The man who wants to put people on Mars has become the richest man on Earth.
It makes little difference to him, though. A traumatic childhood, combined with his genius and ambition, seems to have made Elon Musk a man who is above excessively celebrating materialistic achievements.
Musk’s reaction to becoming the world’s wealthiest man, with a net worth of $195 billion, was typical of him. “How strange,” he tweeted. This was followed by “Well, back to work.”
The Tesla and SpaceX founder is a notorious workaholic. In 2018, there was serious concern over his health and state of mind as he worked 120-hour weeks, smoked a joint on a talk show, albeit legally, and broke down in a soul-baring interview with The New York Times. Psychiatrists may have noted an element of self-destruction in the conscious neglect of his health.
“There were times when I didn’t leave the factory for three or four days — days when I didn’t go outside,” the father of five said. “This has really come at the expense of seeing my kids. And seeing friends.”
Musk turned 47 that year, and celebrated his birthday in office. “All night — no friends, nothing.” He also revealed that some days he couldn’t sleep without the aid of pills. “It is often a choice of no sleep or Ambien,” he said.
Musk grew up in South Africa, often violently bullied at school and parented by a father who he says was capable of “evil”. The boy could have easily gone astray. But he found a wholesome escape in books and computers, which he became acquainted with at 10. He learnt programming, and at the age of 12, he sold a game called ‘Blastar’ for $500.
In his late teens, recognising that he had to go to America to fulfil his potential, Musk departed for the promised land. He got two Bachelor degrees, in science and in Arts, but for physics. Then he enrolled at Stanford for a PhD, but dropped out after exactly two days. Silicon Valley was exploding with internet opportunities. Musk and his brother Kimbal started a company called Zip2. The rest is history, auto science and rocket science.
Musk believes a college degree is not necessary for success. But he has never sugarcoated the challenge of starting a company.
“You need a high pain threshold,” he once said. “A friend of mine says starting a company is like eating glass and staring into the abyss. When you start a company, there’s lots of optimism. And things are great. Happiness, at first, is high. Then you encounter all sorts of issues. And happiness will certainly decline. And then you will go through a whole world of hurt.”
He laughed loudly as he said the words, again hinting that a part of him enjoys the pain.
Elaborating on working “super hard”, Musk once said, “When my brother and I started our first company, we didn’t rent an apartment. We rented a small office and slept on the couch. We showered at the YMCA. We were so hard up we had only one computer. The website was up during the day, and I was coding at night, seven days a week. I briefly had a girlfriend at that time and in order to be with me, she’d have to sleep in office.”
At the girlfriend bit, he fidgeted and blushed slightly. Often in interviews, Musk’s fast speech contrasts with his nervy body language. During one ‘60 Minutes’ appearance, he nodded vigorously and held back tears when he was told that legendary astronauts such as Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan were against his plans to make space travel commercial. “He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know,” was the view of the space heroes. This time, Musk laughed and said, “I suppose that’s true of anyone. How can anyone know what they don’t know.”
Musk’s advice to youngsters is to not just work hard but take risks.
“People tend to overrate risk,” he has said. “It’s one thing if you have mortgage to pay and kids to support, and that’s why you don’t want to deviate from your job. But if you are young and just coming out of college, what do you risk?”
The service or product entrepreneurs build need not be revolutionary, but should do something good, Musk said.
“If you are doing something that’s good for society, that’s great, it doesn’t have to change the world. Even if it’s like just a little game, or some improvement in photo sharing or something, if it has a small amount of good for a large number of people, I think that’s fine.”
As for putting people on Mars, Musk said on the Stephen Colbert show that the planet first had to be warmed up. He said it casually, as if Mars was a muffin. To Elon Musk, it might just be.