Learning from Greatness: Looking at Elon Musk

Every year, as part of my project of self-improvement, I study the life of one great innovator, inventor, entrepreneur, or leader.

Often, I study someone who has been all of those things. In 2019, for example, I studied Leonardo Da Vinci. In 2020, I trained my focus on the often controversial but never uninteresting Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, and current CEO of SpaceX and Tesla (among other ventures).

Here are some of the lessons I’ve gleaned from my look at this fascinating man and complicated leader.

Humility in the Face of Greatness

I’ve written before about the power of humility for leaders. As I’ve articulated, the “right” way to be a leader is to lead through humility. This means being able to ascertain who is worthy of being heard, who is worthy of being listened to, and who should be politely ignored.

This also applies to the project of studying the biographies of great leaders. In the life of Elon Musk, as with others, there are aspects worth paying close attention to, as well as parts of his life and experience it’s best to politely ignore (or not emulate!).

All great leaders have divorces, family problems, work-life balance issues, childhood trauma -- you name it. But that's the lesson: how do your traumas shape you? How do they make you good, bad, or interesting? And how do you take those traumas and make them work for your entrepreneurship in a powerful way, and in a healthy way for those you lead?

This is part of the lesson I’ve taken from looking at the life and work of Elon Musk.

Not Do You Struggle, But What Do You Do When You Struggle

When Elon Musk first arrived in Canada from South Africa (where he was born), he sought out an uncle for help. He had no money, no work, no contacts except for that one family connection. He had to deal with the uncertainties of immigration, of being young, of being in a new country and far from home. Yet when he arrived, his uncle had already left for the US.

Rather than panic, or give up, or go back home, he got to work: starting his own company and channeling his fear and frustration into making that enterprise a success.

When faced with uncertainty, a leader learns from pain and suffering. When faced with hardship, a leader accesses a high amount of stress without giving up.

Musk became habituated to this experience and has repeated it again and again throughout his life.

Without belaboring the comparison, what came to my mind when I learned this about Musk was the first time I was asked to do an enterprise level project with Jobsity. I had no idea what I was doing. But I remembered the phrase: "when you are at a crossroads and you don't know which road to take, 95% of the time the right road is the hardest road."

Exploring those moments in Musk’s life when he chose the hardest road, reminded me that translating our traumas into success is one way great leaders can rise above their circumstances to meet the moment. Reading about Musk gave me the opportunity to study this stress-response, and to see when it has served me in my life as well.

When I was faced with the seemingly impossible task of tackling enterprise-level work with Jobsity, I rolled up my sleeves, and made my fear and worry into success.

The lessons of studying great leaders are like those of mentorship: they ask you to look back at your life to understand how you ended up where you are, and how to move forward toward growth and development when the next challenge arrives.

Where Is Your Comfort Zone and How Much Stress Can You Carry?

As the story goes, when Elon Musk started SpaceX, he invested all of his assets into it: some $120 million. By doing so, he relegated himself to sleeping on friends’ couches until he could get the business off the ground.

That level of risk meant he put himself back in the space where he’d been when he first came to Canada as a young immigrant. In order to activate the creative power and potential of his early career success, he replicated the stress-response he felt was required. If his early millions were the product of his trauma, of turning challenge into innovation, he wanted his next millions (or billions) to come from the same source and to see that same exponential success.

When I learned this about Musk it gave me pause: is this where Musk and I differ most?

I’ve often asked myself this year: am I willing to support as much pain and uncertainty now as I did back when I was a young entrepreneur just starting out? Or more importantly: do I need to, in order to stay driven, fresh, and creative?

Musk puts himself in positions that are so uncomfortable, they nearly drive him to the point of madness. Is this strategy necessary -- for success? For greatness?

Is the difference between extremely successful and merely successful people that the former do over and over and over what otherwise successful people are only willing to do once or twice in their life? And where do I want to fall in this spectrum?

The Lessons of 2020

2020 has been a year unlike any other. I’ve felt and weathered risk in my business, in my family life, personally and professionally. Many have. Perhaps most of the world, in one way or another.

But one thing I’ve learned is that I am older now, and I can handle more stress without feeling it as a burden. Unlike when I was young, I may be more worried about risk now -- because I have more to lose -- but I also have thicker skin, from having navigated many more challenges.

Exploring Elon Musk’s brazen way of creating challenges -- only to overcome them fabulously -- has helped me understand the difference between accepting the status quo and pushing past your comfort zone.

Being in your comfort zone doesn't mean you don't have any problems. But pushing past your comfort zone can be a response to the boredom of the status quo.

You can respond to boredom one of two ways: destroying yourself (like a champion boxer who self-destructs after winning the championship bout), or by using that uncomfortable feeling to lean in, go deep, and create something new.

Boredom is not just about feeling bored, it's can also be a feeling of wanting to change; often, for leaders, it’s an extremely profound change that can put you in the position like that you were in when you were young: a chance to prove that you're capable, that you’re ambitious, and that you’re a success.

It can be an engine for exceeding your previous capacity, or it can be a way of running from the status quo.

When I’ve seen this year while studying Musk, is that I usually seek to escape boredom by changing something at Jobsity. Sometimes this means I lean into creative, positive change, and sometimes this means I need my colleagues and fellow leaders to question my impulses, and even make strong arguments against me so that we stay in the status quo.

My study of Musk has helped me understand my own fears in relation to those needs: that I sometimes attempt to tear things down in order to remake them as “new” or better. That such destruction will bring up my taumas and create anxiety and fear. But those feelings can also be a fuel to help me become a better person, a stronger leader, and the CEO of a more ambitious company.

This has happened in 2020 -- in my personal and professional life.

And that’s OK.

If I don't go back to my roots and confront the fear this will inevitably bring up, then I won't take the next step with my company. And that kind of status quo isn’t just boring -- it’s dangerous.

It's not that I don't want to take the risk; I just don't yet know how much risk to take.

We can’t all be Elon Musk (which is certainly for the best). But we all have had to become different people this year. And hopefully, like Musk often has, the people we’ve become are able to face our fears and lead our teams differently as well -- differently, and better. In 2021 and beyond.


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