This is a story about what Elon Musk really wants to do with his life, and maybe what you want to do, too. It's the sort of insight that inspired my free e-book, Elon Musk Has Very Big Plans, which you can download here.
It starts with one of Musk's tweets -- a reply tweet, actually -- which hinted at an important distinction that many ambitious people gloss over. In fact, aspiring entrepreneurs are often the last to realize it.
The whole thing came in response to a new book that claims that Musk wanted to sell Telsa to Apple a few years back, but only on the condition that he become the new CEO of Apple.
Musk denied the report, as did Apple CEO Tim Cook. But someone on Twitter mused that he would have been a good choice to run the company. Musk shot down that idea with just eight words:
"I don't want to be CEO of anything."
Given that Musk is currently CEO of two demanding companies and heavily involved in several others, this seems like a bizarre declaration -- as if Kevin Durant declared he didn't want to be a basketball player, or Donald Trump suddenly announced he had no desire to be president.
Yet, it reflects a sentiment that many successful people have expressed to me over more than a decade of interviewing business leaders and entrepreneurs, even if many of them don't articulate it so succinctly, or perhaps even understand it so deeply.
Let me synthesize what they've told me:
- Entrepreneurship is a calling. Building things can be life-affirming.
- But actually being a CEO and running a company? That's a job.
Just think about the dictionary definition of the CEO position:
"A chief executive officer, the highest-ranking person in a company or other institution, ultimately responsible for making managerial decisions."
In the space of a single sentence, it starts out so strong and promising ("the highest-ranking person"), but it moves quickly toward something that many innovators find less appealing ("responsible for making managerial decisions").
It's a brutal truth. People on the outside conflate the two roles, but being an innovator or an entrepreneur is an entirely different calling from being a CEO. Yet people who aspire to one role can find themselves boxed into working to assume the other.
Maybe the confusion stems in part from the fact we describe so many icons of entrepreneurship with multiple titles:
- Jeff Bezos is both the founder and former CEO of Amazon, for example.
- Bill Gates was both the co-founder and CEO of Microsoft.
- Musk is the both founder and CEO of SpaceX and one of the five founders and the CEO of Tesla.
But it's the difference between dreaming, designing, building, and iterating -- versus all of the practical things that the leader of a business organization has to oversee (or hire for, and delegate): marketing, recruiting, finance, logistics, stakeholder relations, regulatory compliance--the list goes on.
Now, if you look at that list, the irony is that Musk actually excels at most of these things. He even seems to enjoy a few of them.
Is there a better marketer on the planet? Tesla is the world's most valuable car company, and doesn't spend a penny on ads. Figure that one out.
For that matter, who among CEOs is better at human resources and recruiting?
Finance? Logistics? Stakeholder relations?
Regulatory compliance? (Actually, maybe that one isn't his favorite.)
But, there's also nobody in a better position to understand the divergence of these roles.
In fact, reporter James Clayton of the BBC dug up a telling, longer quote -- that Musk apparently gave under oath in a deposition -- about how he feels about being CEO of Tesla:
I rather hate it and I would much prefer to spend my time on design and engineering. ... I have to [keep the job] or, frankly, Tesla is going to die.
Obviously, there's a mercurial motivation. Musk reportedly made $6.7 billion during 2020 for his work as CEO of Tesla alone.
That's almost 12 times as much as the second-highest paid CEO of a publicly traded U.S. company. But at the same time, that gargantuan figure reinforces the fact that Musk doesn't have to do anything at all that he doesn't want to.
Perhaps it was a fleeting moment when Musk tweeted about not wanting to be CEO of anything.
Maybe that's how he felt on a Friday, but by the following Monday he was thrilled once more to be in charge.
Maybe, like many of us, he agrees with the 19th-century poet Ralph Waldo Emerson that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
But it doesn't change the brutal truth. It's one thing to want to design the future. It's another thing entirely to assume the role, and to be responsible for the endless parade of small decisions that are required to get there.
(Don't forget the free e-book, Elon Musk Has Very Big Plans.)