Elon Musk is no stranger to media coverage, but the media covers him quite strangely. He is most often labeled as a billionaire, secondly as an entrepreneur, and thirdly by his corporate titles. While those labels are factually correct they don’t seem accurate.
Elon Musk is a billionaire but lives like a starving artist. You might be thinking I’m on some serious drugs because you know he just bought a $17 million home and has a private jet among other amenities. So where does my starving artist label come in? It’s in the way he uses his money and, life’s most valuable resource, time. It starts after his PayPal days. With millions of dollars in hand, he could have invested it and lived a nicer life than most of us will ever know. Instead he celebrated the PayPal sale by buying some nice things and used most of his remaining net worth, not to start another internet company that would’ve likely been successful but, to start SpaceX a venture he thought would likely fail. The source of his motivations are not monetary they stem from a desire to create, to develop an idea that does not yet exist, and he does so whether or not people understand him. Much like an artist, he invests most his time and money bringing his ideas to life except his canvas is humanity, his paintbrush is physics, and his color palette is technology.
Elon Musk is an entrepreneur but behaves like a pioneer. Musk, who has been labeled as an extreme entrepreneur, seems more like your friend from the Linux User Group meeting who has been neglecting World of Warcarft and basic hygiene to buy more time to work on a cutting edge project than someone looking to profit from creating a new technology. The pioneer reference is an easy one because Musk is driving/has driven change in the three enormous areas of sustainable energy creation and consumption, space exploration, and the internet. While Musk may be working for humanity’s sake, humanity is giving him a hard time. Historically, humanity treats pioneers like they are lunatics. You know like those lunatics who thought the earth was round and the internet was going to change how we lived our lives.
Elon Musk is a CEO but acts like an amateur. I’m talking about the “person who engages in a pursuit on an unpaid basis” definition of amateur, not the “inept or unskillful” definition. Musk does earn money in his executive roles at SpaceX and Tesla but not in the a 7 or 8 figure salary kind of way. His salary at SpaceX is not public but his salary at Tesla, a publicly owned company, is $33,000 per year. And while Tesla does pay for the corporate jet and other business expenses, most CEO types close to Musk’s Forbes ranking get an enormous salary, corporate jet privileges, stock, and bonuses. Musk has said several times he does not want to be the CEO of Tesla, he just can’t find a person to run it as he sees fit. He has also stated that SpaceX will go public at some point in the future but not until more of his goals are accomplished and/or not without him maintaining a majority share to keep the company safe from the hysterics of Wall Street. Amateurs of all types are extremely passionate about their pursuits. Their reward is most often just the opportunity to participate in something they love while learning more about it. Musk has been able to take his ideas to another level. In a capitalist based economy, having an idea thrive as a product or business seems to the most accepted litmus test of that idea. Amateurs are also known to hangout in groups with other like minded people. Musk is no different. He has managed to get a couple groups of like minded people together, they are, of course, the employees of SpaceX and Tesla, and they are building our future.
I think one reason Musk resonates with those of us in the science, technology, and design worlds is that we are used to people not understanding our actual job titles, engineer for example, or the significance of our work. They are only able to use what we create, not understand or care about, the numerous, painstaking steps it took to create something and make it work. It’s not newsworthy to cover the astounding amount hours or number of innovations represented in the creation of one fully functional Falcon 9 rocket. Or the Model S, which has to be technologically sound, more practical than its predecessor, and aesthetically appealing.
I spend a lot of time reading about Musk for my blog, Elon Enthusiast. I started the blog because I dig what he wants to do with the world; the work ethic, resilience, and stamina he exercises to bring his ideas to life; and a dissatisfaction with how he, and his companies, are reported on in most media outlets. So labeling Elon Musk as a billionaire entrepreneur who has executive titles at several companies is as accurate and relevant as describing him as a tall man with brown hair.
Tyra is a Mac system administrator by day, and a designer, and photographer, by night. She recently discovered a sweet spot in her technology interests, heavy machinery + futurism, and has been writing about SpaceX for Pinehead.tv. You can follow her on Twitter @txgr74, on Tumblr under tyrarobertson and elonenthusiast, and on Google+.