If Elon Musk Had an Edit Button for His Career, This Is What He Said He’d Do Differently

Thursday was a busy day for the world’s wealthiest person. Not only did Elon Musk initiate a hostile takeover attempt of Twitter, but he also sat for an interview on stage at the TED conference with host Chris Anderson.

Considering the Twitter thing, there were obvious questions, like “why buy Twitter?”

“This is not a way to sort of make money,” Musk responded. “My strong, intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted, and is broadly inclusive, is extremely important to the future of civilization.”

While that part of the interview was certainly the most timely–and got most of the attention–I found another question Anderson asked to be far more interesting. It also happens to be a powerful lesson for every leader.

“If you could go back in time and change one decision you made along the way, your own edit button, which one would it be and why?” Anderson asked.

The question was clearly meant to be clever considering Musk has said that an edit button for tweets is one of the things he would bring to Twitter. Still, It’s a good question.

I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t wish they could change something about their life or their career. We’ve all made plenty of mistakes and choices that didn’t turn out the way we expected. In those cases, it’s hard not to wish we had an edit button.

Musk’s answer, however, was remarkably candid–something we don’t usually get from CEOs. “So we basically messed up almost every aspect of the Model 3 production line,” Musk answered. “From cells, to packs, to drive motors, the body line, the paint shop, final assembly, everything. Everything was messed up.”

Musk has said previously that the Model 3 is almost bankrupted the company– that it was within a month of going under. It’s clear from his answer that the stress of keeping Tesla from failing took a deep toll on him.

“I lived in the Fremont and Nevada factories for three years fixing that production line… running around like a maniac through every part of that factory. Living with the team. I stepped on the floor so that the team who is going through a hard time could see me on the floor that they knew that I was not in some ivory tower.”

There are a few powerful lessons in his answers. The first is that having the self-awareness to realize that you messed up is one of the most important factors in success. That’s pretty simple, really. If you aren’t successful, but you can’t acknowledge that reality or figure out why, the chances of your circumstances changing aren’t very good.

At the time, Tesla was at a tipping point. Musk has said on more than one occasion that the most important thing Tesla builds isn’t its electric vehicles. It’s the “machine that builds the machine.”

His point is that in order for Tesla to be successful at making EVs something that the mass market will buy, it has to be able to build them at scale. That, it turns out, is a massive challenge. Figuring out how to solve that problem was the key to the company’s success today.

Presumably, what Musk is saying is that he’d get more things right earlier, so he could avoid what he referred to as “three years of hell.” The thing is, sometimes you have to go through the wilderness before you arrive at the promised land.

I think it’s also worth mentioning that Musk was personally invested, and personally involved in fixing the problem. Most of the time, a leader who gets that involved in the day-to-day operations means that the organization has a real problem. In this case, it was clear that Tesla had a real problem. The future of the company was at stake and that meant Musk had to be all in.

You can argue that sleeping on the floor of the factory is a little extreme, but I think the example he was trying to set for his team is worthwhile. Every team takes its cue from the leader. There’s no question the message Musk was sending–that “this is the most important thing I can be doing with my time.”

I’m sure he’d like to do the Model 3 production and rollout differently. The lessons they provide, however, are worth remembering.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

Leave a Comment