Queen's University

Rocket man

If anyone personifies the spirit of initiative that permeates Queen’s, it’s former student Elon Musk, the visionary entrepreneur-philanthropist whose ideas and successes reach to the stars … and beyond.

A conversation with Elon Musk, Com’94, is filled with pauses. He gathers his thoughts to answer questions about what and who has inspired him, about the ­differences between madness and genius, and about the high-flying ventures that have won him fame and fortune.

You wonder if his stops-and-starts are the respites he needs to check on whether there’s a flash of inspiration trying to get his attention somewhere else in his brain on “line two.”

Elon MuskFormer student Elon Musk is an entrepreneur-philanthropist with out-of-this world ambitions. (Dan Tuffs/Getty Images)

Brainstorms, it would seem, occur with stunning frequency in the mind of this former Queen’s student who’s fast emerging as one of the 21st century’s foremost innovators. Musk is a billionaire who has been written about – and lauded – by such influential publications as Forbes, The New Yorker, Time, and the Los Angeles Times, and was profiled recently on the popular CBS television news magazine 60 Minutes.

It was at Queen’s that this world-class visionary and entrepreneur extraordinaire began the post-secondary studies that helped to further unlock his mind and served as a kind of preamble to his stratospherically imaginative and successful career. It’s a career that promises to soar even higher, to the heavens and beyond.

More than two decades ago, from 1989 to 1991, Musk spent his freshman and sophomore years in Kingston. That’s a period in his life he now recalls with fondness and a light-hearted sense of cheer. These days he’s renowned as the creative and guiding force behind PayPal, Tesla electric motor cars, and SolarCity (which leases solar-power systems to private homeowners). And his private rocket ship company, SpaceX, made headlines when it launched a cargo rocket and spacecraft that on May 25, 2012, became the first commercial vehicle to deliver a load of supplies to the International Space Station.

Musk is also a dedicated philanthropist. He established and serves as is chair of the Musk Foundation, which promotes science education, pediatric health, and clean energy; he’s keenly interested and actively involved in efforts to promote solar power and green technologies. In April 2012, when he joined The Giving Pledge – the philanthropic campaign kick-started by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates – Musk made the moral commitment to donate one day the bulk of his wealth to worthy causes.

Foreshadowing his future entrepreneurial career, Musk wrote the code for and sold a video game when he was 12.

Elon Musk was born in 1971 in Pretoria, South Africa, the eldest of three siblings – he has a brother, Kimbal, and a sister, Tosca. Their father was an engineer, his mother, a nutritionist and fashion model (who once posed in the nude, make-believe pregnant at 63 years of age, for a New York Magazine cover). The genes for both logic and a conventions-be-damned attitude would seem to be inherited, and to an exponential degree.

As the kind of kid who had all the answers, young Elon didn’t win many schoolboy friends. His mother has been quoted as recalling, “He read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica when he was only eight or nine, and he remembered it.”

Foreshadowing his future entrepreneurial career, Musk wrote the code for and sold a video game when he was 12. By the time he was a teenager, he had a much bigger appetite for education than could be satisfied by answering his draft call from the apartheid-era South African army.

“I left South Africa by myself, against my parents’ wishes,” he told the Review during a recent interview at SpaceX’s Los Angeles headquarters.

Musk’s mother is Canadian-born, and he has a grandmother and an aunt living in Alberta. So it was to Canada and to Queen’s that he came in 1990, hoping to broaden – and eventually to go beyond – both his personal and literal horizons. “I came to North America because I felt this was where there was opportunity to do great things in technology.”

Oddly enough, it wasn’t just academic excellence that drew Musk to Queen’s, but rather another very down-to-earth reason – his keen eye for members of the opposite sex. “It was a close call for me between the University of Waterloo and Queen’s.

“I was going to do physics and engineering at Waterloo, but then I visited the campus … and, you may not want to print this,” he says with a laugh, “but there didn’t seem to be any girls there! So, I visited Queen’s, and there were girls there. I didn’t want to spend my undergraduate time with a bunch of dudes.”

Turning more serious, he recalls that he met his first wife – ­Justine (Wilson) Musk, Artsci’96, at Queen’s. The couple was together for eight years, 2000-2008, and they had five sons together. As befits a man about whom so little is ordinary, Musk is the ­father of twins and of triplets.

“I had a great time at Queen’s,” Musk reflects. “It was fun and interesting. I’d call them formative years,” he says.

Musk lived at Victoria Hall, on the International Floor. “That was where I met Navaid Farooq [Artsci’94] who remains one of my best friends to this day,” says Musk.

Recalling his two student years in Canada, Musk notes, “In the first two years at university, you learn a lot about a great many things. One particular thing that I learned at Queen’s – both from faculty and students – was how to work collaboratively with smart people and make use of the Socratic method to achieve commonality of purpose.”

What he learned about the Socratic method at Queen’s would prove to be huge, perhaps one of the most significant factors in his future success when it came time for him to start SpaceX.

Musk brothers with their grandmother Elon Musk (right) and his brother Kimbal wore their Queen's year jackets on a 1992 outing in Toronto with their grandmother. (Photo courtesy of Kimbal Musk.)

However, after just two years in Kingston, Musk decided that finishing his degree at an American Ivy League university might help win him a job in American industry and propel him upwards in his career faster. So he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. His course work there didn’t prevent him from making trips back to Kingston to visit his younger brother, Kimbal Musk, Com’95, who had followed his path to Queen’s and would go on to a highly successful business career of his own.

Elon earned two degrees at Penn – a BS in physics and then one in economics from its Wharton School. From there, it was on to Stanford University, where he’d been accepted for doctoral studies, originally intending to concentrate in the field of energy physics. However, by now Musk was envisioning his career possibilities in three arenas: the Internet, clean energy, and space.

This was 1995, the start of the Internet boom, and its lure was too much for Musk to resist. At age 24 he dropped out of Stanford after just two days, and then partnered with brother Kimbal to start a business they called Zip2 Corporation, which produced online city guides for various big-city newspapers. Zip2 Corporation signed contracts with both The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times.

When venture capitalists jumped in with an offer of $3.6 million in start-up capital, Musk relinquished majority control of the fledgling venture. This proved to be an early example of his business savvy and crucial to his career success. In 1999, Compaq Computer Corporation bought Zip2 for $307 million in cash, rewarding Musk with $22 million for his seven per cent stake. He became a multi-millionaire at age 28.

Musk used part of his windfall to launch another company. X.com was an online bank that developed the PayPal online payment system that’s widely used today. Musk sold PayPal to eBay in 2002 for a staggering $1.5 billion, netting $165 million in eBay stock in the process.

Then, as now, Elon Musk moved at warp speed in his business dealings. Later that same year, he launched his next venture – and his most high-flying one to date, the space transport provider Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, as it has become commonly known. Not content to stop there, in 2003, he started Tesla Motors, a maker of high-end electric sports cars.

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was a Serbian-American inventor whose accomplishments had tantalized and inspired Musk for years. Tesla, who invented the alternating current induction motor and the bladeless turbine, was right when his rival Thomas Edison was wrong about whether direct or alternating current would power America. Tesla registered more than 700 patents, foresaw harnessing both solar and tidal power, and envisioned satellites and interplanetary communications. So, it’s no surprise that – in a world of wonders that both men figured they could further improve upon – Musk chose the name Tesla for his revolutionary electric car.

Elon Musk’s high-profile may have gained traction from his innovative ground vehicles, but it is his SpaceX ventures that truly echo Nikola Tesla’s visionary outlook and that have sent Musk’s fame rocketing sky high – literally, as well as figuratively.

The first Tesla roadster rolled off the assembly line in 2008. Despite a price tag of more than (U.S.) $100,000 and the fact the model has now been discontinued, there are some 2,300 of the company’s Roadsters driving, emission-free, in more than 37 countries. Its small electric motor, which generates 288 horsepower, can propel the vehicle to 100 km per hour in 3.7 seconds and can travel almost 400 kms between charges. Unique to the Tesla Roadster, and indicative of the kind of bold conceptual thinking one might expect from Elon Musk, there’s no reverse gear. Instead, to drive the car backwards, the motor spins in reverse.

A new Tesla, the Model S, which is intended for a broader market than the roadster, is less pricey and was picked by Motor Trend automotive magazine as its 2013 Car of the Year. “Our aspiration with the Model S was to show that an electric car truly can be ­better than any gasoline car,” Musk says earnestly and humbly.

The schoolboy hubris is gone; there’s just the shine of ­wunderkind achievement reflecting from him now.

Elon Musk’s high-profile may have gained traction from his innovative ground vehicles, but it is his SpaceX ventures that truly echo Nikola Tesla’s visionary outlook and that have sent Musk’s fame rocketing sky high – literally, as well as figuratively.

 Elon Musk with a Dragon space capsuleElon Musk with a Dragon space capsule (Photo courtery of Space X.)

“I can never forget the first sensations I experienced when it dawned on me that I had observed something with possibly incalculable consequences for mankind,” Tesla wrote about a 1890s experiment in which he believed he’d captured signals from Mars. “Although I could not decipher their meaning, it was impossible for me to think of them as having been entirely accidental. The feeling is constantly growing on me that I had been the first to hear the greeting of one planet to another.”

When the Review’s conversation with Musk returns to the subject of those geniuses who have inspired him – geniuses such as Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Einstein, and Tesla, especially Nikola Tesla – the young entrepreneur’s enthusiasm is almost palpable.

But why had Tesla’s name been pretty much forgotten until Musk affixed it to his “the-future-is-now” electric cars?

Why hadn’t Tesla – who once worked for Thomas Edison before becoming his competitor and a bitter rival – ever won the level of fame of the other luminaries Musk cites as his personal “Hall-of-Famers.” Has Musk taken into consideration what went wrong for Nikola Tesla as he contemplated the course of his own career? It seems he has.

“Tesla’s problem was that he wasn’t entirely sane, and that got worse later in his life. Retaining sanity is important,” Musk says with a self-effacing smile. “Keep a firm grip on sanity, maintain an active feedback loop, and seek out negative feedback because it gets harder and harder to get as you progress in the world.”

Musk encounters many people who wonder how he can ­possibly stay on an even keel while being involved in so many ­initiatives and successfully moving in several innovative directions at once.

“It would be hard to be crazy and still be able [to launch a spacecraft] to dock with the International Space Station,” he quips.

There were many critical steps in the battle to turn that lofty dream into a reality. “I guess the reason I thought I wasn’t mad to pursue rocketry as a business venture was because the nature of peoples’ concerns was that I was likely to lose all the money that I put into creating a rocket company, and I thought maybe they were right. But I accepted all the risk, and it wasn’t that I thought it was a low-risk endeavour. It’s a separate question as to whether you should engage in projects in which the odds are that you’ll lose your money.

“My rationale there was that it was an important enough cause – at least to me – that it was worth putting funds at risk and possibly losing them.”

And how did Musk recruit the scientists and other technical people he needed to join him in order to create, and quickly, a private rocket company capable of taking over the transport of space cargo after NASA’s space shuttle program ended?

“It would have been quite difficult if I’d just started off by cold-calling them and saying that I wanted to start a rocket company,” he says.

“What I said instead – because these people were working at Northrop-Grumman, Boeing, and other big aerospace companies – was ‘Would you mind helping me with a feasibility study to find out if it’s possible to make significant advancements in rocket technology? It will involve a few weekends and evenings of your time,’ I said I’d pay a decent amount for their help, and so they were enthusiastic. We had a series of meetings, and the people I recruited put a lot of thought into it and came to the conclusion that yes, it would be possible to build better rockets than had been made before.”

Was it really that straightforward?

Says Musk, “I essentially led them to a conclusion that they created. It was sort of a Socratic dialogue on a technical level. The essence of a Socratic dialogue,” he adds with another of his trademark soft laughs, “is that people wind up convincing themselves. People are much more willing to change their opinion if you’re not forcing it.”

Does he mean it’s a ‘Look what I thought of’ idea? “Yes. That’s exactly right,” he replies.

Here was the Socratic method of problem solving at work: Queen’s most enduring contribution to his career.

Increasingly, Queen’s is intent on fostering a spirit of innovation in its graduates and takes pride in signs of that’s spirit’s success, and although Musk didn’t finish his degree in Kingston, the time he spent here doubtless helped to heighten his already robust entrepreneurial spirit.

“It’s something of a cliché,” he says, “but a lot of my ideas nowadays come to me when I’m in the shower,” he says. “It’s because I’ve been thinking about them, the mind processing them subconsciously while I’m sleeping, and what’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? You take a shower.”

Is there a Circadian rhythm to idea generation?

“That’s an interesting notion,” says Musk. “If you shower in the evening, will the ideas still occur during showers or would they occur during the drive to work?”

If I’m trying to solve a problem, and I think I’ve got some elements of it kind of close to being figured out, I’ll pace for hours trying to think it through.”

It’s not a rhetorical question because he quickly answers it himself. “I suspect they’d happen during the drive to work. Whatever your mind has been working on, there’s a bunch of subconscious processes – you don’t know how, they’re not visible at first – but they pop to the surface when your brain is done thinking about them.”

It’s clear Elon Musk is no mere dreamer, but rather a problem-solver and pragmatic futurist. 

Dreams and brainstorms are only two of the engines of idea generation for Musk. The wizard of Internet money exchange, electric car motoring, solar powering, and space travel also taps into creative problem-solving by pacing.

“There are times, late at night, when I pace,” he confides. “If I’m trying to solve a problem, and I think I’ve got some elements of it kind of close to being figured out, I’ll pace for hours trying to think it through.”

That uncanny ability to concentrate on a problem, no matter how complex or vexing, and to come up with a creative, workable solution is a key to Musk’s success.

“Elon has the incredible ability and determination to work and work on an idea until he has the solution,” says his brother Kimbal. “If he believes it’s possible – and he always does when it’s a problem he’s working on – there’s no option for turning back with him. When 99.99 per cent of people would have given up, Elon finds the solution that amazes everyone around him.”

Robin Keats is a Los Angeles freelance writer.

Queen's Alumni Review, 2013 Issue #1Queen's Alumni Review
2013 Issue #1
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