With an April 1st reservation for the next gen Tesla tucked safely away in my sock drawer, I’ve turned to drowning myself in YouTube interviews and documentaries about Tesla Motors and its prime creator, Mr. Elon Musk.
As the information regarding Mr. Musk's background and career came streaming in it suddenly dawned on me that the man had completed the classical tale of ‘The Hero’s Journey’. Are you familiar with the myth? If you don’t think you are, you actually are. You just haven’t gotten around to reading any Joseph Campbell and putting a name to it. If that is the case may I fill you in on the myth and how well Elon Musk fits into the story?
Mythologist, writer, and lecturer Joseph Campbell popularized the idea of myth for his generation back in the middle of the 20th century. In his early 20’s, sometime after graduating college, Campbell decided that the next chapter in his life would be about going up to Woodstock NY to live alone in a shack for five years… and read.
When Campbell emerged from the woods he brought with him a deep knowledge of ancient civilizations and their mythologies. Campbell had discovered that there are certain stories…tales… myths that are common to all societies. Even remote civilizations having no contact with the outside world shared in these archetypal stories. One of the most popular of the myths is the tale of The Hero’s Journey, which Joseph relayed in his first book ‘Hero with a Thousand faces’.
The gist of the story is that a child growing up in the village is not entirely content with the world, and in fact is a bit of a misfit. The individual is not cut out to follow the path pursued by most others in the tribe, and at some point answers a calling to depart from home and embark on a journey of self-discovery and transformation. The departure of the hero often occurs at a time when the community has been exposed to a great danger. The hero steps into a new, seemingly magical world, meets many people and has many adventures. During the journey the hero undergoes a life threatening ordeal in which great suffering is experienced. Ultimately the hero not only survives the test (often with the aid of supernatural forces) but discovers a treasure, or what Joseph Campbell termed an “elixir” of great value. The hero returns home with the elixir and uses it to free the village from danger.
We see The Hero’s Journey played out repeatedly in classic literature with tales such as Beowulf and Odysseus, as well as in modern mythological tales such as with Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, Neo in The Matrix, and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. George Lucas was a fan of Joseph Campbell and credits the scholar with inspiring the Star Wars saga. Luke goes through the entire cycle of the hero myth: a darkness overshadows the land, Luke being called to service, declining at first, being forced from his home to pursue an adventure, finding the courage to follow his path, receiving assistance from a “wizard” who saves his life ("You don’t need to see our identification" and "This little one's not worth the effort. Come, let me get you something"), urges Luke to victory ("Use the Force Luke"), and Luke surviving his ordeal to eventually triumph over evil and free his people from tyranny.
But The Hero’s Journey is not just a template for storytelling. It plays out in life. Elon Musk’s life story fits right into the myth. In a Bloomberg ‘Risk Takers’ documentary Elon commented on his youth, describing himself as a misfit: “I was this this little book wormy kid, and probably a bit of a smart-aleck… so, this is a recipe for disaster… so I read a lot of books and tried to stay out of people’s way during school”.
In the same documentary his brother Kimball Musk commented “When Elon was 10 years old he got tested by IBM, and he was found to have one of the highest aptitudes they had even seen for computer programming” (Darth Vader: "The force is strong in this one").
With conscription into the evil empire of Apartheid looming Elon chose to leave home at the age of 17 in search of his own path. So began his journey. After a few years he found his way to Silicon Valley, the place where he would discover his fortune. Elon has shared that before ever seeing Silicon Valley he had thought of it as much an idea as an actual place, stating: “I didn’t even know where it was… it sounded like some mythical place”.
There are several points along Elon’s path where the notion of facing death plays out. At the physical level there is the instance of contracting Malaria, and later the near James Dean style high speed crash of his beloved McLaren F1. In a metaphorical context a number of his extreme business enterprises (where virtual death is easy to come by) faced almost certain termination at some point. In fact the challenges came to our hero lumped together in a mega failure setup in which SpaceX, Tesla, and Solar City were all about to be ploughed under amidst the financial Armageddon occurring on Wall Street. Not to mention Elon’s eight year old marriage was running out of gas. In a Hollywood style climax Musk puts the very last of his fortune into play on a gambit to save Tesla. Venture capitalist Steve Gerritsen, who knew Elon from when the inventor first landed in California, characterized the move as an “act of heroism” that incited others to follow him into the abyss (with further funding). Elon characterized the late 2008 events as “facing imminent death”. He’s also spoken of the notion that entrepreneurs must “eat glass while staring into the abyss … if you don’t chew the glass you’re not going to be successful”. This can be construed as a euphemism for stepping into an unknown world and facing whatever comes.
In spite of what has clearly been a very painful experience our hero summons the courage to continue. I personally found it noteworthy that after three SpaceX failures, moments prior to the fourth and what might have been the final launch, Elon, who does not appear to be a very religious man, is recorded on tape saying “I’m just wishing to any entities that are listening, please, bless this launch”.
Finally, the hero triumphs. The launch is successful. Tesla is saved. Solar City takes off. The hero has survived the ordeal and returns with treasure, not just for the village, but indeed all mankind. And an incomparable treasure it is. The elixir is not just existing technologies being put to work in new and productive ways. It’s not simply opening the door to affordable space exploration and to clean, sustainable energy production/consumption. It’s arguably the promise of a new chapter in world history as an age old system of thinking introduced by Aristotle (First Principals reasoning) is reactivated by Musk… and shown to be effective.
Many have taken The Hero’s Journey. Elon Musk happens to be an extreme and very public example. You likely know of someone who has embarked on or completed the ordeal. Perhaps yourself. We can look to Elon’s story for inspiration to find the courage, at the moment it’s needed, to press forward on our own journeys. Elon was tested perhaps more severely than others… and survived. His journey gives us a contemporary reference model to go by.
Let’s close with quotes from both Campbell and Musk. Joseph: “Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid… and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be”. Elon: “Never give up … really like what you do” (two of his 10 rules for success).
Most of the quotes in this post come from the documentary: Elon Musk, How I became the Real ‘Iron Man’
Short video with Elon explaining First Principals reasoning and 10 rules for success
Tells story of McLaren crash as part of an informative one hour interview
More info on The Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell’s first book on The Hero’s Journey ‘Hero with a Thousand faces’
A seven minute video on the subject