Elon Musk has been hailed as the next Steve Jobs, a serial disruptor and a genius. Others call him just crazy. Yet Musk has defied the naysayers and made remarkable innovations in both electric cars and spaceflight over the last ten years. But just how accurate is the Steve Jobs comparison?
“Most innovation is like a new melody,” writes Ted curator Chris Anderson. “For Jobs and Musk, it’s the whole symphony.”
Anderson’s analogy is right. Neither men do things in small measures. They seek to change the world.
I interviewed Elon Musk last year in one of his most revealing public appearances, and he exposed a complex character that is both deadly serious yet comedic at times; driven yet sensitive; single minded, and yet eclectic in his desire to change the world in multiple ways.
That sensitivity was apparent several times during our dialogue when his eyes welled up in response to my questions about the future of NASA, Neil Armstrong, and candlelight vigils for the EV1 (@28:35, 1:04:00 & 39:50 in the video). Steve Jobs was also known to weep.
Here are five revealing moments from our conversation that emphasize the common threads between the two businessmen.
1. Ability to Sell Great Ideas
Jobs used his infamous “reality distortion field” to push his teams hard to achieve much more that they thought was possible. His oft-quoted phrase was “insanely great” and his product launches were passionate and brash.
Musk is more pragmatic in his approach, he rarely uses buzzwords*, and although his product launches are often equally dazzling, his delivery is less assured, more halting.
*Granted, he does talk about getting a “money shot” of his greenhouse on Mars idea (@30:00 in the video).
“In the beginning there will be few people who believe in you or in what you’re doing but then over time… the evidence will build and more and more people will believe in what you’re doing. So, I think it’s a good idea when creating a company to … have a demonstration or to be able to sketch something so people can really envision what it’s about. Try to get to that point as soon as possible.” Elon Musk
This Word Art of our 90-minute conversation reveals no catchy buzzwords, though the word THINK stands out prominently.
His rage also turns inward. For example, when he discovered the wrong type of screw used in the Model S sun visors. He reportedly said, “they felt like daggers in my eyes.”
While doing pre-interviews with Musk’s colleagues, I heard a revealing story about his obsession with the Tesla Model S key fob. A colleague described how he agonized for weeks over the shape, the girth, the weight of the fob till it was just right. Take a peek at the end result and see if you think it was all worth it.
When I visited the Tesla factory (on assignment for KQED), I heard a similar story from the mechanics working on the iconic Model S door handles. Responsive door handles that sit flush with car doors looked like mission impossible, yet Musk and his team eventually prevailed. The result is so highly prized that my tour guide, Gilbert Passin (VP for manufacturing at Tesla) forbade me to take close-up photos of the components, for fear of copycats.
3. Ability to Think Differently Stems from Splendid Isolation
When I asked Musk if he was a lonely kid, he replied:
“I wasn’t all that much of a loner…at least not willingly. I was very very bookish.” Elon Musk
As a kid he was consumed by his own world, reading books like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and playing Dungeons and Dragons for hours. Musk found coding a piece of cake and created his own software at the tender age of 12. Thanks to his bookish childhood, his innovative ideas could flourish without being squashed by friends or family.
Similarly, Jobs had an isolated childhood, and was bullied at school. He did no competitive school sports and was obsessed by electronics and gadgets.
4. Deep Thinking
Although Jobs was less techie, more visionary; and Musk is a geeky engineer who prides himself on innovation using scientific first principles, both are deep thinkers.
Elon Musk explained how Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy inspired him while he was looking for the meaning of life as a teenager.
“It highlighted an important point, which is that a lot of times the question is harder than the answer. And if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part. To the degree that we can better understand the universe, then we can better know what questions to ask. Then whatever the question is that most approximates: what’s the meaning of life? That’s the question we can ultimately get closer to understanding. And so I thought to the degree that we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness and knowledge, then that would be a good thing.” Elon Musk
Walter Isaacson, the author of Jobs’ biography wrote that Jobs felt throughout his life that he was on a journey — and he often said, ‘The journey was the reward.’ But that journey involved resolving conflicts about his role in this world: why he was here and what it was all about. He had a lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism and they discussed whether or not he believed in an afterlife.
“Sometimes I’m 50-50 on whether there’s a God. It’s the great mystery we never quite know. But I like to believe there’s an afterlife. I like to believe the accumulated wisdom doesn’t just disappear when you die, but somehow it endures.” Steve Jobs
During our interview, Musk shared the story of his brief encounter with the great Steve Jobs. The two were introduced by Google’s Larry Page at a party and Musk describes Jobs as being “super rude” to him. Nevertheless, this didn’t dent his admiration for the Apple guru. Here’s our dialogue:
Elon Musk: “The guy had a certain magic about him that was really inspiring. I think that’s really great.”
Alison van Diggelen: “Is it that magic that you try to emulate?”
Elon Musk: “No, I think Steve Jobs was way cooler than I am.”
Although Apple fans will agree strongly with that assessment, feedback at YouTube loudly contradicts Musk. Here’s one of the more polite reactions:
“Sounds just like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Except Elon Musk will probably end up being much more memorable than Steve Jobs :P”
As 2014 begins, Musk is still right, Steve Jobs is generally perceived as being “way cooler” than him. But that could change.
What will the history books conclude, in ten or twenty years from now? Steve Jobs certainly has big shoes to fill, but Elon Musk is already beginning to fill them. A lot will depend on Musk’s ability to see his grand visions come to fruition. First, he must complete his “Secret Master Plan for Tesla,” which includes the creation of a popular mass market electric car; and second, his vision of making space rockets reusable just like modern day jets.
One day, he may even achieve his life’s mission of dying on Mars, but as he describes it, “Just not on impact.”
It’s been a stellar year at Fresh Dialogues. Here are our top ten green interviews: from Tesla’s Elon Musk to Google’s Rick Needham. Most are exclusive Fresh Dialogues interviews, but some were special assignments for NPR’s KQED, The Computer History Museum, The Commonwealth Club and The Churchill Club (2013).
1.Elon Musk on burning oil, climate change and electric vehicles
“It’s the world’s dumbest experiment. We’re playing Russian roulette and as each year goes by we’re loading more rounds in the chamber. It’s not wise… We know we have to get to a sustainable means of transportation, no matter what.” Tesla CEO, Elon Musk. Read more/ see video
“I want to see a standard that could bring this country back to international prominence in terms of leaning in to a low carbon green growth strategy, so that we can dramatically change the way we produce and consume energy and lead the world.”Gavin Newsom, Lt. Governor of California. Read more/ see video
7. Steven Chu on climate change deniers
“I’d put them in the same category as people who said, in the 60′s and 70′s, that you haven’t proved to me that smoking causes cancer. This is a real issue. We have to do something about it!” Former Energy Secretary, Steven Chu. Read more/see video
8. GM’s Pam Fletcher on electric vehicle adoption
“We need a lot of customers excited about great products. I want to keep people focused on all the good things that moving to electrified transportation can do for customers and for the country.” GM’s Chief of Electrified Vehicles, Pam Fletcher. Read more/ see video
9. Laurie Yoler on why Tesla is succeeding, despite the odds
“You know you’re on to something good when everyone you talk to is a naysayer. It takes a huge amount of courage and tenacity to continue going forth.” Qualcomm executive and founding board member of Tesla Motors, Laurie Yoler. Read more/see video at 11:20
10. Rick Needham on self driving cars, car sharing and Google’s electric car fleet
“It’s not just the car that’s underutilized; it’s the infrastructure, the roads…There’s an enormous opportunity…on the environmental side, on the human safety side, on utilization of infrastructure side.” Google’s Rick Needham. Read more/see video
I was very honored to be included in such an illustrious collection. If you missed my interview at the Computer History Museum in January 2013, here’s the video.
And here’s some feedback from across the web:
“I am impressed with your ease and confidence and the way you were able to lead Musk with charm and fluency and keep the flow of the interview crisp and vital — in a word alive! Good work & warm congratulations.” Michael Krasny, Host KQED’s Forum
“Having seen every single video of Elon Musk, what I really apppreciated was that the interviewer prefaced her questions with content from Elon’s more practiced answers, so we saved a lot of time and just jumped into a ton of new information never mentioned in other interviews. Very good interviewer. 10/10!” Maximus Victorius on YouTube
“Loved the program. Alison conveyed a mastery of the subject, and the vocal counterpart was delicious. Perhaps the best interview I have heard.” Steve Jurvetson, Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist
“Alison really captured his charm and warmth and aspirations in a lovely way. He seemed more at ease and willing to be honest with Alison than in any interview I have seen him in. Her questions were excellent, and she was so articulate and poised on stage.” Laurie Yoler, a Tesla investor who was part of the 500-strong live audience.
“This is an example of my favorite kind of interview, the journalist asks well thought questions and then sits back and lets the subject tell the story.” Tyra Robertson, Elon Enthusiast
“I love how knowledgeable the interviewer is. It really opens up different answers from Elon that I haven’t heard a million times.” AlphacentauriAB on Reddit
On January 22, 2013, Elon Musk joined me in conversation at the Computer History Museum to share his life story and key turning points that led to the creation of PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla Motors and SolarCity. John Hollar, President and CEO of the Computer History Museum introduced the program. Here is a transcript of the in-depth interview. Note: this is a partial transcript of Musk’s early days in South Africa. Check back soon for more excerpts.
John Hollar: Here’s a thought exercise. If you compiled a list of the 75 most influential people of the 20th Century, who would be on your list? Or if you compiled a list perhaps of the 100 people who most affected the world in the 20th Century, who would be on that list? Now, think of the same list that you might start compiling for the 21st Century so far. And if all of that proves to be a little too much, I can offer some help. Elon Musk has been on every single one of those lists that has been compiled for the 20th Century to date, no matter who seems to be drawing the lists up.
Few scientists, entrepreneurs or industrialists of the last century can stake a claim to a career as boldly ambitious as the one Elon Musk is fashioning now. Transforming a large measure of the world’s commerce and payments systems as cofounder and chairman of PayPal in 1999, might be enough for anyone for one life time, but Elon Musk has gone on from there to pursue his passion for solving business, environmental and scientific problems on a global scale. He may be best known for his work at Tesla, where he serves as CEO and head of product design. The path breaking Tesla Roadster, and now the Model S have changed almost all the assumptions that the automotive world has made about what the styling, performance and future of a new generation of electric cars might be. Simultaneously, he serves as chairman and principal shareholder of SolarCity, the nation’s leading provider of solar power systems. But perhaps his most ambitious and intriguing work is taking place at SpaceX, where he is CEO and chief designer. SpaceX is erasing the boundaries between space flight and private enterprise. It has a multi-billion dollar, multi-year agreement with NASA to be a workhorse for cargo flights to and from the International Space Station, and in 2015, that is the companies stated goal: it will begin manned space flight. What is the source of Elon Musk’s revolutionary thinking? How has he been able to do what he’s done with the investors he’s attracted and the teams that he’s built?
Exploring these questions and more tonight with Elon is Alison van Diggelen, who is a very notable and noteworthy journalist here in Silicon Valley, a contributor to KQED and the Huffington Post; and one of the best interviewers in the field through her series, Fresh Dialogues. We’re delighted to have Alison here tonight. This is her first time on stage. She’s going to be terrific, as will Elon. Please join me in welcoming Elon Musk and Alison van Diggelen.
Alison van Diggelen: Good evening. Tonight I’d like to explore what makes a revolutionary. Elon, I’d like you to take us on a journey from South Africa to Silicon Valley and beyond.
So I’d like to start…you grew up in South Africa. I heard a wonderful story about when you were six years old and you started breaking the rules even then. You were six years old and you were invited by your cousin to a birthday party. But there were two problems with that: one you were grounded, and two it was on the other side of town. Can you tell us how you got there?
Elon Musk: All right. Well, this was when I was six, so the memory is a little fuzzy at this point. But as I recall, I was grounded for some reason. I don’t know why but I felt it was unjust (laughter)…and I really wanted to go to this party, my cousin’s party, who was five…a kids’ party. So at first, I was going to take my bike and I told my mom this, which was a mistake and she told me some story about how you needed a license for a bike and the police would stop me. So I wasn’t 100% sure if that was true or not, but I thought I’d better walk just in case. I sort of thought I knew the way, but it was clear across town…10 or 12 miles really quite far, further than I realized actually…So I just started walking to my cousin’s house. It took me about four hours and just as my mom was leaving the party with my brother and sister, she saw me walking down the road and freaked out. I saw she saw me, so I then sprinted to my cousin’s house – I was just about two blocks away – and climbed a tree and refused to come down…(laughter).
Alison van Diggelen: The first of many rule-breaking adventures for Elon Musk. So, by the time you were 12, you were already an entrepreneur and making a profit…
Elon Musk: Well…A small one…
Alison van Diggelen: You earned $500 equivalent in (South African) Rand for creating a video game. Can you tell us about that and what the inspiration was?
Elon Musk: Yes sure. So when I was about 10, I walked into a computer store in South Africa and saw an actual computer. I previously had some earlier precursors to the Atari system then I got the Atari system which I’m sure a lot of people here have played. Then I sort of actually started having a computer where you could make your own games and it was a Commodore VIC-20 . So that was the first computer I bought and then I got some books on how to teach yourself programming and this was like the coolest thing I’d ever seen so this was super-awesome and I started programming games in order to buy more games so that really put a circular thing…so more games, better computers. That kind of thing.
Alison van Diggelen: Right. So the money wasn’t the end goal for you, it was more a means to an end?
Elon Musk: Yeah. Basically I’d spend money on better computers and Dungeons & Dragons modules. Things like that. (laughs) Master 3000 basically.
Alison van Diggelen: I understand at that time you were heavily into comics…I’m curious to know, did you love Iron Man? The comic Iron Man, was that…?
Elon Musk: I did like Iron Man, yes.
Alison van Diggelen: You did? And did you ever imagine you’d be the inspiration for the (Iron Man) movie version?
Elon Musk: I did not. That was pretty much, I would say zero percent chance.
Alison van Diggelen: What kind of kid were you? Can you look back and see yourself? Were you a loner kid? A bookish kid?
Elon Musk: I wasn’t all that much of a loner…at least not willingly (laughter). I certainly was very very bookish. I was reading all the time. So I was either reading, working on my computer, reading comics, playing Dungeons & Dragons…that kind of thing.
Alison van Diggelen: I understand Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, that wonderful book by Douglas Adams, that was a key book for you. What was it about that book that fired your imagination?
Elon Musk: I guess when I was around 12 or 15…I had an existential crisis, and I was reading various books on trying to figure out the meaning of life and what does it all mean? It all seemed quite meaningless and then we happened to have some books by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer in the house, which you should not read at age 14 (laughter). It is bad, it’s really negative. So then I read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy which is quite positive I think and it highlighted an important point which is that a lot of times the question is harder than the answer. And if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part. So, to the degree that we can better understand the universe, then we can better know what questions to ask. Then whatever the question is that most approximates: what’s the meaning of life? That’s the question we can ultimately get closer to understanding. And so I thought to the degree that we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness and knowledge, then that would be a good thing.”
Alison van Diggelen: So you were having these deep thoughts at what age? 10…14?
Elon Musk: Yeah. In the…puberty, I guess….13 through 15. Probably the most traumatic years.
Alison van Diggelen: So by the time you were 17, you were…had actually left (South Africa)…I assume you’d hatched the plan earlier when you were 14, 15?
Elon Musk: I did hatch the plan earlier. Actually I tried to hatch several plans, which they did not hatch (laughter).
Alison van Diggelen: But by 17, you were on a plane from South Africa. You’d had enough of South Africa, you were ready to seek new pastures. Now why was it the United States was your destination? Why not Europe or somewhere else?
Elon Musk: Well, whenever I would read about cool technology, it would tend to be in the United States…or more broadly North America, including Canada. So, I wanted to be where the cutting edge technology was and of course, within the United States, Silicon Valley is where the heart of things is. Although at the time, I didn’t know where Silicon Valley was…it sounded like some mythical place (laughter)…I tried to convince my mother or father, who were divorced, if either one of them would move to the United States, then I could get there. At one point I convinced my father but then he reneged, unfortunately.
Alison van Diggelen: You had him convinced? And then he changed his mind?
Elon Musk: He did say yes, and then he changed his mind.
Alison van Diggelen: Why?
Elon Musk: I don’t know. I guess he was fairly established in engineering, established in South Africa and didn’t want to have to go through that again in another country.
Alison van Diggelen: So you got on that plane all by yourself at 17?
Elon Musk: Yes, so…my mother was born in Canada. Her father was American. But unfortunately she didn’t get her American citizenship, so then that broke the link and I couldn’t get my American citizenship. But she was born in Canada, so I actually filled out the forms for her and got her a Canadian passport, and me too. Within three weeks of getting my Canadian passport, I was in Canada.
…To be continued.
Check back soon for the next chapter of Elon Musk’s journey: University of Pennsylvania, two days at Stanford, his first startup…and the inspiration for PayPal.
During my January interview with Elon Musk, we got a glimpse inside the mind of this revolutionary entrepreneur. We explored his inspiration for disruptive startups like SpaceX, Tesla Motors and SolarCity; and he gave some advice on how to build, motivate and retain excellent teams; as well as some warnings about the hazards of over-committing and sleep deprivation.
He told me, “I really didn’t want to be CEO of two startups at the same time. It was not appealing. And shouldn’t be appealing by the way, if anyone is thinking that’s a good idea. It’s a terrible idea.”
On how to build, motivate and retain an excellent team (@1.05.00 on video)
“A company is a group of people that are organized to create a product or service. That’s what a company is. So in order to create such a thing, you have to convince others to join you in your effort and so they have to be convinced that it’s a sensible thing, that basically there’s a some reasonable chance of success and if there is success, the reward will be commensurate with the effort involved. And so I think that’s it…getting people to believe in what you’re doing – and in you – is important.”
“In the beginning there will be few people who believe in you or in what you’re doing but then over time, as you make progress, the evidence will build and more and more people will believe in what you’re doing. So, I think it’s a good idea when creating a company to create…to have a demonstration or if it’s a product to have a good mark up or even if it’s software to have good demoware, or to be able to sketch something so people can really envision what’s it’s about. Try to get to that point as soon as possible. And then iterate to make it as real as possible, as fast as possible. I think that makes sense.”
On time management and sleep
“Sleep is really great. I find if I don’t get enough sleep then I’m quite grumpy. Obviously, I think most people are that way. And also I try to figure out what’s the right amount of sleep, because I find I can drop below a certain threshold in sleep and although I’d be awake more hours and I could sustain it, I would get less done…my mental acuity would be affected. So I found generally, the right number for me is around six to six and a half hours on average per night.”
“Having a smart phone is incredibly helpful because that means you can do email during interstitial periods, like if you’re in a car (he has a driver), you’re walking, in the bathroom, everywhere. You can do email practically when you’re awake and so that’s really helpful: to have email for SpaceX, and Tesla integrated on my phone. And then you have to apply a lot of hours to actual working.”
On where his inspiration strikes (hint: not just Burning Man)
“It’s kind of a cliche, but it happens a lot in the shower…I don’t know what it is about showers (laughter)…I kind of stand there in the (long) shower and…not to mention the burning man epiphanies. Those are huge…There are some times. like late at night if I think about something and I can’t sleep and I’ll be up for several hours, sort of pacing around the house, thinking about things and occasionally I’ll sketch something or send myself an email or something like that.”
On keeping it in the family (Musk has five sons, all under 9)
“I do drag them along on a lot of things…they’re remarkably unimpressed. I wish they were more interested…maybe they’ll get more interested later. If they’re really interested in working at Tesla or SpaceX then I’d help them do that. I’m not sure I’d necessarily want to insert them into the CEO role at some point. If the rest of the team and the board felt that they were the right person then that would be fine but I wouldn’t want people to feel that I’d installed my kid there. I don’t think that would be good for the company or the kid really.”
“I was of the school of thought that it’s best to give away 99% or more of one’s assets, the Buffet School of thought. I’m mostly inclined in that direction, but after seeing what happened with Ford, GM and Chrysler, where GM and Chrysler went bankrupt and Ford did not, and Ford seemed to make better long term choices…in part because of the influence of the Ford family, I thought, well OK, there may be some merit in having some longer term family ownership. At least a portion of it. It acts as a positive influence…in the long term interest of the company…so the company does proper long term things. Look at what happened also in Silicon Valley with Hewlett Packard. It’s quite sad. That to some degree is because there was much diminished influence by the Hewlett and Packard families. I think they should have prevailed…when they were opposed to the merger that took place at one point. I think they were right, actually.”
On the likelihood of a SpaceX IPO this year
“No, there’s no IPO planned. I must say, running a public company does have its drawbacks. In the case of Tesla and Solarcity …we had to raise capital and we had a kind of complex equity structure that needed to be resolved by going public. So I thought we kind of needed to do that in those two cases. We don’t have to do that at SpaceX. I think there’s a good chance we will at some point in the future, but SpaceX’s objectives are super longterm and the market is not. So I’m a bit worried that if we did go public, certainly if we went public too soon, that the market pressure would force us to do short term things and abandon longterm projects…(like) going to Mars is very longterm.”
On the Hyperloop
“I did promise that I’d do some paper on the Hyperloop idea and things got a little hectic toward the end of last year because I’d committed to make these milestones at Tesla to the public market and I had to stay true to that obligation, which required an insane level of work and attention.” Check back soon at Fresh Dialogues for updates on the Hyperloop.
On how the SolarCity IPO got done, “by the skin of its teeth”
Elon Musk: “(It) was a very difficult IPO to get done. That IPO occurred just by the skin of its teeth. It was such a tough one…If it wasn’t in December, it would mean pushing it out quite a bit and the problem is, we’d already pushed it out quite a bit. So if we didn’t go public, we’d have to do a private round and then…the whole thing wouldn’t feel right. It’s like you’re sitting at the altar, and you don’t do the wedding. It’s a bit awkward. So we really needed to do it and I think if we hadn’t done it, people would have looked at it as a failure. It wouldn’t have been good. There have just been too many failures…not enough success, let’s say, in the solar arena. We need to chalk up success…”
Alison van Diggelen: “It was a rare piece of sunshine for the solar industry last year…”
Elon Musk: “Right. Exactly. Ironically for the solar industry doesn’t have a lot of that.”
On why Musk wants to go to Mars before he’s ‘too old’
“I guess I’d like to be able to go to Mars while I’m still able to manage the journey reasonably well. I don’t want to be like 75 and go to Mars…It could be mildly arduous…I’d like to get there ideally in my 50’s. That would be kind of cool. I aspire to make that happen, and I can see the potential for that happening. I’m not saying it will happen, but I think it can happen…I’ll try to make it happen.”