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Elon Musk’s Hiring of a Brilliant Lumberjack Offers an Incredible Lesson in Giving Someone a Chance

So many people hope for an opportunity. Here’s someone who made the most of his.

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BY Chris Matyszczyk - 07 Jan 2019

elon musk's brilliant hiring

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

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

 

I bring breaking news.

Elon Musk isn't the only large brain at Tesla. Or, for that matter, at SpaceX.

Somehow, though, his presence looms so large that you don't often hear about the extraordinary people he's hired.

I'm grateful, therefore, to Mekka Okereke, an engineering director at Google, for a supremely enlightening tweetstorm this weekend.

Honestly, how many times have you seen enlightening and tweetstorm in the same sentence?

Okereke wanted to tell a story of Elon Musk, inclusion, rockets and a lumberjack.

He wrote:

Talent is everywhere. Opportunity is not. Under-matching affects white folk too. Stanford research shows that with minor intervention, you can connect under-matched kids with the opportunities to reach their potential. A guidance counselor, college advisor, or mentor, can put a person on the right path.

Yes, yes. But let's get to the part of the lumberjack. Okereke explained:

In Idaho, a lumberjack had a son, who he hoped would also become a lumberjack. But this kid liked rockets... He made rockets for fun in high school. He even made a rocket out of his dad's acetylene welder. He went to college not at CalTech or MIT, but at the U. Of Idaho.

The only person who chose to propel him beyond the immediate world he knew was his high school geography teacher, who, when he heard this lumberjack's son wanted to be an aviation mechanic, told him:

Do you want to be the guy who fixes the plane or the guy who designs the plane?

The budding rocket designer worked as a lumberjack to pay for school. For 15 years, he worked in some of the more staid companies in the space arena.

Okereke continued the story:

But building rockets is expensive, and they don't give kids from Idaho billions of dollars to start their own company, no matter what's on their resume. So he built rockets at home, building the largest amateur liquid-fueled rocket in history. Elon Musk noticed...

And there you were thinking that Musk must be merely one large ego in search of greater inflation.

The story has a celestial ending for Mueller:

He joined SpaceX as a 'founding employee'. He designed the Merlin engine. He's CTO of Propulsion. His name is Tom Mueller. Everyone knows Elon Musk. No one knows Tom Mueller, even though Tom is the one currently designing a rocket that will put humans on Mars.

Which really does sound like quite an important job. For humanity, as much as for SpaceX.

For Okereke, the lesson for all companies is one that so few learn quickly:

Talent is everywhere. Opportunity is not. The goal of inclusion work is not 'More black folk!' Or 'More women!' The lack of black folk and women is a symptom of the root cause: opportunity to succeed and thrive is not evenly distributed.

So few people get the chance to show what they can really do.

Too often, they end up in jobs that don't suit them, working for people who don't appreciate them.

Too often, their real talents are ignored as the vacuous keep exhorting them to sell yourself.

Tom Mueller got his chance before it was too late.

Perhaps, one day, more people will get such a chance.

Perhaps that'll happen when humans move to Mars. Or, hopefully, before.

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