“Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, double your rate of failure.” –Thomas Watson (CEO of IBM)
I don’t know about you, but I personally hate making mistakes. I hate feeling humiliated, incompetent, or unsuccessful.
On the other hand, I love it when people unanimously approve of what I am doing, value my contributions, or think I’m impressive.
But when I act only to achieve these addictive neurochemical states, I live to please other people and stay in my comfort zone—where the goal of everything I do is to avoid looking foolish. Admittedly, I spend most of my days trying to avoid mistakes.
This is not the path to greatness.
I hesitated to write a blog post about Elon Musk because he is a polarizing and controversial figure.
But I recently watched the Netflix documentary Return to Space which chronicles the 20-year history of SpaceX and provides an important look at his most inspiring leadership qualities.
And while I probably can’t recommend his approaches to relationships, work-life balance, health, or parenting—he gives us an unbelievable model of innovation, resilience, grit, and courage in the face of potentially devastating failures.
His fortitude as a visionary is undeniable.
Much of his success is undoubtedly due to his philosophy of “successful failures.”
A successful failure is one where you explore everything that went wrong and choose to learn from it in order to learn what you will improve next time. It is the very essence of a growth mindset. It’s only a failure if you don’t learn something.
This sounds catchy and exciting, until you explore the utterly soul-crushing setbacks that Musk has endured—and risen from.
The history of SpaceX
SpaceX is now very successful by any measure, but that wasn’t always the case.
It has been said that an overnight success is 15 years in the making. This is an accurate statement when it comes to SpaceX.
Musk first donated $100,000 of his own money to the Mars society in 2001, pledging to put a greenhouse on Mars.
Soon after, Musk (at the age of 30) went to Russia with future Nasa Administrator Michael Griffin, to attempt to partner with his contacts there. When that didn’t work out, Musk announced on the return flight that he would start his own company to produce affordable and re-usable rockets.
SpaceX was born in 2002, and by 2005 had 160 employees. The goal of SpaceX was to increase access to space and decrease cost—by a factor of 10.
They spent nearly $100 million of private funding on the Falcon 1 rocket. The first three launches all failed, crashing or exploding between 2006 and 2008.
This nearly ended the company. Financing for Tesla had also failed around that time, which nearly bankrupted Musk.
All of his companies and personal finances nearly came to an end that year. According to author Eric Berger, Musk was “waking from nightmares screaming in physical pain” because of the stress.
Can you even imagine putting nearly a decade of your time, energy, and finances into something, only to watch it literally explode in less than a minute?
In the Netflix documentary, the sheer weight of the discouragement is palpable.
Musk divided his remaining assets between Tesla and SpaceX and finally on September 28th 2008, SpaceX had success on it’s fourth Falcon launch. Just three months later, NASA awarded them $1.6 billion in funding, effectively saving the company.
You can criticize Elon for a lot of things, but the guy has skin in the game.
Since that time, SpaceX has had many more failures—along with enormous successes.
Three more rockets would explode, losing hundreds of millions of dollars in payload.
But SpaceX also pioneered low speed landing technology in 2012. If you haven’t seen this, its absolutely unbelievable to watch a rocket land right side up on a launchpad in the middle of the ocean (picture someone lowering a pencil to stand on its eraser).
In 2018 they became the leading global commercial launch provider.
In 2019, they launched satellites called Starlink, with the goal to bring worldwide low-cost broadband service. Starlink is now the world’s largest commercial satellite constellation. Strangely, I first found out about Starlink after a huge thunderstorm in Yosemite when I looked up at the night sky and said, “What the —- is that?!” It looked like a strand of Christmas lights flying through the sky. My buddy (who will remain unnamed) insisted it was a UFO.
In May 2020, SpaceX achieved a huge milestone of launching two humans successfully into space, which made them the first private company to send astronauts to the International Space Station.
Keep in mind that Musk did all this through the Great Recession and a global pandemic.
Despite all the setbacks, he continued to take risks and embrace failures as the quickest pathway to progress, and breakthrough.
Conclusion and action
Without a doubt, Elon Musk is a puzzling character, and I learned some interesting things about him while researching this article.
He was born in Pretoria, South Africa and educated at the University of Pennsylvania. He dropped out of a Stanford Ph.D. program after two days, and went on to start several successful companies including what became PayPal.
He suffered the loss of his first child at just 10 weeks old and went on to have nine more children across several tumultuous relationships. His last two children are named X and Y.
He is currently the richest person on the planet according to Forbes Real Time Billionaires, and simultaneously holds the record for the largest loss of personal fortune in history according to Guinness World Records (he lost approximately $165 billion in 2022 when Tesla stock crashed).
His leadership style has been referred to as “nano-management” which apparently describes the most extreme case of micromanaging. In 2021 he publicly announced that he had Asperger’s syndrome while hosting Saturday Night Live. He is currently a defendant in 24 lawsuits. His impulsive behavior and political statements have been widely criticized.
Like all humans, he is a mixed bag.
He has endured great loss and achieved remarkable success.
But we can certainly learn from his philosophy of successful failures.
The next time you face a setback at work, reflect on this: What can you or your team learn?
The next time you face a rupture in an important relationship, ask yourself how you can grow and stretch.
The next time you react badly with your children, meditate on how you can respond better tomorrow.
How can you begin to shift your mindset toward even intentionally trying things that might not work out, knowing that the feedback and learning might lead to your greatest breakthroughs?
This is a skill that only comes with practice and engagement. It cannot be built through avoidance and fear.
Failure as feedback.
“Fall seven times, stand up eight.” –Zen Proverb
Have a great weekend!
Want more? Suggested Resources
- Return to Space Netflix Series
- Elon Musk