The secret of Elon Musk’s success

Published: 8. 10. 2021
Author: Lubor Winter
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Inventor, entrepreneur, visionary, and currently also the second richest man in the world. What lies behind the success of this lively fifty-year-old South African, Canadian, and American.

Whether a person succeeds in life essentially boils down to three factors – the place (where it happens), the time (when it happens), and the character of the given individual (what happens and how). The factors of time and place are well-known in Elon Musk’s case – he was born in a rich country, his mother tongue is English, the lingua franca of the most developed part of the world, he comes from a well-off, technologically oriented family. Thanks to all of the above, he had easy access to the place with the best conditions for starting a business – the USA. All positives so far. But a lot of other people have these positive conditions too. What was it then that helped Musk get to where he is now – the very top of worldwide business, technological research, and media interest? It is of course the third factor, his distinctive personality traits as well as events that shaped his character in his childhood years.

Just like dad

Elon does not have many nice things to say about his father Errol nowadays. He even went as far as to say that he is one of the most terrible people he has ever encountered. They grew apart during Elon’s adolescence, but it is clear that his dad influenced him in a major way. Elon was only 9 years old when his parents divorced in 1980. He was forced to choose who he would stay with because his mother Maye decided to move out. Elon chose to stay in his hometown of Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, where he lived with his father who was a talented electrical engineer as well as a successful inventor and businessman. Elon’s love for technology and tech innovations along with his entrepreneurial spirit can be traced back to these roots. The bright young boy was immersed in an inspiring environment of technology, creativity, and innovation thanks to his father. He could also watch him do business and this instilled within Elon the basic rules of entrepreneurship. The famous rule mentioned by so many psychologists and sociologists is once again confirmed, children tend to choose their careers based on their parents' occupation. It is most prominent in the families of lawyers, healthcare workers, financiers, artists, and engineers.

Focused on his goal

People who know Elon Musk, be it personally or professionally, tend to mention this time and time again: When he sets his mind to something, he will pursue that goal until it is either resolved or he feels that he has achieved a breakthrough. It can take minutes to hours, but also days or weeks. When he is working on an issue related to the operations of one of his companies, he will let nothing distract him. The outside world ceases to exist, as do his needs and wants – no food, no coffee, no people... After all, this type of problem-solving is the most effective. Experts have found that we spend the majority of our mental energy trying to concentrate. The more distractions there are, the more energy we have to expend on getting into a focused state that, once reached, is itself oddly not as energy-demanding as it may seem. Things are different when it comes to focusing on a major milestone. Elon will often switch to an “all work, no private life” mode, where he tends to sleep in his office and spend up to 15 hours a day at work. He will almost exclusively surround himself with people who he believes to be conducive to solving the issue at hand.

Be prepared

This Boy Scouts motto is spot on in connection with Musk’s personality. Elon is not one for long meetings and dragged-out discussions, he tries to limit these to the bare minimum. To achieve this, he makes sure that every meeting follows a pre-set agenda. He goes through a process of meticulous preparation for each meeting and expects the same of others. And when he feels like the things being discussed are not to the point, he will just get up and leave. “It is not rude to leave a meeting that is not going anywhere. It is rude to make someone stay and waste their time. Especially for dumb reasons like phony manners,” he said in a recent interview. In fact, what was said about Elon’s preparation process for meetings, can be said of the same for any other aspect of his life.

No getting chummy

If you have ever seen Elon Musk speaking to his associates, you might feel that they are all a bunch of old friends. That they go out for drinks a couple of times a week, they get along and know each other well. That is not the case. Not that Elon is a misanthrope per se, he likes people in a sense, and he realizes that he would not be where he is today without them. However friendly these interactions may seem, though, they are no deep connections. They are simply superficial relationships based on work. Feelings and emotions are relevant to these relationships only to the extent to which they help solve a specific work issue. You could count Elon’s true friends on the fingers of one hand, and his work associates are definitely not among them. Why? Because getting too involved complicates work. When you have an issue at work with a really good friend, it will take you much longer to bring it up with them than if it is a person you are not that close to.

One day it will work

“He was always persistent. Even as a child. When he would pick up an activity and he wasn’t exactly making headway, he would try again and again. Like when he was learning to ride a scooter. I showed him the basics, but it was up to him to practice to get better at it. And he would do so rigorously. You could see that he was improving with each try, he would always adapt based on what he had previously learned. It was really fascinating,”  divulged Elon’s mother Maye, and in so doing described another one of his personality traits that is the foundation of his success. Elon is extremely persistent, to the point of stubbornness.

His driving force is passion

Elon Musk is one of the people who are truly passionate about what they do. You could say that for these kinds of people, work is what they love most in the world, although they will likely say it is something else to avoid being judged by their loved ones... They are easy to spot. Work to them is not a routine that pays the bills, it is a fun adventure and so they are much less tired than us others. Elon Musk is known to go well beyond the 8 hour limit on his workdays and he has no intention of changing things. That is also the reason why he manages to get so many things done. Problems arise, however, when a hard worker like that expects the same from others. Musk has faced issues in this regard before when people who he tried to hold to his standards would complain in the media or even press charges. They would say that Elon Musk is a sociopath who does not understand that people have a private life as well as a work life.

Control is key

When Elon was in high school, a group of boys ambushed him, beat him up, and threw him down a set of stairs. Elon ended up in the hospital, unconscious... Yes, boys like him will sometimes end up as victims of bullying. They are too smart, too closed-off and odd, which irks the average, more dominant individuals to the point of picking on such a child. Elon has dealt with the bullying through his own means, such as regularly training karate. According to psychologists, however, this negative experience has had a fundamental impact on the rest of his life. “In my practice, I often come across people who, after facing hardships like bullying, insufficient love from their parents, and loneliness, go on to become prominent leaders in various fields. Facing up to these events is a formative experience for them. As a consequence, they will often go to great lengths to have things under control.  Thanks to these negative experiences, they eventually learn how to control the world and the people around them. An idea embeds itself deep inside their minds that when they were little they were not in control of the things happening to them, and they suffered as a result. And they will not allow that to happen again. They will do anything to be the ones in the driver's seat. When you attain an important job position, you have power and control over others, which is exactly what these people need to feel comfortable. They don’t do it because of the money or other material rewards, they do it because they need to control people so that nobody can hurt them anymore,” says respected management theorist, Cary Cooper, President of the British Academy of Management.

Elon Musk with his second wife, Talulah Riley, at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in 2014.

Elon Musk (born June 28, 1971, in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital) is an influential South African, Canadian, and American (he really does have triple citizenship) inventor, businessman, visionary, and philanthropist.

He is the son of Errol and Maye Musk. His father is an engineer and entrepreneur, his mother a nutrition specialist.

Musk has a bachelor’s degree in economics and physics. He earned them both at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania.

Elon has been married twice – his first wife was Canadian writer, Justine Wilson, his second one British actress, Talulah Riley. He now lives with his partner, Canadian musician, Claire Boucher also known as Grimes. He has six children in total from these three relationships – all sons.

Companies stamped with the EM initials

Some of these companies Elon Musk founded and sold, he is the CEO in others, others yet he founded and also directs... They operate in different technological fields, but they have one thing in common – they are always connected with the technological innovations of their time.

In 1995 he built the interactive database of US locations, cities, and businesses, Zip2, which he sold to Compaq Computer in 1999.

In 1999 he started an online payment service, which he went on to sell to PayPal.

He is the founder (2002), CEO and head engineer of the SpaceX aerospace company. According to Musk, the goal of the company is to lower the costs of space travel and in so doing enable the colonization of Mars by humankind.

He is the CEO and head product designer of Tesla (founded 2003), which designs, manufactures and sells electric vehicles, the Powerwall integrated battery system, the Powerpack energy storage system, and solar power roof tiles.

#He is the founder of OpenAI (2015) specializing in AI research, The Boring Company (2016) that designs tunnel systems for urban transportation, and Neuralink (2016) whose work revolves around neurotechnology.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon Spacecraft.

Studio photo of the Tesla Roadster and charging station.


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