Elon Musk has, by any reasonable standard, done well for himself. And if the billionaire CEO of SpaceX, Tesla, and the Boring Company can realize his lofty ambitions — whether it’s sending humans to Mars, bringing self-driving electric cars to the masses, or helping build a whole new transportation infrastructure with the hyperloop — then he has a chance to do well for humanity too. For now, his companies have already proved commercial spaceflight is viable, sold a quarter-million electric cars, and introduced solar power technology that is already assisting Puerto Rico’s post-hurricane recovery.
But all of Musk’s staggering success up to this point is built on what is frankly an equally staggering amount of failure, and whatever future success he has will likely be accompanied by still more failure. Throughout his career, he has shown a knack from learning from those setbacks and emerging stronger from them.
Here are three times Elon Musk has failed harder than you ever will — and how he emerged better for the experience.
For all the success Musk has since had as CEO of Tesla and SpaceX — and let’s not forget PayPal, even if the circumstances of his ouster there were their own brand of ludicrous — it’s hard to fault the board too much. Musk’s idea of leadership in the 1990s was, per Vance’s book, to stay late and rewrite the code of his engineering team, believing them all to be incompetent. He failed to see until later how publicly berating an employee for an error might make them less productive (to say nothing of, you know, the psychological harm that might do). As Musk relates to Vance, his time at Zip2 made him realize management had to actually mean working with people.
The idea of Zip2 was good enough for Compaq to buy the company in 1999 for $307 million, with Musk receiving $22 million of that. It was enough for him to take a more serious first step toward his next company, and all the ones after, but it was his failure to get put in charge — and his realization of why that really would have been as bad an idea as everyone else believed — that would serve him best in the long run.
“I would rather commit seppuku than fail.”
More than a decade after his time at Zip2, Musk had made his at times larger-than-life reputation on the work of his two companies, Tesla and SpaceX. By this point, he had learned the value of failure.
There’s room to quibble with some of the details of that sentiment — the line “Failure is not an option” was meant to encapsulate the indomitable spirit that saw NASA bring the Apollo 13 astronauts safely back to Earth after disaster struck, after all — but Musk’s career serves as ample proof that the first step to success is a whole bunch of failure.
Consider, for example, when SpaceX spent 16 months trying to prove it was possible to land one of its rockets on its oceangoing recovery droneships. The first attempt took place on January 10, 2015. It was decently successful, actually, as the company demonstrated the levels of precision control it would need to get the rocket to within mere yards of landing on the ship. The key phrase there is “within mere yards.”
Tesla generally remains cagey when explaining why it fails to meet deadlines, though technical issues reportedly included the battery’s range, the falcon-wing doors, and more.
The problems didn’t end once the cars began shipping in 2015, though, as the following year saw low Model X delivery numbers because of what Tesla called severe shortages in supplier parts. There was, though, a deeper reason, as a statement put out in April 2016 argued for a more Shakespearean fault, namely “Tesla’s hubris in adding far too much new technology to the Model X in version 1.”
And perhaps that’s at the root of all these stories of Musk’s failures. It’s one thing to believe in yourself so much that you refuse to believe it’s possible for you to fail — that might well have been the young Musk of Zip2.
But it’s something far more to believe so completely that no matter how hard you fail, there’s always bigger success up ahead, and that the only way to get there is to relish every moment of that at times agonizing, humiliating failure.
Musk’s whole ethos is like that old cliche about reaching for the moon, because even if you miss you’ll land among the stars. He’s just one of the few people who has remembered that the stars are actually a lot farther and a lot more fascinating.