk is one tenacious guy. Without that he would have given up a long time ago. Jon, who’s one of my patrons brought up a great quote from Teddy Roosevelt:
“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” -Teddy Roosevelt
I love that. And one thing I’d love to add to all of this, which ties back to Elon’s motivation and vision, is how he’s playing the long game. Most of us are playing checkers, while Elon is playing Chess. While all of Elon’s different businesses look unrelated to each other, with some minor exceptions, they’re designed to achieve a singular goal. He wants to help save this planet and colonize others, so you need rocket ships to get there. Electric vehicles to get people and supplies around, not only on this planet, but the next. As well as ways to improve the transportation network through tunnel systems. And a way to generate sustainable power and store it, whether that’s on Earth or Mars. And the final cherry on top is Starlink, which will build an orbital communications network that can blanket a planet quickly and efficiently. Building these all out on Earth feels like a testbed for what we’ll need to do on Mars.
Not to give away any spoilers for Issac Asimov’s Robots and Foundation books, but there’s a character in those books who’s following the Zeroth Law to make sure humanity survives tens of thousands of years into the future. I think Elon may be that character.