Much has been made about Elon Musk's latest details for the Hyperloop.
It's an exciting proposition: Travel between major U.S. cities at the speed of sound for the price of an average plane ticket.
And it's certainly not the first far-out idea the South African billionaire has concocted. Musk made the initial bulk of his money when he sold his portion of PayPal, the online payment system whose precursors he developed as a graduate student, then went on to found the electric car company called Tesla and the rocket company called SpaceX. Not to mention other various projects like Solar City, The Space Foundation and The X Prize Foundation.
Along with Richard Branson , Bill Gates and Steve Jobs , Musk belongs in the miniscule group of modern disruptors who think up genuinely unique, progressive ideas to better their industries and therefore the world. Comparisons to Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla (oh fine, and Tony Stark as well) are not out of order.
Having spent considerable time with Musk researching this Forbes cover story and from subsequent conversations with him, his family and friends, I think there are multiple reasons why he can – and does – dream so big. Here are a few of them.
- He read a lot as a child. Maye Musk, Elon’s model-nutritionist mother, told me that as a child Elon often played by himself, mostly reading books or working on solitary games. “If I was walking down the street with the children and he disappeared, it was always because he ducked into a book store to go read,” she says. At his house in Bel Air Musk has an entire white-paneled library filled with books about art, space, photography, design, history, current events, space and design. He is omnivorous in his appetite for words, and he is better off for it.
- He has the money to do it. I have a theory that the only truly creative people are those who are very poor (forced to invent) or very rich (enough money to explore fantastical ideas). In this case, Musk has the finances to play a bit: He has funded each of his own projects and wouldn’t have it any other way. (“I always invest my own money in the companies that I create. I don’t believe in the whole thing of just using other people’s money. I don’t think that’s right. I’m not going to ask other people to invest in something if I’m not prepared to do so myself.”) He can afford to try something risky, and he can afford to put money into something that likely won’t post a high return directly to him. “I’m not trying to make a ton of money on this, but I would like to see it come to fruition,” he said yesterday about the Hyperloop. “I think it might help if I built a demonstration article.”
- He’s got international perspective. Born in South Africa, Musk worked on a farm in Canada before attending university in Pennsylvania and California. He travels extensively for work and pleasure (islands, road trips, Colorado), which puts him in touch with people from different backgrounds, people with different perspectives and values in life. Confronting and exploring new people, places, ideas and things can’t help but stimulate new thought.
- He has children. One thing I hear repeatedly is that once people have kids their whole perspective on sustainability and quality of life changes. Musk has five sons from his first marriage with Justine Musk, and he has often referred to future generations as the reason why humans must move toward colonizing mars. “Children are awesome,” he told me once in New York, mentioning an outing he had earlier with his sons. You should have seen the excitement on his face as he explained that the backward-facing rear seat in the Tesla Model S was the coveted position among his kids and their friends.
- He studies history. Yesterday on the Hyperloop call Musk referenced Nicola Tesla “back in the day,” and he has tweeted about such historical figures as Catherine the Great and Henry Fielding. Those who know and understand history can affect the future.
- He’s tapped into pop culture. Musk is not some wealthy brain cosseted away from reality. The guy listens to everyone from Adele to Robbie Williams. He likes movies. He goes to clubs (where he famously met his second wife, British actress Talulah Riley). He plays video games. These are good clean fun – outlets for relaxation and potential sources of inspiration (his idea for the Hyperloop came from sitting in maddening traffic on the 405, for instance).
- He has a sense of humour. The first time I met him he described the afro and leisure suit he had worn to a party the night before. He tweets bawdy anecdotes and funny kids’ jokes. He watches Stephen Colbert. He placed an enormous block of cheese in the Dragon rocket he sent to space (inside joke). He likes Henry Fielding partly because he had the “most excellent pen name of Captain Hercules Vinegar.” All of which have very real physical and psychological benefits.
- He’s a genius. I use this term sparingly, but I think it applies here, and I’ll give one example why: One sign of intelligence is a mind able to communicate complex ideas in simple terms. To be able to describe, for instance, the technology and physics behind a jet-quick tube train in a 57-page report that the average reader can easily digest and (even better) find interesting. Oh, and he’s the only private citizen in the history of man to successfully send a rocket ship to and retrieve it from space. No big deal.