“I usually describe myself as an engineer; that’s basically what I’ve been doing since I was a kid.
– Elon Musk
Much like the life stories of many successful icons, Elon Musk wasn’t launched into stardom from birth. His life story is as unpredictable as his character, entwined with surprisingly relatable moments, and darkened by exceptionally harsh experiences.
This is the story of a quirky yet reserved visionary who emerged from an abusive childhood to become a (humble) “Tony Stark of our time”. A celebrity businessman and otherworldly entrepreneur who now aspires to take humanity to colonize the red planet.
The “outcast” daydreamer
Born in Pretoria, South Africa, on June 28th of 1971, Elon Musk was a somewhat peculiar boy with a fascination for Science Fiction. He was also a chronic daydreamer, frequently losing himself in vivid mind-wanderings where his ideas and fantasies temporarily eclipsed reality.
It came to the point where he’d stop responding to his parents, leading them to believe Elon was actually “deaf”. They sent him to a doctor and his adenoid glands were removed, a surgery believed to improve hearing in children.
Often spotted tightly grasping a book in his hand, young Elon wasn’t viewed kindly by his peers. Between his comics, The Lord of the Rings and playing Dungeons and Dragons, his geeky interests were the perfect setup for being bullied at school.
Soon enough, a gang chose him as their prime target. On one afternoon in particular, as Elon sat atop a staircase quietly eating, a gang member sneaked up from behind and kicked him in the head. He then pushed Elon down the stairs. Already in bad shape, the ruthless gang proceeded to beat Elon until he lost consciousness. His own father couldn’t recognize his face. Elon spent a week in hospital before returning to school.
These senseless beatings continued for years. An emotionally affected Elon now recalls how they would use his “best friend” to lure him out of hiding so they could attack him. He was left with a jagged septum, laboring his breathing until he opted for surgery not too long ago.
Was beat up pretty badly as a kid & left me w jagged septum. Harder to breathe as I got older, so time to fix.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 25, 2013
A glimpse of ingenuity
To make matters worse, at the age of 10, Elon’s parents divorced. He went to live with his father, a well-established Engineer, who is said to have delighted in making life especially difficult for him and his brother.
Elon Musk, a budding visionary trapped between a vicious gang at school and an abusive father at home, immersed himself in software engineering, bringing home books and teaching himself to code.
At 12 years old, he acquired his first computer and blended his love for software and rockets into his very own video game: Blaster. Admittedly, his main intention was to make money so he could buy a better computer – so he could play better video games.
In 1984, he got what he wanted. His game earned a spread in the South African magazine PC and Office Technology, along with $500 and the reputation of being a few steps ahead of most 12-year-olds at the time.
A “major turning point”
At 14 years old, instead of being a regular teenager, Elon was having a full-on existential crisis.
His search for the “meaning of life” led him to consult religious and philosophical texts, which were ultimately unhelpful (and largely uninspiring). He then stumbled upon the book that would soon become his biggest influence: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.
A post-puberty Musk would later describe this book as a “turning point” for him. It changed his whole perspective. The epic Sci-Fi novel inspired an unusual conclusion for a 14-year-old on what he thought humanity should truly seek: greater collective enlightenment.
It was much too early for teenage Elon to hatch any solid plans, but he knew his quest for said “enlightenment” wouldn’t unfold in his native South Africa. So he set his sights on the United States, where he aspired to reach the heart of cutting-edge technology in none other than Silicon Valley.
Pit stop in Canada
In the book on Elon Musk’s life by Ashlee Vance, “Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” he reduced the gap between him and the “land of opportunity” by using his mother’s Canadian heritage to apply for a passport and immediately emigrated to Canada at age 17.
Knowing Elon Musk, it’s reasonable to assume he had some sort of game plan. But in reality, he found himself in Canada with no place to stay and ended up at a youth hostel.
He took on odd jobs to get by, working on a distant relative’s farm in Saskatchewan, tending vegetables and chopping lumber. For better or for worse, a lumber mill enlisted him as a boiler room cleaner. Here Elon replaced his dreams of software and space with dark tunnels and a shovel. He moved hot sand residue from narrow tunnels during his 30-minute shifts. Any longer would result in overheating and death.
Understandably, by the end of the week, 27 out of 30 workers had quit. An exhausted Elon was left to reconsider his situation, eventually throwing in the towel himself to pursue his real dream.
That same year, in 1990, he enrolled at Queen’s University, taking an interest in business, physics, and engineering. His obsessions with energy and space now appreciated among the more intellectual crowd. Here he would pretend to bump into a girl, Justine, who he would later marry and have 5 children with.
Two years later, the awkward teen firmly established as a “tremendous nerd” with an odd fascination for electric cars, transferred to the University of Pennsylvania where he studied two majors. That is, when he wasn’t binging on video games for days at a time or hosting house parties to pay rent.
An unlikely encounter with success
Elon’s remarkable ideas of space and renewable energy blossomed at Penn, and he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Physics, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from the Wharton School.
Finally, the very polite (and surprisingly shy) 24 year old made his move to California with pockets full of nothing. His heart set on earning a PhD in Applied Physics at Stanford University. However, his ambitious goals and the potential of the Internet to achieve them compelled Elon to drop out only two days later. Instead, with the high hopes of every new entrepreneur, he started his first company, Zip2, with his close brother Kimbal.
As with any startup, the road was bumpy and tightly-budgeted. The brothers slept in their rented office in Silicon Valley, showering at the YMCA. At one point, in an effort to reduce costs, Elon was living on $1 a day for food. His engineers would arrive in the morning to find him sleeping on a beanbag, and then discover he had corrected their code overnight – spurring tensions within the company.
In 1999, Compaq purchased Zip2 for over $300 million. Elon Musk was suddenly launched into dot-com stardom. His renewed confidence sailing him straight into his next venture: co-founding X.com. This was a revolutionary online banking company which he would reportedly work on for 23 hours a day. His tireless dedication, along with his loyal team, helped it evolve into what we now know as PayPal.
Elon’s life was clearly on the rise, but clashing working relations remained a weak spot. That same year – while on his belated honeymoon – the PayPal board secretly removed Elon as CEO for “incompetence”. Then, in 2000, Elon’s luck continued as he became almost fatally ill with Malaria while on vacation. It took him 6 months to fully recover, losing half his weight in the process.
Out of the frying pan, into the fire
When Ebay bought PayPal for $1.5 billion in 2002, Elon’s payout granted him the wealth he needed to transform his childhood passion for rockets into a working business plan. He moved to Los Angeles and funded SpaceX with a budget that was far too small for an ambitious project that was far too large. But Elon was relentless, and despite the unexpected death of his 10 day-old newborn, he set off with an all-star crew to build rockets that were faster and cheaper than the competition.
With his rockets underway, Musk joined Tesla in 2004, investing in the dream of creating affordable electric vehicles. He took unfathomable risks in an effort to keep both Tesla and SpaceX above water. Although he would later confess, while on the verge of tears,
“I thought Tesla and SpaceX maybe had a 10% chance at success”
His prediction of failure almost came true. As the end of 2007 rolled in, all three rocket launches had spectacularly failed. Tesla was on the edge of financial crisis. Elon now recounts how he resorted to selling treasured belongings and asking friends for loans to keep Tesla alive.
By 2008, Elon Musk’s once enviable life had declined into a shameful disaster. His marriage had sunk, both companies were failing, and the press was relentlessly ripping apart his reputation. But he never crumbled under the pressure, never stopped working, and never doubted his capacity to make a difference.
An upward curve to success
Elon Musk spent months negotiating enough financing to push his companies through the fire. Soon enough, his projects were back on track. In 2009, his Tesla Roadster sold over 2,500 vehicles in 31 countries. The company also merged with SolarCity in 2016, Elon’s attempt to save the planet using solar power. His Falcon 1 rocket, a proud Star Wars reference, made history as the first privately funded rocket to put a satellite into Earth’s orbit.
From then on, Elon’s companies have continued to make history. His designs and extraordinary vision awarded constantly and attracting the admiration of millions worldwide. The once “unspectacular student” now compared to the likes of Nikola Tesla for his incredible ingenuity. Elon has even served as the inspiration for Iron Man, one of his favorite superheroes back in his comic-reading days.
Elon Musk, with his endearing, stuttering explanations and fading South African accent, persists on investing in the future, now with grandiose plans to colonize Mars. Aiming to transport the first crew to the red planet by 2024.
Not to mention his revolutionary train system, dubbed Hyperloop. To us, these feats sound may downright impossible. But if Elon’s past endeavors have shown us anything, it’s that giving up is never an option.
Lessons from Elon Musk’s life story
At first glance, Elon Musk seems as if he was simply ‘born to be amazing’. But his beginnings were not reminiscent of a billionaire entrepreneur. His childhood bullies were not amazed by his unique vision. His most groundbreaking ideas didn’t happen overnight. Elon Musk wasn’t born into greatness at all, he fought his way to it.
His life story is proof that sometimes success comes from learning from your failures. That you must always move forward with an unwavering belief in your abilities. His drive and perseverance are powerful reminders of how far we can truly go when we don’t let our shortcomings interfere with our goals.
Granted, not all of us have the natural talent or even motivation to build billion dollar companies or a rocket destined for Mars. But we all have the potential to follow our dreams and achieve so much more than we believe we are capable of.
Work, hardships, and challenges are companions in every journey to success, but as Elon himself has said,
“When something is important enough, you do it. Even if the odds aren’t in your favor.”