Letter to the Editor: Nobody Escapes Adversity

This is an essay regarding my perception of a personal hero, and how a short article by Neil Strauss changed it for the better.

I am your standard Elon Musk fan boy. Being an engineering student at a tech school, this fact about me should not come as a huge surprise. I’m one of those people who sometimes claims to have “known about him before he was famous.”  Four years ago, I wrote a college admissions essay about him. Throughout my academic career, one of my go-to means of procrastinating my school work, probably right after checking the latest basketball highlights, has been reading the latest Elon Musk news. At this point it’s become so routine that nothing really amazes me anymore. Space X launches a Tesla Roadster towards Mars and my inner dialogue goes, “Hmmm I’ll keep an eye on that.”  Musk founding a neuroscience company, gets a “How the hell does he do it all?”  And so, I check away the interesting little story somewhere in my imagination and get back to brainstorming projects and studying for exams, the less fantastic tasks of an undergrad engineering student. Typically, the story ends there.

In the midst of finals week in December 2017, I read an Elon article that was decidedly different. It stopped me in my tracks, and for the first time in over a year I felt compelled to immediately reread something I had just gone through. The media today, at least in outlets I follow, portray Musk as some sort of super human robot. A search of his name on Netflix will land you the title Elon Musk: Bloomberg Risk Takers. A search on Amazon spits out Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future and Elon Musk: Biography of a Self-Made Visionary, Entrepreneur and Billionaire. A Google search will get you a combination of similar titles, authors with agendas trying to attach their ideas to Musk in one way or another, or tales of such remarkable ambition that if they weren’t so common would leave you awestruck. Joe Rogan, my favorite podcaster, describes him as an “alien” and “the closest thing to Tony Stark in real life.”. I don’t think that I speak for myself alone when I say that I don’t identify very much with this picture of Musk. I’m a smart guy, but while I’m working my ass off to get an A on a final exam, it’s hard for me to think of myself in terms like “self-made visionary” or imagine I’m contributing to a “fantastic future.”  I’m extremely lucky to be free from existential financial worry, but even still my idea of capital allocation is deciding between snow tires and beer money. The words “billionaire” and “entrepreneur” don’t ring particularly true for me at this point in my life, and if I’m being honest there is a good chance they never will.

The article I read was in the Rolling Stone titled Elon Musk: The Architect of Tomorrow by Neil Strauss. Another lofty title, but it had its intended effect of getting me to open up another tab and give it a read. Thus, over the next ten minutes I read the first article on Musk in my entire life that I could really identify with. The Musk that I read about in the Rolling Stone was certainly still a genius and had still accomplished more in his life than most people dream of. His many insane ambitions are still noted and the author muses that if he manages to pull off even a fraction of them “Musk will likely be remembered as one of the most seminal figures of this millennium.”  In addition to all that though, the Elon that Strauss paints for us is also rather petty, bragging to his three kids about how much money people who took short positions on Tesla’s stock had lost, painting these evil investors as the enemy, and even going so far as to say, “they’re constantly trying to make up false rumors and amplify any negative rumors.”  Whether this constitutes some degree of paranoia or it is simply a pragmatic fear, Musk does let the haters get to him, and he feels the pressure of competition. Strauss captures this deeply human feeling in one word from Musk, 

“It's..." He shakes his head and struggles for the right word, then says softly, "Hurtful."

It’s not a stretch to imagine Musk has to work with those negative voices in his head at every single product launch. Much the same way a basketball player has to tune out the away crowd as he is trying to sink an important free throw, or a college kid has to manage the doubt when he decides to ask out his crush.

Speaking of getting crushed, as if one insecurity in my super hero wasn’t enough to do the trick, Strauss expertly digs up another one, to the point where Musk has to stop mid-interview and ask to reschedule. Elon had just gone through a terribly difficult break up:

"I've been in severe emotional pain for the last few weeks," Musk elaborates. "Severe. It took every ounce of will to be able to do the Model 3 event and not look like the most depressed guy around. For most of that day, I was morbid. And then I had to psych myself up: drink a couple of Red Bulls, hang out with positive people and then, like, tell myself: 'I have all these people depending on me. All right, do it!'"

Neil caught a deeply disturbed moment in the visionary’s life, with Musk saying "If I'm not in love, if I'm not with a long-term companion, I cannot be happy.", and he chronicled Musk’s history of failed marriages and relationships that no doubt many in a society with a 50% divorce rate can relate to. Even the great Elon Musk experiences rejection, like a young engineer getting turned down for their dream job at Tesla. Digging even further, Strauss traces this fear of loneliness back to his upbringing, from trouble with bullies at school to his difficult relationship with his father. Musk says, “I was raised by books. Books, and then my parents."  After hashing this out with Strauss, Musk proceeded to cry in front of him on record and in a later interview tells him, “one lesson I've learned is, don't tweet on Ambien. That's on the record: Tweeting on Ambien is unwise. You may regret it."  Upon a first read of the article, it really stings to imagine your hero lying awake at night, insecurely scrolling through Twitter. If Elon can’t rest easy at night, how can any of us?

Stories of Musk’s struggles were not the sole focus of Strauss’s profile, but the adversity in the narrative was the part I was drawn to. The truth in this story for me was that our heroes are human beings. Behind a curtain of overwhelming success, the great Elon Musk feels the pressure to perform, hears the naysayers, experiences heartbreak, and fears dying alone. If you don’t resonate with any of those insecurities or if Musk isn’t exactly your hero, there is still something to be noted here. There is no doubt that if such a profile was done on the top five people you admire, you would find one of your heroes is dealing with the same fears, insecurities and skeletons in their closet as you.  Michael Jordan was cut from the basketball team in tenth grade and was a compulsive gambler. Tim Ferris nearly attempted suicide while he was in college. Albert Einstein is commonly said to have had a learning disorder. Someone simply looking like they have life figured out does not necessarily mean that they do. While we can’t discount the fact that some people suffer far more than others, we all have our struggles. That includes the guy dunking on your team in intramural hoops, the girl busting the curve in physics class, that really attractive stranger you’re building the courage to talk to and even the great Elon Musk.

This article reminded me that Elon Musk and all of my heroes, both personal and historical, deserve that title because they looked adversity in the face and moved forward anyways. Musk has spent his life fighting bullies, starting off quite literally doing it in the school yard.

"For the longest time, I was the youngest and the smallest kid in the class because my birthday just happens to fall on almost the last day that they will accept you into school, June 28th. And I was a late bloomer. So I was the youngest and the smallest kid in class for years and years. ...The gangs at school would hunt me down – literally hunt me down!

"Musk put down the books and started learning to fight back – karate, judo, wrestling. That physical education, combined with a growth spurt that brought him to six feet by age 16, gave him some confidence and, as he puts it, "I started dishing it out as hard as they'd give it to me."

He graduated from school yard bullies to humanities greatest problems, ranging from global warming to insurance from cosmic extinction.  Elon isn’t any less of a hero because he is a human being. The fact that he checks the Tesla stock ticker like your most insecure friend checks their Instagram posts doesn’t take away from what he has accomplished.

There is a lot to learn here, or unlearn. We should be careful to pretend success and happiness are a package deal, if we are even so ambitious as to define those words. Beyond the simple fact that success will mean something a little different to each of us, we also have to understand, in a world with seemingly limitless options, but finite time and energy, that life is full of tradeoffs. Being the “Architect of Tomorrow” won’t magically make your love life work out, in the same way that being a great father won’t make you a millionaire. Almost all things worth doing will take up your precious time, focus, and energy. We all have to iteratively decide what we value in life, and what we don’t. We all have to come to terms with the devil on our shoulder, no matter what tune he sings or how heavy he is, and like our heroes before us, chase our dreams anyway.