Case Studies

Elon Musk and the Success of Big Vision

“If something is important enough, even if the odds are against you, you should still do it.”
– Elon Musk

This blog is the first in a new series of case studies I’ll be providing to bring you stories and details of true movements that have made a difference in our world. My new focus is on movement building, inspired by my work in founding the U.S. and World Green Building Councils. I’ve synthesized our work into a 7-step BuildMoveTM framework that I’ll be teaching next March. You can learn if you’ve got what it takes to build your own movement and create lasting legacy by taking my new BuildMove Quiz.

There are good reasons why Elon Musk is the hottest name in Silicon Valley right now: he’s one of the few founders innovating in the engineering space rather than creating the next new app. Another reason I believe that Musk has found such great success is that his vision is big. And when I say big, I mean BIG! Elon Musk is a great example of the ability of one man to dream, strategize and implement. Many just dream, but Elon knows how to avoid the pitfalls and be nimble as he effectuates his grand vision.

Small Beginnings for Big Dreams

“Once you figure out the question then the answer is relatively easy.”
– Elon Musk

Elon Musk didn’t have the easiest childhood. He grew up in South Africa during a turbulent time near the end of the apartheid era. He was a nerd amidst a white Afrikaner culture that valued brawn over brains.

He did have brains. His first claim to fame was creating a video game at age 12 that made it into the pages of a computing magazine and earned him $500. But it takes more than brains to succeed. There are plenty of smart people in the world, but very few break through to create the kind of paradigm-shifting innovations that Musk has.

According to his biographer, Ashlee Vance, Musk was a bit of a misfit during his youth in South Africa. He was bullied and beaten during his school years in Pretoria, and was once so severely beaten by a gang of boys that he blacked out. His home life wasn’t easy either. He had a challenging relationship with a father who did his best to quash the young prodigy’s dreams.

Through all this, Elon Musk knew that he needed a better environment in which to realize his dreams and he did everything he could to get there. When he had the opportunity to emigrate to Canada at age 17, he packed his bags and jumped on a plane.

Nothing to Lose

In looking at Elon Musk’s life, you can’t help get the feeling that he follows the old exhortation to live each day as if it’s the last day of your life. Perhaps because the South Africa of his boyhood was so filled with danger and violence, Musk takes risks where others might hang back. In 2002, when he wanted to found a space exploration start-up and funders wouldn’t back him, he ponied up his own money to realize his vision.

There have been many times in Musk’s career when he could have lost everything. The path to his current success has not always been smooth. Tesla, the electric car company he heads, was not an overnight success. SpaceX rockets have, at times, crashed and burned. But Musk has not wavered.

“Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
– Elon Musk

BIG Vision, BIG Results

In my experience, achieving world-changing innovation is only possible if you dream big. Start with a vision that’s stupid big, that everyone tells you isn’t possible, that no one has thought of before or, if they have, they haven’t dared to take it seriously. Let that big vision fill you up and it will lift you higher than you thought possible. The big vision will sustain you during the hard work that lies ahead. We did this with both our founding of the U.S. Green Building Council and our LEED Green Building Rating System, and then also with the WorldGBC, which has become a UN of country GBCs [now comprising over half the world].

“The first step is to establish that something is possible; then probability will occur.”
– Elon Musk

Elon Musk didn’t just set out to create a rocket company or even to reduce the cost of space exploration by building reusable rockets (thereby reducing the cost of space travel to a fraction of what it is today). His vision is to colonize Mars, a vision that grew out of his desire to use his gifts to create a better future for humanity. As he surveyed the wreckage wrought by climate change, Musk thought the option to live on another planet made sense. He has stood by his vision and SpaceX has pioneered huge innovations in rocket engineering that make his vision seem less fantasy and more future probability every day.

Musk’s next efforts to improve the future of humanity have tackled global warming head on. With Tesla, he didn’t want to create a slightly greener version of the cars we were already driving. He designed a drool-worthy driving machine that doesn’t compromise on aesthetics, power, or clean energy. His vision is a fully-electric car with a long driving range and quick charging stations that make it a practical and useful alternative to gas-powered cars.

Elon Musk didn’t stop there. In 2016, Tesla announced plans to buy SolarCity, a solar company founded by his cousins, backed with funding from Musk, and based on one of his big ideas. SolarCity invested big in an innovative model for distributed solar: don’t sell solar panels to your customers, lease them instead. In effect, this allows SolarCity to become a utility whose energy generating capacity is dotted across the landscape on thousands of rooftops. Plus, the leasing model made solar accessible for customers who couldn’t afford the upfront costs of solar installation.

With the purchase of SolarCity, Musk moves forward on another one of his big visions: solve one of solar’s biggest problems (energy storage for the time when the sun isn’t shining) with one of Tesla’s biggest innovations: electric battery storage. He envisions electric cars sucking up solar energy from the grid during the day then feeding it back in at night. And Tesla has capitalized on its innovations in car batteries to create the Powerwall, a home battery system for storing energy from solar panels.

Elon Musk is a terrific example of the power of big vision to make big changes. His singularity of focus and refusal to compromise or back down or stick with what might be considered “realistic” has allowed him to move the needle on green innovation.

The world needs more Elon Musks. Perhaps the next great innovation will come from you. Join with me and other innovators and changemakers at the BuildMove Summit in 2017 to move your big vision to the next level.

Also, check out my new iTunes Podcast show called Regen360. I’ve enjoyed interviewing visionaries and movement builders like Elon Musk.