I hate audiobooks. I consider my $149.50 Gold Membership to Amazon’s Audible one of the worst investments of the year. It’s not Audible; it’s me. Two things usually happen: the author will make some point in the introduction and then my mind will run. That’s great until I come back into orbit in chapter 3. That happens or I fall straight to sleep.
And then Ashlee Vance’s audiobook Elon Musk: Tesla, Space X, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future was recommended to me by a priest friend… Elon’s story has me captivated!
Elon Musk co-founded two startups in Silicon Valley in the 90’s; we know one of them today as PayPal. But when Ebay bought PayPal in 2002 for $1.5 billion, Elon didn’t just sit on his $165 million return. That’s when he got to work. Today, Elon runs three companies (Space X, Tesla, Solar City) and his net worth is over $14.2 billion.
Lots of people have lots to say about Elon Musk: “He’s a visionary.” “No, he’s insane.” “He’s inspiring.” “No, he’s a narcissist.” I’m not here to make judgments on him, his vocabulary, his personal life, or his business practices. I want to highlight one thing:
Elon Musk takes the status quo in his hands and he snaps it across his knee.
Let’s take two examples: the car and the rocket. You say that you can’t make attractive electric cars. Elon says: the Model S. You respond by saying that those attractive electric cars can’t also be affordable. Elon says: well, the Model 3. Fine, you concede the car thing. But the rockets… You say that rockets are for nation states; it costs billions of government dollars to launch rockets into space! Elon says: the Falcon 9 for a fraction of the cost at $60 million/launch. The latest one was launched just this morning; they stuck the landing! Dare you say that it’s impossible to go to Mars?
Working for Elon is more than a job. It’s a way of life. It consumes you.
Space X and Tesla recruit the very best and brightest. These people are overworked, perhaps under-paid, and yet, entirely dedicated. 40 hours are sometimes logged by Tuesday. Blue Origin (BO :), a competitor in the private rocket industry, is known to have poached Space X employees for double the rate.
But that’s not all. Then there’s the constant pressure to make everything quicker, cheaper, and better than any of their competitors. A private company doesn’t have billions of dollars to throw away after all. They do as much in-house work as possible. They invent what they need to.
My favorite story comes from chapter 9. One of Elon’s best Space X engineers (Davis) asks for $120,000 to pay for a part called an actuator for the Dragon capsule. Elon says: well that’s nothing other than a glorified garage door opener. Your budget is $5,000. So Davis got to work. And after 9 months, he spent hours nervously crafting his lengthy email report to Elon concluding that he was able to make it for $3,900. Elon responded in one minute with one word: “Ok.” That’s Elon. He expected nothing less.
The turnover rates at these companies are high. But what is amazing is that many seem to consider it the time of their lives! They feel empowered. They’ve got a big task. A lot is riding on them. And time and time again, they make the impossible possible.
Why do people put themselves through this hell?
Two large posters of Mars hang side by side in the hallway that leads to Elon’s cubicle at Space X. That’s the mission: inter-planetary travel. Everything and everyone is consumed by it. Elon plans to retire there. Seriously.
Elon seems to be an atheist from the fragments I’ve gathered. Theology aside (and perhaps philosophy too) I think that Church people have a lot to learn from him.
John Henry Newman had it right when he said that one of the notes of Catholicism’s veracity is its power of assimilation. Throughout the past two thousand years, the Church has embraced truths found in many surprising places, and brought them to fulfillment in the Person of the Truth. It takes the good. Redeems it. And leaves the bad to decay and die. Examples: The Scriptures from the Hebrews. Philosophy from the Greeks. Biblical literacy from the Protestants.
What I’ve taken away from Elon has little to do with electric cars or rockets. I’ll leave that to him. But it’s that vision, that asking for more, that demand for excellence that has consumed my prayer over the past two weeks. He looks at reality and he asks in that waning South African accent: How can this be better tomorrow than it was today for the good of the human race?
It’s a very common thing for people in Church world to justify present courses of action by saying: “It’s always been this way” or “That’s just the way it is.” And we slap bible verses on our bland initiatives and bad websites and expect them to work like magic. Not good enough.
My question: Can we see/ask/demand like Elon? Can we do this as a Church? Can we ask the questions that no one else asks? Can we have a healthy aversion to the status quo? Can we make new what is old?
Please do not mistake me or snub me. This isn’t about “advancing doctrine”. I’m not arguing for some kind of re-emergence of the theological and moral flexibility characteristic of the 70’s. And don’t over-spiritualize this either: Yes, of course, we need to see/ask/demand like Jesus. Elon’s a man like you and me.
I’m trying to ask more questions about the things that we don’t ask questions about anymore: What is the purpose of a parish? Can parish life be focused more on discipleship and less on programming? Can rectories be places of fraternity rather than isolation? Is there a place for the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience in lay life? How can married couples more intensely image the love of Christ for his Church? Have the laity been commissioned to sanctify the world as Vatican II so clearly taught? Have early readings of St. John Paul’s Theology of the Body gotten to the core? Is it possible to live the contemplative life amidst the distractions and abstractions of a technological age? Is a Catholic Movement possible in the United States; one that will endure the persecution?
What does it mean for the Church to go to Mars?
We Church people often say that there is nothing more important to us than our faith. But, why is it that Elon and his people at Tesla and Space X often seem more dedicated to making cars and launching rockets than we are to making known the saving encounter with Jesus Christ?
This Task, this Cause, this Mars is as complex and fascinating as the interplay of grace and nature within the heart of every human person. The goal is NOT to be quicker or cheaper. But we can certainly be better: “…for the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8). Let’s learn from Elon. For Mars.
Author’s note: I recently read an article called “Apple should buy Tesla – and make Elon Musk its CEO.” I almost called this post “The Catholic Church should sponsor rockets to Mars – and make Elon Musk the Pope”. But I prudentially refrained, lest this seem like a call to action to overthrow Pope Francis.