New SpaceX Vice President Sarah Nordmann gave an exclusive interview with Wired detailing what the public doesn’t know about Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla and SpaceX, as well as his plans to colonize Mars.
When you talk to people in Silicon Valley, they say there are two Elons, Nordmann said. There’s Elon who flies off the handle and yells at people, and there’s Elon who jokes around with people.
What we know
Earlier today at a panel discussion on planetary exploration at The Newseum in Washington, D.C., SpaceX Vice President of Development Steve Davis offered a rare glimpse into Elon Musk’s private life and disclosed what has been kept secret about the mind behind some of our era’s most groundbreaking innovations. Musk is perhaps most famous for co-founding PayPal and conceptualizing Tesla Motors, but he also founded SpaceX in 2002 to revolutionize spaceflight with reusable rockets. Musk has said very little about his personal life, but Davis was able to talk with him extensively about everything from family to how his brain functions. Elon is an incredibly busy man, said Davis.
Davis didn’t go into many details about his personal life, but he did reveal that Elon has four sons from his first marriage to Justine. All are boys, ranging in age from 10 to 16. Elon clearly loves his kids, said Davis. He cares very much about them and they spend a lot of time with him. But he is incredibly busy and is always working on something new or thinking about how to improve on what SpaceX is already doing. I don’t think he had time for anything other than work when I spoke with him. Yet despite all that focus on business, Elon does have dreams for his future and hopes of settling down one day with a family who shares that vision and passion for exploration and discovery.
Elon is also planning to build a colony on Mars, which will be one of many colonies in outer space. It will take some time to develop, but Elon is pretty sure that by 2060 we’ll have a colony of 1 million people living on Mars. Of course, he acknowledges that some challenges still exist and he doesn’t want to die trying. He just wants to get it done before he dies. However, Elon told me that colonizing other planets is just part of his vision for Earth as well.
How he started
Elon was reading a lot about space as a kid, and he got into a magnet school for gifted kids in South Africa. Elon also went to college in Canada, where he met his first wife, Justine Wilson, who is Canadian. They had their first child there as well; her name is Kimbal. When Elon started SpaceX, he initially worked out of his home office and then rented some space at an old machine shop before signing up for commercial office space in El Segundo that used to be occupied by Lockheed. He sublet it from someone else initially. The rest of their children were born in L.A.: Tosca in 2004; Saxon (named after an aircraft engine) was born on Oct 9th 2010; and Griffin 10 days later on October 19th 2010.
I think Elon considers four hours a day to be a productive time. I have heard him say that it takes about three times as long to do something when you try to do it from memory without taking notes, so he keeps very detailed notes on everything he’s working on. He’s been known to carry his laptop home on a weekend and work until 3:00 am or 4:00 am so he can keep up with what’s going on at SpaceX and Tesla. Elon has also never taken a formal vacation. He goes away for Christmas with his family, but otherwise, I think he views working non-stop as key to remaining competitive in business.
Elon is not a morning person. If you want to get a meeting with him on time, come at 4:00 pm when he’s already had his espresso. There are times when he says that meetings are better in the afternoon because he can focus better and make decisions easier when it’s not so early in the day. Elon almost always eats lunch with his executive team and eats dinner around 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm almost every night.
Elon seems to find it uncomfortable if he eats dinner with people who don’t work for SpaceX, and I know he doesn’t want any distractions when he’s at home so there are few nights where we go out together. As far as what Elon does on weekends, most of them are busy. I remember one weekend when we were supposed to have dinner with his dad and sister in LA. He had a lot going on that weekend but was not able to put it off so they came to Seattle while Elon worked back in LA until 4:00 am. As a result, Elon didn’t come down to dinner with us that night but joined us late Sunday morning and helped me take our kids swimming before returning home later that day.
Tesla, SpaceX, Hyperloop
To talk with Elon Musk, you have to be prepared to dig deep into futuristic technologies, like Tesla electric cars and SpaceX rockets. When you work with Elon, you have to pick your battles, said Clive Lloyd, vice president of corporate development at SpaceX. You don’t want him just bouncing around on a million things; he wants to focus on one thing at a time. During a rare interview with Lloyd and Kevin Brogan, who leads strategic development at SpaceX and was previously co-founder of PayPal, we learned more about what it’s like working for arguably Silicon Valley’s most exciting entrepreneur—and future time traveller
Lloyd has a long history with Elon. He was recruited in 2007 to set up SpaceX’s legal department, and he has been vice president of corporate development at SpaceX for about three years. Brogan is an entrepreneur who was previously vice president of corporate development at PayPal and founder and CEO of iParadigms, a provider of data mining software that was acquired by IBM. Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA) Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk is also chairman and largest shareholder of SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY), where Brogan serves on its board; Lloyd is on SolarCity’s audit committee. They talked with us recently after returning from Cape Canaveral, Florida, where they saw firsthand how reusable rockets were launched into space.
Lloyd says it’s difficult to predict what Elon will be doing in five years. He doesn’t do things that are safe or conventional. He looks into technology that is disruptive, like electric cars and rockets. It may take a decade or two for these to become mainstream, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If you get into a conversation with him on long-term projects, he has no problem thinking 10-plus years out and coming up with ideas of what they could look like. He has an incredible mind for breaking down complex problems into more manageable chunks so he can execute at levels most people couldn’t fathom.
On her 11-minute trip to space, Maezawa says he will be joining five to eight artists. They will be coming back to Earth with me, Maezawa said in a statement. I would like to invite six to 10 artists from around the world to join me on this mission to the Moon. The Japanese billionaire and aspiring artist told reporters that he chose artists instead of astronauts for his journey because their minds are all very open.
I have always been inspired by art and artists, Maezawa said. They create new possibilities for humankind and inspire us to live better lives. I hope that I can contribute in some way to what will certainly be a unique moment in human history, he said of his planned trip around 2023. He said he chose Elon Musk’s SpaceX company because it is the only one capable of ensuring his safety and that of others on board. The mission will not make money but bring awareness, in order to help create more jobs through space, he added.
Last October, Maezawa purchased an untitled work by Jean-Michel Basquiat for $110.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction in New York. The purchase set an auction record for Basquiat and became the most expensive work ever sold by a living artist. He said he plans to invite artists whose works he has bought to join him on his lunar trip. When asked how much each would pay, Maezawa replied: As much as they want. I think it will be between 20 to 40 million yen ($180,000 to $360,000). The price is negotiable, right?
Tom Mueller has worked alongside Elon Musk for over ten years and talks about what he calls critical mistakes. He mentions a specific time when Elon Musk was very ill and his team was trying to decide if they should send him home or take him to an urgent care centre. The urgency of taking him to a hospital would have slowed down their work, but they were afraid that leaving Elon alone at home would harm his recovery. While it seems like an easy decision, Tom told us that every decision has consequences. In some cases, one bad choice can leave rippling effects throughout your business. Rather than choosing between two extremes, he says you should use all possible resources and information before making such a critical mistake.
Elon is a very honest, straightforward person, who tells it like it is. He doesn’t care if he causes controversy by voicing his opinions and sharing them with others. Even Elon has made mistakes in his life that he has learned from and built off of, such as when he was expelled from school at age seventeen for missing too many classes. If Elon were to get expelled now, Tom says Elon would take it as an opportunity to learn from his mistakes so that he could improve himself moving forward.
Elon’s tenacity and willingness to learn from his mistakes have been what have allowed him to succeed in life. He learned early on that if he wanted to be successful, he would need to use every resource at his disposal. In Elon’s eyes, failure is not an option because it is simply an opportunity for you to do better. While Elon always pushes himself and others around him, Tom mentioned that Elon is an optimist at heart and believes that no matter how bad things may seem, there will always be a light at the end of the tunnel. That is one of many reasons why Elon chooses not to focus on negative thoughts or actions because it takes away from your energy and resources which are best used elsewhere.
Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs
One of my pieces of advice is to be very protective of your time. One thing I tell people is you need an hour in your day that you don’t have to share with anybody else. For example, I run an hour each morning when I do all my planning and figure out what work needs to get done that day. That way, if somebody calls me, they get voice mail and they know that’s not a good time to call. They can wait until later in the day when they reach me on my cell phone. During those one-hour blocks on your calendar where nobody has access to you—even family members—you should really try to be productive.
You also want to make sure that when you’re working on something, you stick with it. Sometimes you get distracted. Sometimes somebody comes in and talks to you and they distract you from what’s important, which is really learning what your priority tasks are for that day. Make sure that when people are talking to you or calling you, they understand that I’m busy right now; I don’t have time to talk.
I also recommend that people make sure they’re tracking their time and really learning how to prioritize. Time is a finite resource; it’s not infinite. If you spend a lot of time working on things that are less important, you’re never going to have enough time for what matters most. So always track your time and learn where you should be spending more or less of your energy.
Elon has an uncanny ability to take feedback, then forget about it and move on. One of his strengths is that he will approach something from a different angle each time. He’s not married to one way of doing things, so his view is open to change if someone offers a better solution, Shotwell said. He doesn’t have any sacred cows. For SpaceX, which has never been profitable, that type of mindset gives Shotwell hope in reaching its goal of making spaceflight cheaper and more efficient. The bigger picture there? Getting humanity to Mars. That’s what Elon wants to do, she said.
Elon is a person of vision and perspective, who knows exactly what he wants, Shotwell said. She described him as incredibly optimistic and fearless when it comes to challenges. Asking Elon how he feels about something is like asking a 5-year-old if they’re scared of anything, she joked. He doesn’t care—let’s do it.
Don’t Think About Failure: Shotwell said if you haven’t experienced failure yet in your life, you aren’t trying hard enough or taking big enough risks.
If you’re not failing, you’re not innovating. As long as you take a systematic approach to your goals and believe in yourself, you won’t fail. That said, it can be hard to see why something didn’t work at first glance. It might take months of reflection or analysis to truly grasp why something didn’t succeed.