When you think of Iron Man, the word real may not come to mind immediately. After all, Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) was first introduced to us in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and this fictitious character seems too amazing to be real — and yet,
he has been the inspiration for Elon Musk, the man behind SpaceX, Tesla Motors, and PayPal, who has been called the real-life Iron Man many times over. Here are some reasons why that’s actually an apt comparison.
The first thing to know about Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, is that he thinks big. When he founded SpaceX in 2002, his goal was to revolutionize space exploration and make humans a multi-planetary species. While most people might assume that’s an impossible dream, it’s not stopping him from trying: on May 25th, 2013 Musk unveiled plans for his Interplanetary Transport System. The ambitious project would see 1,000 spaceships launched into orbit around Earth by 2022. Each ship would carry about 100 passengers, who would then board a Mars-bound rocket in orbit.
As big as that project sounds, it’s not his only ambitious plan. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly in April 2013, he said that he plans to unveil a new electric car in 2016 which will cost about $35,000. He aims to sell 500,000 of these cars per year starting in 2020. If successful, those numbers would rival some of America’s top-selling sedans today. Elon Musk clearly has a unique ability to conceptualize and make real large-scale projects that once seemed impossible.
Elon Musk took several risks, one of them being founding an automobile company. He invested $180 million into Tesla Motors in 2008. That year, he also bought a struggling solar panel firm called SolarCity and has had to spend millions more to keep it alive. In early 2013, Tesla started shipping its first high-end electric car, Model S (which starts at $62,400), and some analysts predicted that it could be a game-changer in driving clean vehicles for everyday people. How does Elon Musk compare with Tony Stark? It’s hard to say whether Elon Musk takes more risks than other business leaders or if he gets away with taking such large risks because he’s doing something so new and different.
Elon Musk is by no means a conventional business leader. But his risk-taking has paid off—he’s still standing, and his companies have made substantial progress toward changing society and achieving their missions to make transportation cleaner and cheaper. He does face many challenges ahead with building a successful car company and upending an entire industry, but Elon Musk has proven that he has what it takes to become a real-life Ironman.
All of which is to say that Elon Musk has had a meteoric rise, but he’s also been through hell and back to get where he is. At times, it seemed like everything was going wrong for him. And yet today, his name is synonymous with 21st-century ingenuity. In no small part because he seems as comfortable and down-to-earth as any self-made billionaire you can think of—more so even than Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates. He’s a real-life iron man: smart, determined, wealthy, visionary…and still human enough to make mistakes now and then.
He’s one of those famous names we can all point to and say that’s a success, right there. That’s what I want my life to look like, in whatever field I choose. And then we have to ask ourselves a tough question: are we willing to work as hard as Elon Musk has worked? Are we willing to take risks? Are we ready for hell—and its aftermath? If so, then today might be a good day to make that a reality. Today might be a good day for us all.
Sometimes, you have to look to make-believe for insights. That’s what we did when we decided to try and figure out why Elon Musk — or more specifically, Elon Musk as depicted in Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark/Iron Man — continues to be such an incredible influencer. It may sound silly at first blush, but spending some time thinking about how a fictional character plays a large role in shaping our perception of what a business leader should make one thing clear: when it comes to influencing, today’s leaders can learn from yesterday’s fiction.
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that fiction is derived from reality.
After all, while many of today’s movie superheroes aren’t necessarily grounded in fact — it would be hard to argue that there’s actually a man flying around in a cape outside our windows — they are largely based on or at least heavily influenced by people who have existed in real life. In Tony Stark/Iron Man’s case, Robert Downey Jr. has made it clear that he drew inspiration for his depiction of a brash and brilliant tech billionaire from famed billionaire and futurist Elon Musk. But why exactly does Downey Jr./Stark speak so loudly to our collective conscience?
When I was in college, I came across a quotation by R. Buckminster Fuller that said something like, ‘If you want to find the truth, you must track error to its source.’ At first, my reaction was similar to most: What? That doesn’t make any sense. It sounds stupid. An error has nothing to do with truth; how could tracking one lead you to the other? But after more thought and reflection, I started seeing things differently. Maybe it’s not possible for us to know whether we are correct or incorrect about something until we have tested our beliefs against reality by doing what Fuller called ‘experiments with truth.’
When Elon Musk was in college, he came across a book called ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy,’ which planted a seed in his mind that continues to manifest in extraordinary ways.
‘I wanted to understand what I considered deeper truths about life,’ he said. ‘It was not just to satisfy my curiosity.’
This passion led him on an incredible journey that resulted in some of today’s most useful technologies. He founded companies such as PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX and has plans for more revolutionary endeavours, such as establishing human colonies on Mars. These are only a few examples of what can happen when you question everything—even errors—and keep searching for truth.
Elon Musk is a man whose name you might not be familiar with, but his companies Tesla Motors and SpaceX have made history several times. He’s achieved feats that used to only exist in science fiction and he’s done it by being ambitious and goal orientated. Even more impressive than his achievements though, are his reasons for achieving them; he wants to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels as a species (his main company deals with electric cars) and he also wants to make humanity an interplanetary species by creating rockets that can transport humans beyond Earth’s orbit. Sounds pretty impossible right? Well, Elon has already designed four different rockets capable of doing just that – Mars One plans to launch a one-way mission in 2024.
Elon became a South African citizen and founded a multitude of companies that have already revolutionised space technology. He has been awarded many prestigious awards, including Aviation Week’s Laureate for 2001, TIME magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006, runner-up for Time’s 2007 Person of the Year, winner of The Economist magazine’s 2008 Businessperson of the Year award and was named CEO of Tesla Motors in December 2008. In 2013 he was listed 21st on The World’s Most Powerful People list by Forbes. And if that wasn’t enough he co-founded OpenAI (an artificial intelligence non-profit company) alongside Sam Altman and Ilya Sutskever in 2015 – because we definitely don’t want Artificial Intelligence running amok without supervision!
Has an electric personality
Elon Musk has been called many things, but one thing is for sure: He’s a true superhero. The South African born billionaire, inventor and entrepreneur has been making waves in technology with companies like PayPal, Tesla Motors and SolarCity. But it’s his current venture as CEO of SpaceX that makes him as amazing as any comic book character. For anyone who grew up watching Tony Stark build and fly various amazing machines in The Avengers, you might be surprised to learn that Elon Musk actually beats Stark at his own game—literally! In fact, he puts all of us mere mortals to shame when it comes to being an iron man or any kind of man (or woman) for that matter.
Let’s put it in perspective. If Elon Musk was a fictional character, we would all think he was too good to be true. And that might just be because he isn’t fictional! He’s doing all of these things in real life and doing them better than anyone else. Imagine what he could accomplish if he were a real-life version of Tony Stark? There wouldn’t be any limit to what he could do with his money, power and resources. If that isn’t living up to being an iron man, then I don’t know what is!
The only thing missing from our favourite billionaire industrialist is an actual suit of armour like Stark wears in Marvel comics.
Always on fire
There’s an argument to be made that Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk deserves to be called Iron Man — a real-life Tony Stark. The electric carmaker’s stock has been on fire since it went public in June 2010. Shares are up more than 500% over that period, with only some ups and downs as it dealt with production problems for its Model S sedan. The company is also working on other electric cars, solar power products and battery storage systems.
Though some have questioned whether Tesla can continue growing sales once tax credits from Uncle Sam fade away, many see room for Tesla to grow (and grow). Its shares trade at about 22 times forward earnings estimates, below GM’s 28 P/E ratios.
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Inventor. Visionary. Modern-day superhero!
Elon Musk has accomplished a lot in his 43 years. And he’s had some serious ups and downs on his journey to where he is today: an influential entrepreneur, investor, engineer, scientist and inventor. That’s why it’s hard not to think of him as a real-life superhero: Tony Stark from Marvel Comics’ Iron Man. Yet, unlike most superheroes whose stories end after one movie/book, Elon’s story doesn’t have an endpoint — it’s one that continually unfolds.
The similarities between Elon and Tony don’t stop there. Both men had a grand vision: one that would change their respective fields forever. Musk wanted to invent the new electric car and Tony needed a suit of armour that he could control from his phone to save lives after he got injured in an explosion. Both are self-made billionaires with high-flying lifestyles.
Elon Musk’s pursuit of a real-life Iron Man isn’t just a feat that could change transportation, energy, and space forever. It also may be his best attempt at living out one of his favourite quotes: I would like to die on Mars, just not on impact. If Elon Musk has taught us anything it’s that we should expect nothing less than fantastic things from him, because he certainly never does. And even if he falls short with SpaceX and Tesla, he will never stop dreaming up ways to propel humanity beyond what we believe to be possible. Maybe that really does make him our greatest superhero after all?
I mean, think about it. He’s already got a suit that helps him fly, and he has a car that shoots flames and can drive itself. The only thing missing is an invincibility shield or a laser gun—and maybe he’s working on those right now. After all, with his latest announcement at IAC 2017, SpaceX isn’t just going to Mars—they want to take humanity there in less than ten years. That means our real-life Iron Man Elon Musk isn’t just planning on making our dreams of space travel possible—he wants to make them happen faster than we ever thought possible too.