Elon Musk: The Simple Jack of Silicon Valley.
How Elon Musk beat the odds and became an inspiration for simple folk with big dreams.
Elon Musk is leading the electric car revolution. He heads multiple companies—including TESLA, SpaceX, and the Boring company—and is one of the richest men in the world. Musk is often described as a visionary, an entrepreneur, and sometimes even a genius–which is a kind thing to say. Of course he isn't a genius in the conventional sense of someone with outsized intellect. It's no secret, at least not a well-kept one, that Musk is a simpleton. That he was able to succeed in spite of his handicaps is what makes him an inspirational figure for our time.
Musk himself has been open about his life-long struggle to make sense of things—and we're not talking about complicated engineering problems but his struggle to simply navigate life. For example, at 17 he decided to board a plane to Canada from his home in South Africa. He did this with no plan, no forethought, and with barely any belongings. It's not clear he even understood what Canada was. His goal was to move to America because, as he explained, "America is where great things are possible, more than any other country in the world." But he flew to Canada. Upon arriving, he immediately called his mother, telling her: "I’m at the airport. What do I do now?" We can only imagine her shock and worry at receiving that call, knowing, as only a mother can, how confused and vulnerable her boy was. No doubt, she expected this to be the the last time she would hear from her special child. Yet somehow he survived and eventually made his way to Queens University in Ontario.
Musk had attempted university before in South Africa but had lasted only a few months. The pattern repeated in Canada were he again failed to graduate. Undeterred, he finally found his way to America and attempted university for a third time, at the University of Pennsylvania. But even here there is evidence of his confusion. Rather than completing a degree in the usual way, he appears to have taken a discordant course load, resulting in degrees in both physics and economics. What is important, however, is that Musk persevered. And in the end, a surplus of tenacity outweighed his intellectual deficits.
Next Musk travelled to California and tried to study physics at Stanford. But as before, navigating higher education proved a challenge and Musk failed to even complete enrollment. Now some might think just getting accepted to Stanford was proof of his genius. It's not. I know this from my own experience at Stanford. As it happens, my roommate there was a Physics Phd student, who would regularly announce that he had lots of STD's, thinking it stood for "stuff to do." (I also observed him trying to make toast in the microwave.) In any case, Musk made the best of his circumstances. While in Silicon Valley, he had heard talk about the internet. As he explains, "I kinda thought the Internet would be something that would change the world in a major way and I wanted to be a part of it." So he decided he would get a job at Netscape. The problem was that Musk didn't understand how jobs and hiring work. As he admits: "I actually tried hanging out in the lobby, but I was too shy to talk to anyone. So I’m just like standing in the lobby." Unsurprisingly, Musk wasn't hired. So Musk decided that if no one was going to hire him, he would build his own internet company and hire himself as CEO.
At this point things started turning around for Musk. First, his brother came to look after him. Then, a local gang led by Peter Thiel, called the Paypal Mafia, took him under their wing. With their help (and muscle) he was able to pressure investors into funding his startup. The company eventually went public in the middle of the Dotcom bubble. This was a time when Wall Street was throwing money at anyone with a website. Musk made millions on the deal. The first thing he did was buy a McLaren F1, which cost nearly a million dollars. Of course, he didn't understand cars or driving and immediately totaled it. But Musk survived the accident along with his dreams.
Musk now had the money to pursue his childlike dreams of building rocket ships, flame throwers, and robot cars. Success, however, did not come as easily as it had with his website business (which, let's face it, was not exactly rocket science). He founded SpaceX in 2002, and poured millions into his DIY rockets only to watch them explode one after another. Eventually, the right people with the right expertise joined SpaceX and, after six long years, he managed to get his first rocket into orbit. But that wasn't enough for Musk. Somewhere in his innocent mind came the idea of a rocket launch in rewind. That is, he wanted his rockets to drop from the sky and use their boosters to land vertically on the ground—strike that—to land vertically on a ship in the ocean. No doubt, anyone with a physics Phd would never contemplate something so fantastical. Predictably, the results were disastrous and incendiary. His rockets toppled, crashed, and burned. Yet he persisted. His wide-eyed optimism was contagious. He inspired his team to press on no matter how futile the task. Investors were similarly affected. His refusal to see, perhaps even to comprehend, the obstacles in his path paid off. After much trial and error, and billions wasted, the vertical landing was a success. And the rest is history.
The trajectory of Musk's electric car company TESLA was no less erratic. TESLA was founded on impossible dreams and outrageous promises. Over and again, he announced features and production deadlines that were completely unattainable. He didn't stick with electric cars either. He wanted to make a flamethrower, then a tunneling machine, and then a miniature submarine for kids (which resulted only in a lawsuit). He even tried to get into the garment industry with a line of short trousers which he claimed would make its wearers "Run like the wind or entertain like Liberace. . ." Per usual, this promise was not kept. Still, Musk's supporters indulged his constant flights of fancy.
After nearly 10 years of failure, his team was able to build a functioning electric car, the Model S. Though overpriced and behind schedule, the car was a moderate success. But once again, this wasn't enough for Musk. From his beautiful mind came the idea of robot cars. He decided that TESLAs should have artificial intelligence and drive themselves, and he ordered his team to make it happen. Again, disaster followed. When he unleashed his robot cars on the world, reports of deadly accidents became commonplace. Cars were destroyed, lives were lost—but his dream lived on. Now, finally, we are seeing the results of his ambition. By the day, TESLAs are becoming more intelligent and proficient at driving themselves, and TESLA's valuation is skyrocketing.
Musk's story is not the usual Silicon Valley success story. It's not the story of a tech genius with realistic ambitions and a record of successes. But that's precisely why Musk is special. Musk is a symbol of hope to every dreamer who isn't clever enough to earn a Stanford degree or competent enough to get hired by a tech company. Musk is the Simple Jack of Silicon Valley, a childlike optimist who teaches us that a lack of intelligence and education should never stand in the way of our dreams.