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.