Elon Musk: Suffering, Mars and the Alpha-Human


I have just finished reading Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk. It was recommended to me by an eager friend who claims this book came just short of changing his life. After devouring all 391 pages over a course of 2 days (a word of appreciation must go out to my school teachers who have graciously accepted that I am no longer a student in their class), I feel like I’ve stepped off a jarring roller coaster ride. I have glimpsed the depths of human capacity, proving that the impossible truly is possible.

The man set on Mars

Elon Musk was born in South Africa in 1981. At the age of 18 he emigrated to the US, leaving behind what can only be called an utterly miserable childhood. A large part of the biography focuses on the challenges he has had to face in paving his way to becoming a real-life Tony Stark. Reading his life story and the work he has done has left a strong impression on me in a number of aspects.

I have always vaguely known who Elon Musk is – ‘a future-thinker’, ‘a mass industrialist’, ‘a capitalist changing the face of the planet’. In my mind he has occupied the same space of the likes of Steve Jobs and even some of my own acquaintances, who all share the arrogant streak of genius which makes them perfectly positioned to become successful world-changers. My thinking has been confirmed in that a pre-requisite for rising to the top in today’s competitive world is heart of steel. It’s a techno-capitalist survival of the fittest, and the fittest tend to go through multiple divorces, fire people on the basis of typos and show a general disregard for human emotion.

The impossible balance

What chances are left for us meek and humble-hearted who wish to participate in this ambitious race, yet hope to retain a slither of our humanity? This is a question I have often mulled over. I am a go-getter by nature, a type A or enneagram type 3 who is always striving to reach her full potential and cannot settle for mediocrity. At the same time, however, I am very much bound by my human qualities and a deep spiritual desire to ‘be good’. I want knowledge, money and power; yet I want kindness, love and empathy. I want to be a strong willed CEO; yet I want to be a stay-at-home mom of two. I want to chase my limits at top speed and do whatever it takes to be successful; yet sometimes this aggressive machine hits a bump on a gravelly country road where I feel the need to stop and smile at passers-by, lend a helping hand and experience the pure delight of making others feel appreciated – all actions which are kind and noble, yet inefficient. I have not yet experienced the brute of this world, and so I still approach it with a hopeful naivety that these juxtaposing images can somehow be reconciled.

I must take a moment here to acknowledge that Elon Musk has turned out to be the man that he is because of a series of circumstantial causes – being bullied in high school, growing up under a tough father, facing constant failure, and having to ignore the ridicule and biting rejection of an industry that never believed in him, not to mention the sometimes equal hostility from the people he thought were closest to him, such as his first wife Justine. Make no mistake though - Elon Musk is not a victim. He is the definition of a victor. His story is an inspiration for even the most cynical reader that ANYTHING really is possible. I feel I have been given a fresh perspective of the world and myself. We all need a little reminding of how great it is to be human, and the privilege that comes with existing within a framework of collective genius. I am a firm believer in the power of positive thinking (and yes, this is a reference to Norman Vincent Peale). Reading about humans who have achieved fantastic things, in the truest sense of the word, is almost an exercise to affirm one’s belief not only in the world, but also in oneself. If I am made of the same stuff, and have the same hours in a day, then the possibilities are endless!

A hard road to success

This book also shows that suffering and hardship are essential to the molding of a human being. At one point Musk even muses that he worries his children don’t have enough pain in their lives; but purposefully creating adversity would be unthinkable (so he is human after all…).

For 6 years SpaceX tried to launch their first liquid-fuelled rocket. It took millions of dollars, hours of life-sapping work and 5 failed attempts before they succeeded. Some of the engineers working on the project had given up their families to see this project through. When each test rocket would lift off into the sky, so their hopes would rise with it. Their nerves would be hanging as if by threads attached to the tail-end of the rocket. And then, as they stood transfixed on that celestial body marked by their blood, sweat and tears, something would start to wobble, or their system would detect a malfunction, and in an instant, their elation would be shattered only to be replaced by bitter disappointment. This happened time and time again, and I can only imagine that each failed attempt was like sinking deeper into a crushing desperation. I respect and admire all the people who have given up so much for the pursuit of human development. It is these men and woman, whose names will never be mentioned or recorded, who are pivotal to the advancement of our species.

All in all, this has been a fascinating and valuable read. I have been inspired and challenged to use my own resources and talents for the benefit of mankind. This sounds like a large and lofty feat, but if I have learned anything from this book, it is that big things can be achieved by small people. All you need is a good brain, sheer determination and a drive and passion that that will buckle to no obstacle. A couple of years ago the thought of establishing a human colony on Mars seemed absurd, now it is a common idea shared round the dinner table. As Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, said, ‘good ideas always seem crazy until they're not!'

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Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters of our lives won't have a title until much later.

– Bob Goff

© Rebecca Mqamelo 2020

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