What makes Elon Musk so incredibly good at everything he tries? His former college roommate and first wife have provided a possible answer: The Tesla founder brings incredible focus and intensity to the things that interest him. And he uses that same focus and intensity to go after the things he wants.
We all know that Elon Musk is very different from the rest of us. Who else, when stuck in traffic, instead of daydreaming or bopping to the radio, comes up with a plan to bore tunnels for cars underneath the city streets? Who else could finance that company by selling flamethrowers that are really glorified blowtorches? Who else would work 120 hours a week to try to meet production goals at his factory, and then tell the New York Times about it in an anguished confessional interview?
But what, exactly makes him so powerfully successful that he was able to basically create the whole electric vehicle industry from scratch and seems to be on track for the straight-out-of-science-fiction goal of colonizing Mars? Not to mention actually doing something about Southern California traffic by creating those tunnels?
Musk is -- obviously -- incredibly intelligent. But we all know incredibly intelligent people who are not one-tenth as successful as Musk, or even successful at all. For the book Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future author Ashlee Vance interviewed Navaid Farooq, Musk's one-time college roommate and his first wife, Justine Musk.
According to Farooq, whether it's learning about a topic or playing the game Civilization, Musk brings an intense degree of focus to the task at hand. Back in their college days at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Farooq, Musk, and some other classmates compared answers after an economics exam, trying to figure out what their scores would be. Farooq told Vance that it was immediately clear that Musk knew the material much better than the rest of them. "This was a group of fairly high achievers, and Elon stood way outside the bell curve," Farooq said.
"It shall be mine."
Justine Musk, Elon's first wife, dated him during college and recalls that he was highly competitive. They would frequently compare grades, and when once she scored a 97 to his 98 on an exam, he persuaded the professor to revise that test score so that Elon wound up with 100. Justine Musk also said she could always tell when Elon was calling her because the phone would never stop ringing. "The man does not take no for an answer," she told Vance. "You can't blow him off. I do think of him as the Terminator. He locks his gaze on to something and says, 'It shall be mine.'"
That same determination is what led Musk, years later, to sleep under his desk at the Tesla factory so he could rise in the middle of the night to fix malfunctioning robots, and to spend all 24 hours of his 47th birthday there, even though that was very sad for him. Whatever the costs, that determination allowed him to meet the ambitious goal of churning out more than 50,000 cars in the third quarter of 2018, a big step toward securing Tesla's future. A year later, in the same quarter, Tesla made almost twice that number of cars.
What can the rest of us learn from Musk and his successes? That there's a lot to be said for focus. If you can focus on a singe task to the exclusion of everything else until that task is finished, if you can take the time and make the effort to learn everything you can about something, you will put yourself ahead of whomever you're competing against.
But even more important is Musk's determination, his unwillingness to take no for an answer. "You can achieve virtually anything you want -- if you're willing to hear no often enough," a very smart person once told me. Musk has encountered that dreaded two-letter word many, many times, it seems, without allowing it to slow him down at all.
Now that Tesla cars are ubiquitous on many city streets, and now that the Tesla company is profitable, at least in some quarters, it can be easy to forget that no so long ago, the conventional wisdom among stock analysts and investment experts was that Tesla could not survive, that its business model was unsustainable, that it was, in the words of one such expert, "a hot mess." To say that all this didn't matter to Musk would be wrong. His Twitter feed made it very clear that it did matter. But once again, he didn't let it slow him down.
I'm not generally a believer in the idea that you should always ignore the naysayers and forge ahead, come what may. I think there are times to do that, and other times when it can prevent you from making a needed pivot, or even failing fast and moving on to the next thing. But there's no denying that Musk's determination, combined with his intense focus and ability to learn subjects very deeply, explains why he's as successful as he is. That's something we can all learn from.