May 30, 2013
3 Reasons Why Elon Musk’s Impossible Ideas Actually Work

Elon Musk doesn’t just dream the impossible dream—he creates it—through electric cars, trips to Mars and maybe one day, space warp.

The former PayPal founder has proven to be something of a tech superhero, starting companies like Tesla (electric cars), Space X (commercial space travel) and SolarCity (residential solar power).

Musk’s incredible vision for the future of humanity is so absurdly wonderful that you actually believe it might be possible. Then he goes and does it—and he brings it to your doorstep.

To be sure, Musk is a shrewd businessman, founder and CEO, but the influence of his leadership goes beyond job titles. Through his vision, he inspires, teaches and converts. Taking cues from Musk’s evening keynote at D11, we’ve pinpointed three rules for what it takes to be such a successful dreamer:

1. His mission is bigger than himself.

Musk doesn’t do business to make money. Sure, he has to pay the bills (he almost went broke in 2010), but his vision is much grander than that.

“We want to have a future where humanity is exploring the stars, and where what you see in the movies comes true,” he says.

In pursuit of this mission, Musk created an electric car company, Tesla, to combat the looming energy crisis. For most people, envisioning a car that runs on something other than gas feels perpetually futuristic, sparking thoughts of Back to the Future or Star Wars. For Musk, it’s a no-brainer.

“The reason for Tesla was to create a compelling long-range electric car that people would buy,” he says. “I think it’s important that we transition to sustainable transport. Eventually we’ll face extremely high gasoline costs and the economy will grind to a halt if we don’t . . . so the obvious means of transport is electric.”

What’s next on Musk’s world-changing agenda? Mars, of course.

“The goal is to improve rocket technology and space technology until we can send people to Mars and establish life on Mars,” he says. “Either we spread Earth to other planets, or we risk going extinct. An extinction event is inevitable and we’re increasingly doing ourselves in.”

2. A lot of people think he’s crazy—and that’s okay.

Musk acknowledges that some of his ideas seem unlikely, but he never seems to care whether people think he’s half nuts.

“If I had a dollar for every time someone brought up Delorean or Tucker I wouldn’t have needed to IPO,” he said, referring to two iconic automakers that ended up failing.

Looking back on Tesla’s success, Musk explains that he’s noticed a cycle regarding his critics:

“They had written off the Tesla Roadster as a niche product for techno-geeks, but we’ve moved beyond that. After the Roadster, so many people called bullsh– on the Model S it was ridiculous, but then we brought it to market. Then they said you’ll never make a profit, and then we did that. So I hope they will observe there is a trend here.”

Even the D11 interviewers couldn’t help but tease Musk by skeptically asking is he’s going to look into warp drive next. Musk’s reply emulated his ability to turn the impossible into reality:

“Actually . . . You can’t exceed the speed of light, but it’s theoretically possible to warp space itself such that space is moving . . . Warp may not come to fruition, but if we have a base on Mars, that gives us the chance of achieving something like warp drive.”

Touché, Mr. Musk.

3. He embraces the possibility of failure.

Musk has no interest in taking on a project that won’t make a big impact, regardless of difficulty or chance for success. When he sees an opportunity to change the world, he takes it.

“When I started SpaceX, I thought the most likely outcome was that it would fail,” Musk says. “But what gave me a clue that we could make a significant breakthrough was looking at the cost of a rocket . . . We were able to make it for much less.”

Musk is currently tackling an even better option, a reusable rocket, which he didn’t even think was feasible until three years ago. Now, he’s “fairly certain it’s achievable but we have a long way to go”—an outlook that sums up his ever-widening vision for the human race.