“Daddy, where is the whole world?” The boy asked. His father smiled. He knew his son was cut from a different cloth. He was a curious child, with a penchant for asking deep, existential questions.
Born on June 28, 1971, in South Africa, the boy led an interesting life from the day he was born. His mother was a Canadian model and dietitian, while his father was an electromechanical engineer with an entrepreneurial streak, who built his wealth developing properties, consulting, and investing in businesses.
The boy’s great grandmother was Canada’s first chiropractor. His parents were the first to fly from South Africa to Australia in a single-engine plane. Adventure was in his blood. He came from a family of pioneers.
His parents divorced in 1980, when he was just nine years old. He lived mostly with his father in the suburbs of Pretoria, attending Pretoria Boys High School. He was a bookish, introverted child, considered weird by most of his peers, which led to him being bullied throughout school.
When computers came out in the early eighties, the boy was immediately smitten. He was fascinated by the new technology and wanted to learn more, so he asked his father to enroll him in a course. When his father inquired about it, he was rebuffed. It wasn’t for children, he was told. But his son persisted. He wouldn’t take no for an answer.
His father pressed on and eventually secured his son a spot in the course, which was hosted at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. When he arrived, the organizers told the boy to sit on the side and stay quiet. His father dropped him off and returned three hours later to find his son in deep conversation with the lecturers.
As his father tells it, “When I walked up, one of these professors, who didn’t even bother to introduce himself, said this boy needs to get his hands on one of these computers. So, we got one, thank God at a discount, and with that computer he taught himself, using Disk Operating System, which is DOS, to program.”
By the age of twelve, the young boy had created a computer game, called “Blastar,” that he sold to a magazine for $500. It marked his first successful venture.
This experience set the stage for how this boy would live the rest of his life. Setting his sights on the impossible. Never taking no for an answer. Persisting until he achieved his goal.
The boy has grown up to become the world’s richest man. An extraordinary entrepreneur, engineer, visionary, and designer, who has singlehandedly built two of the most revolutionary companies in existence.
His name is Elon Musk and this is his remarkable story.
He endured a difficult childhood. When his parents divorced, he was forced to choose between them. He ultimately decided to live with his father, but regretted the decision, later describing him as “a terrible human being.”
He was picked on throughout school and bullied constantly. It was so bad that Musk was once hospitalized after being thrown down a set of stairs and beaten until he lost consciousness. His life was bleak, until he set his sights on America.
As he recalls, “I remember thinking and seeing that America is where great things are possible, more than any other country in the world.” He applied for a Canadian passport through his mother and left South Africa at the age of seventeen.
Musk landed at the University of Pennsylvania, where he obtained degrees in Physics and Economics. He also rented out houses and turned them into nightclubs to make extra money.
After graduating, he secured internships with an energy storage startup called Pinnacle Research Institute, which researched electrolytic ultracapacitors for energy storage, and at the Palo Alto-based startup Rocket Science Games.
He had already identified three areas that he thought would most affect the future of humanity: the Internet, sustainable energy, and the extension of human life beyond Earth.
In 1995, Musk was accepted to a Ph.D. program at Stanford University. He applied for a job at Netscape, but never received a response. He dropped out of Stanford after two days to launch Zip2, a software startup, with his brother Kimbal and Greg Kouri.
After years of struggle, during which Musk slept in the office and showered at the local YMCA, Zip2 was purchased by Compaq for $307 million in cash in 1999. Musk received $22 million for his share in the business.
He moved onto his next venture one month later, founding X.com, an online bank and email payment company, using $10 million of his own money. The company merged with Confinity one year later to become PayPal. It was acquired by eBay two years after that, in 2002, for $1.5 billion. Musk was the biggest shareholder, receiving $165 million from the sale.
He was set for life at the age of thirty-one. Nobody would have blamed him for stopping there, becoming an angel investor, and enjoying the good life. But complacency is not in his nature. He moved onto his next venture that same year, investing $100 million of his own money into what most considered to be a foolish endeavor: SpaceX.
In 2004, he led a Series A round of funding in an electric vehicle company, called Tesla, joining the company’s board of directors as chairman. Space travel remained his primary focus, but he now had one foot in the world of sustainable energy.
As if that wasn't enough, Musk conceived SolarCity, a solar energy company, and gave his cousins Peter and Lyndon Rive the working capital to get the venture off the ground in 2006.
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, Tesla was on the verge of collapsing. Musk intervened, ploughing in $40 million and loaning the company another $40 million. He also assumed leadership of Tesla as its CEO and Product Architect, positions he still holds today.
Musk nearly went broke in 2008. He had invested all his proceeds from the sale of PayPal into SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity, and was living off personal loans. He describes 2008 as “the worst year of [his] life.” Tesla kept losing money and SpaceX was having trouble launching its Falcon 1 rocket, experiencing three consecutive critical failures.
But he persevered. Through sheer single-mindedness, an unparalleled work ethic, and unwavering self-belief, Musk turned all three ventures around. Tesla acquired SolarCity for $2.6 billion in 2006 and is now valued at almost $800 billion.
In May 2020, SpaceX launched its first manned flight, the Demo-2, becoming the first private company to both place a person into orbit and dock a crewed space-craft with the International Space Station. It also marked the first time an American astronaut was launched from American soil on an American rocket since the end of the Space Shuttle program.
Today, Musk is the richest man in the world, supplanting Jeff Bezos, with a net worth of over $185 billion. But to him, the money is just a means to an intergalactic end.
As he explains: “You know, you need resources in order to make life multi-planetary. That’s the reason I’m accumulating resources. But I don’t otherwise care about resources.”
Here are some things you may not have known about Elon Musk:
- He read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica at the age of 9.
- He inspired Robert Downey Jr.’s depiction of Tony Stark in Iron Man.
- He’s been married three times, twice to the same woman, and has six children.
- He bought a mansion in Bel-Air and turned it into a school for his children, which he named it Ad-Astra, Latin for “to the stars.”
- He lived on $1 a day when he first moved to Canada, subsisting on “the hotdogs and oranges.”
And three lessons from his life:
Nobody works harder than Elon Musk. The man is famous for sleeping at the Tesla factory during critical production periods. He doesn’t just run two multibillion dollar companies, he architects their products and is deeply involved in the engineering.
He is notorious for working over 100 hours a week. And somehow still finds time to be a good father to his six children.
As with most things in his life, it’s only logical. “Work hard every waking hour. If you do the simple math, and say if somebody else is working 50 hours [a week] and you’re working 100, you’ll get twice [as much] done in the course of a year as the other company.”
There’s a reason we hear it all the time. Hard work pays off. Every notable achievement has been built on long hours. High-achievers are dedicated to their dream. Musk is the perfect example. If you want to succeed, you have to work for it. It’s that simple.
Before there was SpaceX, in 2001, there was Mars Oasis, Musk’s vision of a miniature greenhouse that would grow food crops on Mars. He set out to Russia to buy refurbished missiles that could send the greenhouse payloads into space. But he was seen as a novice and was even spat on by one of the Russian designers.
Musk tried his luck again one year later and was offered one missile for $8 million. He turned it down and decided to start a company that could build affordable rockets. That is how SpaceX was born.
In the ultimate display of self-belief, he invested all the money he had made from PayPal into SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity. He relied on personal loans to survive.
“My proceeds from PayPal after tax were about $180 million. $100 million of that went into SpaceX, $70 into Tesla, and $10 into SolarCity. I literally had to borrow money for rent. That was a close call.”
For all his success, Musk’s path has been fraught with failure. Here are just some of the highlights:
- 1995: unsuccessfully applied for a job at Netscape
- 1996: ousted as CEO of Zip2
- 1999: first PayPal product voted one of worst 10 business ideas
- 2000: ousted from PayPal while on honeymoon
- 2001: Russians refused to sell him rockets
- 2002: Russians turned him down again
- 2006: first ever rocket launch exploded
- 2007: second rocket launch exploded
- 2008: third rocket launch with critical failure
- 2008: Tesla and SpaceX on verge of bankruptcy
- 2014: Model S problems with spontaneous battery combustion
- 2015: fourth rocket explosion at launch
- 2016: Model X deliveries delayed more than 18 months
- 2016: fifth rocket explosion at launch
But he always believed in his vision and persevered through all the crises he encountered.
Musk believed in himself despite multiple failures and countless doubters. Perhaps his best quality is his single-mindedness. When you have a vision you believe in, pursue it with all your might. Embrace failure along the way. Accept criticism. But keep going. Tesla and SpaceX would not exist without this principle.
Musk is a grand visionary. His ambitions know no bounds and he doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. Most people thought he was crazy when he started SpaceX, but it didn’t affect him. He literally reached for the stars with no expectation of succeeding.
As he explained, “It may seem odd that I would start SpaceX with an expectation of failure, but bear in mind that my initial thing was to do essentially a philanthropic mission with zero percent chance of success from a financial standpoint. It would have effectively been a donation to the cause. Anything better than that is a win.”
All three of Musk’s current ventures – SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity – tackle massive problems without obvious solutions. In every instance, the ideas were so big that nobody else had even considered pursuing them. In this regard, Musk is similar to Steve Jobs, who didn’t let the world set limits on his visions.
“I think what matters is the actions, not what people think of me in the future. I'll be long dead. But the actions that I take, will they have been useful?”
You are limited by the extent of your ambition. Aim low and you won’t get very far. Aim high and you have a chance of achieving something special. Musk aimed so high everyone thought he was crazy. And yet here we are, celebrating his success years later. When you have a vision, think bigger. Aim higher. Reach further. You might just surprise yourself in the process.