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20 Years Ago, Elon Musk Revealed the 1 Thing That Drives Him. But It Was His Fiancée Who Unveiled the Biggest Truth

Creating companies is a fascinating process. How, though, does it affect those who are successful?

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BY Chris Matyszczyk - 10 Feb 2019

elon musk reveals what drives him

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.


People bathe in the stories of successful entrepreneurs.

Who isn't moved by someone who was showering at the YMCA and sleeping on the office floor three years ago and now is a fully-fledged very rich person?

This, indeed, is what happened to Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

These days, so many revere him for his entrepreneurial bravado. Was it always there?

Well, I've just been run over by Musk's contribution to a documentary created in the less than stylish year of 1999.

He was a lot less Johnny Depp-meets-Slash sartorially in those days. Indeed, the beige jacket in this clip is unquestionably a troubling size and a torrid hue.

The action also offers a interesting view of Musk's sense of taste. He's standing outside waiting for delivery of his million-dollar McLaren F1 car.

What else are you supposed to do if you've just sold your software company for $400 million?


Then, though, he describes his view of what makes an entrepreneur and what seems to excite him most:

It's like a series of poker games and now I've gone on to a more high-stake poker game and just carry those chips with me.

I'm not sure how many of Musk's employees would feel uplifted by knowing they're mere chips in a poker game.

I wonder how many might sniff that they have dreams, lives and families for whom their job is a matter of some significance.

For the younger Musk, though, it seems as if -- as for many gamblers -- building companies involves the same feelings as invade a gambler when they're betting on a horse.

It's not the winning they love most. It's the buzz of the race.

Musk claims in this clip that "the real payoff is the sense of satisfaction in having created the company that I sold."

I can't help thinking, though, that he and some others who create big companies are on a rather larger ego trip than they might admit.

In this documentary, Musk offers a sorta-kinda admission that he's already not quite who used to be:

My values may have changed, but I'm not consciously aware of my values having changed.

This might be something that creates a painful distance between the successful entrepreneur and the normal human being.

Indeed, it's his fiance at the time, Justine Wilson, who chimes in with the most thoughtful and prescient comment:

My fear is that we'll become spoiled brats, that we lose a sense of appreciation and perspective.

I fear, indeed, that too many billionaires lose contact with what real people feel. They see only chips and their own blinding self-belief.

They see only their poker game.

If they lose a few hands, what's the big deal? There'll be plenty more big deals.

They meet in Davos to compare wine cellars, strategies and private planes. They simply can't believe the game won't turn out the way it's supposed to.

Donald Trump? How did that happen?!

And then there's Musk's touchingly contemptuous attitude toward the SEC and, oh, an alleged enthusiasm for gas-guzzling flights.

Oh, which of us wouldn't lose a few mental bearings if we were billionaires?

Which of course leads me for a moment to former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

But that's a topic I'll save for another day.

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