None of These Articles Will Help You Think Like Elon Musk
If you pay attention to Silicon Valley, or even just use LinkedIn a lot, odds are at some point you’ve come across an article that spells out how you, humble plebeian, can become more like some visionary billionaire or another. Not a day passes without a Forbes, Inc., or Entrepreneur headline promising to unveil the habits, mindset, and leadership secrets of luminaries like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos. While redesigned for the Age of Information, this is a time-tested formula, a fishing pole dangling the key to genius, riches, and respect, no matter that the lifestyles of these iconoclasts are completely removed from most people’s realities.
For readers that want to be more like Amazon founder and world’s richest man Jeff Bezos, for example, here are 5 Questions That Will Help You Think Like Jeff Bezos, 10 Ways To Think Like Jeff Bezos, How to Make Decisions Like Jeff Bezos, not to be confused with How Jeff Bezos Makes Decisions, Here’s an intro on How to lead like Jeff Bezos and think like departed Apple founder Steve Jobs. If that’s not the exact combo you’re looking for, heed the “innovation expert” who’ll teach you How Anyone Can Be Like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. And speaking of Musk, the toy-happy, pyromaniac founder of Tesla and SpaceX, you might want to check out these 5 Habits That Made Elon Musk an Innovator, the 3 Personality Traits that Set Elon Musk Apart, and of course, How Elon Musk learns faster and better than everyone else.
Jobs, Bezos, and Musk are the names you see churned out on the aspirational assembly line over and over again, but they aren’t the only rich guys whose careers can be mined for broad lifehacks and basic business lessons—charismatic Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, Facebook wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg, and Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz also pop up pretty frequently. (There are also a few touting women entrepreneurs like Oprah, but this genre of article is a mostly male affair.)
But whether readers want to eat, think, and breathe like Musk so they can start the next Tesla, or just ascend to their own version of the billionaire’s multi-hyphenate, not-a-minute-wasted existence, none of these articles will actually teach them how.
First, especially on the management side of things, there’s usually isn’t any information in these articles that’s unique, let alone revelatory. By the time they’re boiled down to listicle format, most of the lessons gleaned from the billionaires are generic, common-sense advice: Listen to complaints, but demand loyalty. Argue your positions from essential, unambiguous facts. Dream big, ignore the haters. Sometimes these articles will tell you to make uncomfortable compromises, sometime they’ll tell you to never compromise your vision, no matter how uncomfortable the situation. Other pieces contain morsels that are uncredited paraphrases of Sun Tzu, or other widely quoted thinkers and strategists.
There’s also the question of whether those looking to improve their businesses or lives should aspire to become “just like” those they admire in the first place. In a 2016 HuffPost article addressing the years-long stream of “how to think like” articles, Jon Westenberg summed it up: “Elon Musk is incredibly impressive. I love what he’s done and how he’s done it,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, it’s a waste of energy trying to be him, for any of the rest of us. Our greatest accomplishments have to come from who we are and our unique way of seeing the world and its problems.”
This whole family of articles is just a less touchy-feely slice of the self-help industry, which often plumbs the lives of the rich and powerful for clues that might allow us to join their ranks. (See: genre classic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People). Still, there’s a bit of a leap between picking up goal-setting tips and posting questions to Quora like, “Is Elon Musk the smartest man who has ever existed?” expressing the kind of hero-worship we may otherwise expect from an eight-year-old.
This piece in the Harvard Business Review was definitely written by an adult, however—presumably aware of poverty, disease, and the ravages of war—and argues that Steve Jobs, whose record of charitable giving is questionable, was the “World’s Greatest Philanthropist,” purely by dint of his contributions to tech and design. Over-the-top hyperbole aside, it reflects a troubling tendency to equate technological progress with positive change, and the accomplishments of large teams, companies, and even societies as the sole work of visionary individuals.
If context and circumstance are removed from these leaders’ acheivements, what remains is their personal qualities, and emulating those habits and thought patterns—right down to junk food preference—is the only way to reach such personal and professional heights.
Last October, Entrepreneur asked, “How Do Your Eating Habits Compare to Warren Buffett's, Elon Musk's and Mark Zuckerberg's?” and claimed that what these business icons eat is “one way of gaining insight into their success and productivity secrets.”
In a similar vein, a Business Insider writer tried out the “Elon Musk Challenge,” attempting to live off the tiny food allowance the entrepreneur gave himself at the outset of his career, a dollar-a-day diet that reportedly consisted “mostly” of oranges and hot dogs. Jobs’ eating habits were famously weird: according to Inc., his skin briefly turned orange from eating nothing but carrots for weeks. In an interview with his brother Mark last year, Bezos admitted that in the ‘90s, “I would wake up in the morning. I would preheat the oven to 375. I would get the baking sheet. I would crack open the Pillsbury biscuits and place them on there … with butter. And I would eat the whole can.”
Sure, if you too eat a whole package of canned bread every morning, it might be nice to know that a compulsive biscuit scarfer like Bezos could go on to become the richest man in the world. And maybe to some, Musk’s thrift story is a neat parable about sacrifice, but please: you definitely don’t have to starve yourself or live on gas station-style dinners to be successful. In fact, most people would likely not be at their best or most productive after a few months of nothing but tube steak and citrus.
And for someone really trying to inhabit the Space-X founder’s brainpan, it seems sort of arbitrary to focus on how much he eats and sleeps and not, for example, anecdotes like his ex-wife Justine Musk’s claim that immediately after tying the knot, “As we danced at our wedding reception, Elon told me, ‘I am the alpha in this relationship.’” (Musk here participating in the proud alpha tradition of telling people, who presumably already know you, how alpha you are.)
Being a super-rich, driven-to-the-limit iconoclast generally requires a complicated set of trade-offs and pitfalls. And a trail of personal alienation and stunted emotional exchanges is as much a snapshot of what goes into being and thinking like Elon Musk as is his morning routine or problem-solving style.
Still, there’s hope in the one solid observation that undergirds the success of all these guys. In the vague, widely applicable wisdom of The Big Lebowski’s narrator: “Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.”
In other words, be the entrepreneur, the designer, the philanthropist with the right skills and mentality for your own time and place, not someone else’s. “I was lucky to be exposed to software at a very young age,” Microsoft founder Bill Gates told Mic last year, when discussing the path that led to his success. “I was 13 when I became obsessed with figuring out how I could write good software.” Which was a pretty unusual thing for a teen to be obsessed with in 1968! And which put a person with his skills and drive in a perfect position to build a computer empire in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It was his own fascination that propelled Gates, not watching Ice Station Zebra over and over again so he could be more like Howard Hughes, or whoever was the cool billionaire equivalent back in the ‘60s.
In a post on the Virgin site, cheerfully cheesy rich guy Richard Branson issued an inadvertent rebuke to the inspirational pap of “how to be like” articles with a little inspirational pap of his own. “Don’t worry about anyone else,” he says. “It’s amazing what you can do, if you just be you.” His point was illustrated by a picture of Branson standing in a lake, flanked by several floatie toys.
Even Elon Musk himself agrees—his admirers really “shouldn’t want to be” like him. At the 2017 UAE World Government Summit, Musk told the crowd, “I think it sounds much better than it is. It’s not as much fun being me as you’d think. … I’m not even sure I want to be me.”