There’s an unexpected reason to the madness
I recently read Ashlee’s Vance’s biography on Elon Musk, and Like Alexander Hamilton must have grabbed Lin Manuel Miranda, Elon’s life hit home with me.
But when I compare my twenties to Elon’s, I can’t help but feel envious. Not because he sold his first company and purchased a McLaren at age 27, but because I never had his energy, passion, or grit for work.
“He had boundless energy,” said Bruce Leak, a former lead engineer at Apple who hired Musk as an intern. “Kids these days have no idea about hardware or how stuff works, but he had a PC hacker background and was not afraid to just go and figure things out.”
As a post-graduate, Elon operated a company while simultaneously running code for its website. He worked 18-hour days, slept at the office, and showered at the local YMCA on the weekends.
I don’t know about you, but I spent my early twenties staring at a computer clock waiting for it to strike five while simultaneously texting weekend plans to my friends under my desk. Where was my energy?
Acclaimed academic and author of Grit, Angela Duckworth, says the mature passions of gritty people depend on two sources: interests and purpose.
Interests: Something that captures your imagination and attention.
Purpose: A calling to act towards the benefit of others.
I wanted to explore Elon’s twenties and try to understand how he worked so many uncomfortable hours and persisted with machine-like pain tolerance.
What did he find interesting? What was his purpose? What lessons can we take away from Musk’s 20s that we can incorporate into our own lives?
Let’s start with college.
A college experience straight from Animal House
Elon transitioned smoothly into the college lifestyle at the University of Pennsylvania. It was an improvement from a grim childhood. He grew up in South Africa during the apartheid and attended a school that typified the country’s white alpha male culture; Elon, a geeky kid interested in space and computer games, was often bullied. To make matters worse, he came home to an abusive relationship with his father.
College in America must have felt like Harry Potter escaping the English suburbs for Hogwarts.
Musk and his best friend Ressi rented a former frat house and hosted massive raves for their classmates. “It was a full out speakeasy,” Ressi said in Elon’s biography, “We would have as many as five-hundred people. We would charge $5 dollars and it would pretty much be all you could drink — beer and Jell-O shots and other things.”
Musk avoided drugs and alcohol but would disappear for days, nose deep in video game binges. I remember a few guys from Ohio Wesleyan with similar routines; the difference was none of them double-majored in physics and economics or wrote papers about ultracapacitors with the power to lift rockets into space.
Upon graduation, Elon considered a career in video games, but changed his mind.
“I really like computer games, but then If I made really great computer games, how much effect would that have on the world? It wouldn’t have a big effect.”
— Elon Musk
Even at 21, Elon was thinking bigger. He had dreams about what humanity could accomplish with the internet, renewable energy, and space. A purpose.
He took off west to Silicon Valley.
Elon’s first start-Up and mid-twenties growing pains
Elon tackled the internet first. In 1995, Elon and his brother Kimball formed a start-up called Global Link, later named Zip2. I’m sure most of you don’t remember this company, I didn’t, but Zip2 was the OG internet business directory, a digital Yellow Pages.
Elon and Kimball pooled their cash together and rented a twenty-by-thirty Class C office in Palo Alto. They lived at the office and kept their clothes in a supply closet. Musk, with his limited coding experience, ran code for the website. His brother hustled door-to-door sales, convincing retailers to replace newspaper ads with the internet — an easy sell in 2020 but crazy talk in 1995.
The typical response from vendors was, “advertising on the internet sounds like the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Despite ending each day with dreadful sales results, Elon worked like a man possessed. A former employee said, “Almost every day, I’d come in at seven-thirty, and he’d be asleep right there on the bag… Maybe he showered on the weekends, I don’t know.”
Elon asked his employees to kick him awake when they arrived so he could get back to work.
Elon’s energy kept the company alive during dark moments, and his excitement for the internet’s promise kept investors interested. They received a crucial round of funding from the VC firm Mohr Davidow Ventures that transformed the company from a budding idea in the Bay Area to a nationwide service.
The atrocious affair
In 1998, Zip2 was on the verge of a dream merger with a competitor valued at around $300 million. The companies complimented each other well and together would become the country’s top online business directory. Details on what happened next differ, but Elon turned on Zip2’s CEO Sorkin and neglected the deal.
The whole situation was a mess. The disappointed board ousted Musk from the chairman’s title. “Sorkin considered Musk’s behavior through the whole affair atrocious and later pointed to the board’s reaction as evidence that they felt the same way.”
Zip2 was on the ropes and losing money. What’s worse, Silicon Valley veterans and the media had tarnished Elon’s name.
Suddenly, a miracle occurred. In 1997, the computer company Compaq offered to buy Zip2 for $307 million in cash. Just when Elon’s dreams were fading, the company sold, and Elon walked away with $22 million. He was 27 years old.
Where did his energy come from?
Maybe Elon looks back on his twenties and cringes at the sweaty all-nighters and clashes with colleagues. Our 20s are littered with harsh lessons and painful memories. But he succeeded. He had a great idea, the stamina to lift the idea off the ground, and sold it for good money.
Angela Duckworth would say Elon acted with gritty passion through the highs and lows because the work embodied both his interests and purpose.
But I wonder, what would those be?
He’s addicted to building
He’s interested in building stuff, that’s obvious. I would take that a step further and say he’s addicted to building stuff. Zip2 was an internet company, not the most tangible service, but he built it from scratch which requires an engineer’s focus like a child hallowed to a new Lego set. Take his college video games binges and multiply it by 100 and that’s his work ethic.
An unexpected calling
There’s a philosophical parable that I couldn’t get out of my head while writing this article.
Three bricklayers are asked: “What are you doing?”
The first says: “I am laying bricks.”
The second says, “I’m building a church.”
The third says, “I’m building the house of God.”
The first bricklayer has a job. The second has a career. The third has a purpose.
I consider myself a disciplined person. I work hard; I wake up at 5am; I don’t give up; and I enjoy devoting myself to my practice, but I never had Elon’s energy in my twenties. Why? Because he had a strong reason — he had purpose.
“If you take a moment to reflect on the times in your life when you’ve really been at your best — when you’ve risen to the challenges before you, finding the strength to do what might have seemed impossible — you realize that the goals you achieved were connected in some way, shape or form to the benefit of others.”
— Angela Duckworth
Interests will start you down a path, but, at some point, your calling must include other people.
Elon has perhaps the most altruistic goal of them all, to send people to Mars and save the planet. Oddly enough, I don’t think that’s his purpose.
The next generation of engineers
I went back and re-listened to Elon’s interview with Joe Rogan. He said something within the first 20 minutes of the podcasts that caught my attention.
“In the United States especially, there’s an over-allocation talent in finance and law. Basically, too many smart people go into finance and law… We should have fewer people doing law and fewer people doing finance and more people making stuff.”
That’s his purpose: Inspire the next generation to make things again.