Three Lessons from Elon Musk

by  Guest Author  |  Leadership Development
Three Lessons from Elon Musk

With a “Yeah. Maybe not medically tho. Dunno…” Elon Musk revealed almost glibly that he believes he is bipolar. FoxBusiness picked this up and suggested that many other CEOs suffer from the hypomania associated with bipolar disorder, allowing for creativity and a fighter’s mentality. That elated frenzy which falls just below a true manic state might drive gifted leaders to take risks, making them more successful than those without the associated highs of bipolar disorder.

But this isn’t a post about mental health.

I don’t know Elon Musk, and neither do I have medical insight into his state of being. I have, however, read Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance.

While Musk impressed me with his risk-embracing behavior and devotion to causes over income, what stood out to me most in his biography was what I told my wife when I finished: “I would never want to work for that guy.” There can be something life-fulfilling to be part of a company, idea, or world-changing concept, and I truly recognize that these opportunities are spare. For every SpaceX employee, 100,000 people wake up each day to the dread of a meaningless occupation whose only value is to support themselves or their families.

Nevertheless, I hold to my original impression. I would never want to work for that guy. Musk’s success has come at the expense of his own marriages, his relationship with his children, and his recently admitted “unrelenting stress.” Further, Musk is known to often drive his employees until they drop or drop out. Vance’s book, although laudatory, was peppered with stories of partners, apprentices, and laborers unwilling to sacrifice their lives for his ideals.

The glory of transforming the world notwithstanding, most of us are called to the simple nobility of supporting our families. Innovation and inventiveness are dignified pursuits, but I am not beholden to the public as I am to my wife and children. Society does not need me to teach her how to parallel park. Humanity is not requiring me to play catch in the side yard. The world has yet to ask me for a hug because work today was tough.

I am grateful for men and women who sacrifice relationships for the good of our future. We have all benefited greatly from those like Elon Musk and (perhaps) his beleaguered employees. Despite this, I do not admire the surrender of life, wife, and children for any cause.

Know What Matters 

My number one purpose in life is to build goodness into those around me, starting with my inner circle and moving outward. If you aren’t coming to my funeral, you will take a seat behind those who will. When he dies, many will remark on the great things Musk has done. Perhaps this is what matters to Musk, and perhaps he is right to pursue it. If he is true to himself, then there is much to respect. For me, those who have been placed closest in my life are what really matters, and I would suggest that it is the same for all of us.

Know What Affects What Matters

I serve regularly in my church, exercise, promote community functions, and occasionally try my hand at benevolent acts. It’s not all about my family. Any of these can get in the way of what truly matters, though. Too much time in the gym, too much time ministering, too much of anything takes me away from what is central. Heck, I can even dote on my children too much to the detriment of my marriage. Moderation may not change the world, but it also will not destroy what is paramount to me. Key here is not to make excuses by allowing anything else to affect what matters.

Don’t Make Excuses

Does Musk really have bipolar disorder? Maybe. Dunno. It does appear, however, that his hyperdrive is being excused by hypomania. If Musk truly suffers from this illness, he would be best served to seek real help instead of making frivolous remarks on Twitter. If, on the other hand, Musk is justifying a life of unhealthy compulsion without confronting it, then he is victimizing himself as well as those who should matter.

Elliot Anderson is the pseudonym of a midwestern father and writer who wishes work were not such a painful place for people. He believes if leaders would invoke simple courtesies, they could help employees thrive. As a team player, he brings joy to his workplace by cracking jokes and sharing food. He’s worked in both nonprofit and government organizations. He studied religion, journalism, and intercultural studies. Though you won’t find Elliot on social channels, he will respond to comments on his articles here.


What would you add to this discussion? How do you figure out what matters most?
Photo Credit: 2Happy/Fotolia

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What People Are Saying

Mike Henry Sr.  |  02 Aug 2017  |  Reply

Elliot, thanks for a great post that challenges and makes me think. Your funeral analogy hits close to home. I was surprised by who attended my father’s funeral a couple of years ago. And as I close the gap on my own funeral, I think about it more often than I’d like to admit.

I appreciate how each of us are different. Some like the steady and simple. Others pursue bigger things. I’m not sure either are wrong. I have friends and family with broken marriages for overdoing both the steady and the grandiose. And others who (at least seem to) have strong, love-giving families from both sides of the spectrum.

Would you think that, if we keep your funeral-attendees-first priority in place, we can balance either approach and satisfy our lifestyle needs without sacrificing relationships for the long haul? Or are those of us who make a bigger change destined to the tradeoffs suggested by Mr. Musk’s life?

Thanks again. Mike…

Becky Robinson  |  02 Aug 2017  |  Reply

Makes me think about the sacrifices that “great things” call us to – and whether we truly count the cost.

Elliot  |  02 Aug 2017  |  Reply

Mike, I believe we can always balance goals and responsibilities. Too many people rationalize the deterioration or destruction of family for value of their pursuits.

I have often missed family meals or events for work, but this is over many years and only for significant matters. My family understands that “coming first” does not mean work will never be a priority. Work comes before family only when it must, and I trust myself, my wife, and colleagues to properly recognize those “must” times.

Paula Kiger  |  02 Aug 2017  |  Reply

Elliot – first of all, THANK YOU for posting with us. Elon Musk creates a lot of fascination, rightly or wrongly, so it was good to look at him through your lens. I have to admit I read Mike’s comment much earlier today and became a little fixated on the “funeral” line: ” If you aren’t coming to my funeral, you will take a seat behind those who will.” I imagine Elon Musk never thinks through things in that way. I suppose the only additional observation I have is that we might be limiting ourselves to make the judgement call of who would plan to be at our funeral or not. Sometimes we are making a difference, at work, at home, or with friends, whether we know it or not, even with people who we perceive to at odds with us. Thanks again for posting!

Jane Anderson  |  04 Aug 2017  |  Reply

I’m in the minority here because I have never heard of Elon Musk. I have known people like him though. We all have a little bit of Elon Musk in us. It’s called self. The difference is in how we balance self. When it’s all about us, nothing else matters. Fortunately we have both insight and outlook so we are able to balance what we do for ourselves with what we do for others. Lopsided priorities lead to a lopsided life. Have you ever been to a funeral and listened to the memories shared by people who knew the deceased personally? Have you ever thought, “I hope people say things like that about me”? It’s never too early to be living your eulogy.

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