A man’s guttural scream resonates through the house, warning his three children of their father’s rage. As he sets down an empty bottle of Corona on the kitchen counter, the kids scramble for a place to hide. Suddenly, shards of broken glass plummet to the floor as the bottle shatters against a wall. The smell of alcohol and nicotine consumes the room as he unbuckles his belt and snaps it in the air. The children taste the metallic flavor of blood as the belt whips across their faces. He hurls insults and profanities, screaming that they will end up as deadbeats in their small South African town.
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Within this house, a world-changing entrepreneur grows up to the echoes of violence and fury every night. In spite of his terrible upbringing and the adversity he faces, a young Elon Musk strives to achieve success and prove his emotionally abusive father wrong. Because Musk has parents who practice meaningful work, benefits from hidden advantages in his relationship with his father, and possesses a great amount of demographic luck, he leads a successful career and changes the world with his innovative technology.
Because Musk’s parents practice meaningful work through autonomous and rewarding jobs, Musk is taught the lesson of hard work, which helps him significantly in obtaining success. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell claims that the essential components of meaningful work are autonomy and a relationship between effort and reward (149). Gladwell argues that the value a person places on work has a beneficial impact on the success of their children (150).
Musk’s father, Errol Musk, is a South African electromechanical engineer at AECOM, a firm that allows its employees to come into the office at any hour and choose their own projects, rather than being assigned to one (Storm 42). His ability to control his hours and tasks gives him a high degree of autonomy, which is the first component of meaningful work
In addition to flexible working hours, AECOM pays its employees commission on each project they complete (Storm 66). The harder Musk’s father works and the more projects he finishes, the more money he earns, demonstrating a clear relationship between effort and reward.
When the first computers came out, his eleven-year old son Elon wanted to attend a class at the University of Johannesburg (Dolan). The university replied that they wouldn’t accept any children, but Musk’s father wanted him to persist (Dolan). Musk was eventually accepted, and managed to attend the computer science program’s inaugural lecture (Dolan).
With this encouragement, Musk’s father taught him the value of determination when faced with the challenge of negotiating his admission to the class. Attending the lecture furthered Musk’s education and motivated him to pursue his successful career in computer science.
Musk’s mother, Maye Musk, works in the modeling industry, which involves going to interviews with magazines and photography firms (Storm 68). The job is centered around photoshoots: sessions in a photography studio that pay up to a thousand dollars each time. Her work displays a direct correlation between effort and reward, as the more interviews she attends and the more time she spends at photoshoots, the higher her salary rises.
When her children were old enough to work, she employed them at the modeling school she founded (Rogers). The work experience Musk gained from assisting his mother allowed him to excel in his early career, as many other college graduates lacked this valuable work experience.
Musk’s mother forced her kids to be responsible for their own career paths, requiring them to choose their own universities and fill out applications without any guidance (Rogers). Through these actions, Musk’s mother taught him the value of persistence in tasks such as college acceptance. Working hard for his admission to university thus encouraged Musk to do the same throughout his academic years.
Because Musk’s parents work meaningful jobs that are autonomous and rewarding, they teach Musk to work hard and be persistent when faced with challenges, a lesson that greatly benefits Musk in his career.
Although Musk seems disadvantaged by his controlling father and troubled home life, his father’s abuse reveals a hidden advantage in which Musk is able to find success outside of his home country. Gladwell defines a hidden advantage as a situation that seems harmful to a person’s growth, but in reality contains a multitude of beneficial factors (128). Musk’s father was emotionally abusive with his children, often ordering Musk to sit in silence for five hours every night as he lectured him (Blystone). In an interview with Business Insider, Musk reveals:
[My father] got my best friend to lure me out of hiding so he could beat me up… For
some reason he decided that I was it, and he was going to go after me nonstop. That’s what made growing up difficult. I’d get chased around by gangs at school who tried to beat the [expletive] out of me… and it would just be awful [at home] as well. (Rogers)
Moreover, Musk’s father demanded that Musk attend college in South Africa, but he chose to move to the United States (Blystone). Musk decided to go against his father’s wishes and move to America because of the abuse he suffered and the resentment he held towards his father. This choice was highly advantageous to his career, because South Africa was a corrupt, underdeveloped country that would not have fostered Musk’s entrepreneurial ideas (Blystone).
But in the United States, Musk was exposed to a variety of business opportunities in a country that promoted innovation. After Musk moved to America, he received more disapproval from his father, who insisted that Musk would end up broke and homeless (Ngo). Musk’s father had zero confidence that Musk could pursue a prestigious career like engineering or make something of himself (Ngo). His father’s condescending remarks motivated Musk to prove those predictions wrong by working hard throughout his early career, leading to his success. While Musk’s emotionally abusive father places him at a disadvantage, his father’s cruelty becomes a hidden advantage that leads him to find a prosperous career in the United States.
Because Musk is born at the perfect time to benefit from the business opportunities of the internet boom and witness the effects of racism in South Africa, he achieves success due to his demographic luck. To define demographic luck, Gladwell gives the example of Joe Flom, a Jewish lawyer who was born into a small generation, giving him less competition among his fellow students and a high demand in the job market for his skills (140).
Musk graduated from university at the start of the internet boom of 1995, leaving Stanford after one week to get involved with the new internet revolution (Biography). That year, Musk started Zip2, a service that generated maps and business directories, which was purchased by the computer manufacturer Compaq for 307 million dollars (Biography).
Musk then started an online transaction service, PayPal, which was bought by the online auction company eBay for 1.5 billion dollars (Gregersen).
Musk’s demographic luck allowed him to sell his inventions for billions of dollars by placing him in the generation that graduated from university around 1995. If he graduated in 1990, he would have landed a job at an old-fashioned engineering firm, and a career that lacked outlets for his innovative ideas.
If he graduated in 2000, all the lucrative positions opened up by the internet boom would have been taken, leaving him with an unfulfilling job.
Another instance of Musk’s demographic luck is living in South Africa when Aparthied was at its peak. Apartheid was a system of extreme racial discrimination that was rampant in South Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s (History). In 1988, when Musk was seventeen, he witnessed a police officer beating up a black man on the street in his hometown, and his father warned him not to intervene for fear that Musk would get arrested (Weinberger).
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Musk developed a strong feeling of anger and resentment towards his country’s authorities (Weinberger). Along with the police, the South African military showed strong support for aparthied while utilizing a system of compulsory service in the 1980s (History). Musk’s demographic luck allowed him to witness racial inequality irsthand, motivating him to leave South Africa and avoid compulsory military service for a country he was unwilling to support.
By moving from South Africa to America, Musk gained access to a multitude of business opportunities in a nation that promotes innovation, opportunities that South Africa lacked. Because Musk’s demographic luck allows him to reap the benefits of the internet boom and witness the injustice of Aparthied in South Africa, he is able to significantly advance his career.
Because Musk learns the value of hard work from his parents, experiences hidden advantages in his troubled home life, and is born with an extraordinary amount of demographic luck, he greatly impacts humanity with his entrepreneurial work and innovative ideas. His achievements are not solely dependent on coincidence or effort, but rather the perfect mixture of opportunities.
The cards that life has dealt him, such as the favorable circumstances of his childhood, have been dealt to nearly every successful person. The traditional belief that success rests solely on hard work is inherently false. If humanity truly wants to foster success, people must learn to leave this concept behind and provide the right opportunities to everyone.
Biography.com Editors. "Elon Musk." Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 12 Dec. 2019. Online.
Blystone, Dan. "Elon Musk's Early Years." Investopedia, Investopedia, 29 Jan. 2020. Online.
Dolan, Kerry. "How To Raise A Billionaire: An Interview With Elon Musk's Father, Errol Musk." Forbes, 2 July 2015. Online.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company, 2013. Print.
Gregersen, Erik. "Elon Musk." Encyclopædia Britannica, 22 Jan. 2020. Online.
History.com Editors. "Apartheid." History.com, A&E Television Networks, 7 Oct. 2010. Online.
Ngo, Sheiresa. "The Sickening Reason Why Elon Musk Called His Father a 'Terrible Human Being.'" Showbiz Cheat Sheet, Showbiz Cheat Sheet, 11 June 2018. Online.
Rogers, Taylor Nicole. "Lots of Hard Work and No Special Treatment." Business Insider, Business Insider, 3 Jan. 2020. Online.
Storm, B. Elon Musk : Biography of a self-made visionary, entrepreneur and billionaire. BStorm, 2016. Print.
Weinberger, Matt. “Billionaire Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 7 Feb. 2020. Online.
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