YAGBEM - Ya ain't gonna be Elon Musk
The story of my almost-catastrophic encounter with ambition.
Yep, I thought I was going to do something big with my life as Elon Musk has. It was when I believed that doing "something big" was the epitome of a meaningful life.
Nowadays, having gone past that phase, I'm constantly nagged by this feeling that this might be one of the biggest mental hurdles that young people (mostly men) don't know that they will have to learn to jump over. Let's interrogate that feeling.
Even from the vantage point of being a mature 32-year-old adult, I still don't think I was delusional. A big part of me still believes that if I wanted to and tried very, very hard, I still stand a chance at creating an ultra-impactful company like Tesla, just as Elon Musk did.
The bus ride and the book
For me, all of this grew out of a bus ride that, for all other purposes, was uneventful.
Two friends and I were riding a bus somewhere in London. We were university freshmen on vacation at the time, I believe. During the ride, one of my friends reached into his backpack and took out a book with a black and white cover featuring a man with great hair smiling.
"What book is that?" I asked.
"It's Richard Branson's autobiography, Losing My Virginity," he replied coolly before adding, "I find this guy super inspiring. He has built several billion-dollar businesses from scratch!"
(You know I'm a little older than most young people these days when I'm talking about Richard Branson as the entrepreneurship guy.)
A day later, I went to the nearest bookstore in London and bought a copy for myself and read it over the next few days. I, too, was inspired by Richard Branson's ability to identify opportunities and seize them, all the time having what seemed like fun. The mindset I kept after reading the book was, "If someone could do it, so can I." I still have this mindset.
It was Richard Branson then, and now it is Elon Musk. These icons somehow made their way into my boyish consciousness.
A rendezvous in Silicon Valley
This mindset stayed with me throughout university and as it did, my ambition grew quietly but steadily.
But you can't just believe that you can do great things without believing that you actually will. So I enrolled in my university's entrepreneurship program and I was incredibly happy when I got accepted after several rounds of interviews. I was still in my first year of university then. The program involved 6-12 months of internship at a startup and had two tracks: overseas or local.
I applied for the local, less prestigious track because - and I said this verbatim to the program administrator - "I have a girlfriend who I intend to marry, and I don't want to risk breaking up with her over a long-distance relationship." (Spoiler: It was a great decision as she's the person I later married.)
The administrator looked at me, paused, let out a faint smile, and said, "Are you sure? This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Uh, no, I wasn't sure. What things are a 22 year old sure about? Till this day I can't say with certainty if it was because I wanted to follow through with my what I had already said or if it was because I genuinely believed that the tradeoff was a good one, but I said, "Yes, I'm sure. I'd like to enrol in the local program."
Turns out, the students who signed up to go overseas went to hot new startups in the Bay Area (Silicon Valley) using our university's connections to Stanford University. Many of them would later be extended an offer and sponsorship to work in the US for those startups after they graduated. Living in the US was a dream for me since I was a child. Once in a lifetime opportunity indeed, and that ship sailed without me.
Well, actually, I did get a taste of Silicon Valley on a two-week "study mission" as part of the local program. Boy did I quench my thirst for ambition in those two weeks.
Breaking point in Rome
Close to university graduation, my girlfriend and I travelled to London, Paris, Rome, and Lyon with both our families in tow. (Not one of our finest ideas.) On that trip came the breaking point of our relationship because my ambition had ballooned to new heights.
I was contemplating business ideas that I would pursue after graduation. I was finally going to get started on building a business! But then she laid it on me: apparently, I had not been emotionally present for months. She told me that whenever we would get into an argument, I would matter-of-factly say that she was being too sensitive about everything, and on the rare occasions when she teared up, I would always stay cold and my eyes always dry.
One evening in Rome, after returning to the hotel from dinner with our families, my wife pulled me aside and said we needed to talk. Everyone else retired to their rooms.
I remember the scene poignantly. It was summer in Rome at the time (hot and humid), and we sat by the curb outside the hotel lobby, just off to the side so we could talk alone.
"I need you to choose," she started. "Do you care more about changing the world or being with me?" She was always a strong woman, but her eyes burned with a resolve I hadn't seen before. I knew immediately that she was giving me an ultimatum.
"These few weeks have been horrible. We are supposed to be having a great time travelling Europe, but we're quarrelling more than we've had. I feel like I've lost the sensitive and warm-hearted version of you to something. If I were to guess, you probably lost it to your big ambitions."
It's funny when I look back upon that moment in my life because up to that point, I had not even done anything remotely ambitious compared to the likes of Elon Musk or Richard Branson. I hadn't even started a business. Yet, in preparing to, I had already lost parts of me. What would I have had to sacrifice had I stuck to my vague, bloated dreams of changing the world?
"I'm sorry," I replied flatly, looking half-heartedly for my elusive tears. I didn't feel emotional, but I wanted to. That unfeelingness lit a red light in my mind. What is wrong with me? This is serious. Your relationship could end tonight if you don't wake up. Do you not see? Can you not feel it?
"If I were to do big things, I will need to be able to focus on my work," I explained. "I'm not naive to think that I can create change in this world without having to sacrifice some time and energy that could be invested into our relationship..."
She had broken into tears by now, her hands wrapped around her knees, face buried between them.
I didn't know what else to say but I knew that if I continued to explain my rationale for being absent, she might walk away from our 7-year relationship right there and then. This thought - this fear - triggered me, and I started to think about the incredible times we've had dating back to when we were both still in secondary school and madly in love.
We had been through a lot before we were there in Rome. If not for her, I would likely not even have attended university. She was the one who sacrificed her time and energy in secondary school to teach me chemistry and physics and mathematics. Before I met her, I ranked something like 35th out of 40 in my class. A short year of dating later, I was first in my class and second in the entire school for the GCE 'O' Levels examinations. Talk about having an impact on someone's life!
That was when I crossed over from attending a "neighbourhood" secondary school to an elite junior college and university later on. That was when my life changed completely when several doors swung wide open.
And it wasn't just the debt that I felt like I owed her that shook me. It was the fact that we were having fun while we simultaneously reached new heights in both our student lives. She was there with me from when my life really started, laughing and dreading and fooling around and crying all the way.
But somehow, as I recollected these fond memories and am faced with an ultimatum to our relationship, my tear ducts remained dry. The red light in my mind turned neon red by this point. Something in me has gone missing, I remember hearing my inner voice say. But at the same time, I was overwhelmed by the gratitude I felt for having her in my life.
I looked at her and said, "I don't know when my ambition took control of how I thought and felt but you're right..."
"Who would I share the joy of achieving anything if you're not around?" I elaborated, the matter-of-fact tone slowly melting away. "I cannot think of anyone else I would like to share the joyful moments of my life with."
It was then that I chose my relationship with one person over the potential to "change the world." Saying "you are right, I will change" saved our relationship. We got married later and are now happily devoted to co-tackling the new biggest challenge of our lives - raising our daughter together in Europe. I honestly haven't been happier in my life.
Sacrifice is the big question
I think the reason why every young person believes they can be Elon is that the media (and his own Twitter account) keeps putting the highlight reel of his business career in our faces. Invested USD 100 million of his first windfall into building a space company. Becomes world's richest man. Buys Twitter. And then sometimes a tantalising story about how the non-rocket scientist learned to reason in first principles and is the Chief Engineer of said space company.
The narrative of Elon in my mind, painted by the media and his tweets, is this: if you are smart and hardworking, you can learn anything and change the world through business. You can have fun shitposting on twitter for PR, too.
And I think this narrative isn't so much wrong as it is terribly understated. I find that being hardworking and smart is a winning formula too, but the word "hardworking" in cases like Elon and Richard is deceptively innocuous. The sacrifices and pains are huge.
(Edit on 5 June 2022: My friend Reka, who read this post, sent me a link to a YouTube video that is narrated by Justine Musk, Elon’s first and now ex-wife. I hadn’t watched it before but I wasn’t surprised by her narration of the problems she had to deal with in her relationship… Have a watch for yourself to see what kind of sacrifices are at play, not just on the part of Elon - in fact, even more on the part of his family.)
Younger me thought hardworking meant working maybe 8am to 8pm (already 3 hours more than the typical office worker!) and then seeing my family in the evening, and when the weekend swung around, chilling and going for a hike or watching a movie.
As a 32-year-old parent, I know that there's no way anyone builds a tenth of a company like Tesla or SpaceX with that kind of time and effort, sustaining that kind of lifestyle. To get to where Elon is, your work has to be your life.
You don't need to go home if you don't go big
The myth that I think I had unknowingly accepted, perhaps since that bus ride in London, was that I needed to do something big in my life for it to be meaningful. That, mixed with the feeling that because I'm privileged (or at least I felt that way), I had a moral obligation to try my best and help as many people as possible.
The myth, as I've learned, is that the number of people you help is really important. Hence, "go big or go home."
But that's harmful bullshit. Just ask my daughter (when she can utter a reply to you) if she ever felt like her dad should spend less time with her so that he can help more of the world. Or ask my wife if she feels that way. Perhaps someone's children or partner may say "uh, yes" or "go get 'em tiger!" but that's not us.
We believe that purposefully spending time listening, guiding, and supporting one person is just as important as building a billion-dollar company that employs tens of thousands of people. Again, that the number of people you affect is important is a myth, because affect can be deep and rich or shallow and dull.
What I'm doing nowadays is spending my limited time on this earth being kind and helpful (when wanted) to whoever I happen to encounter - be they at the workplace, the U-Bahn coffee shop, in the climbing gym, or at home.
(The part about "when wanted" is why a newsletter like this has become so appealing to me - everyone who is on my mailing list can directly signal to me, "Hey, whenever you're writing something that could be helpful, please send it my way!")
A related myth is that to become wealthy enough to enjoy your life you need to accomplish what people like Elon have. This is an old myth that I'm sure every millennial has read at least a dozen articles debunking, yet it is one that I know many people my age are still living in. I just need to work extra hard this quarter so my manager has something to work with when appraising me in the upcoming performance review and I'll get that promotion! After that we can go for a nice holiday...
I recently started a new job as a software engineer at a company that I admire and I got the job without ever "going big" and making big sacrifices that Elon has undoubtedly had to. At a company like Shopify, I feel like I'm making a meaningful impact on people's lives through my work as one of 13,000 employees. These days, there are plenty of workplaces where an individual contributor's life is respected and where their work creates impact.
If you are a young person thinking that you're going to be the next Elon Musk, I wish you all the willpower and luck (truly, I do, because I believe visionaries like him are great for humanity), but I hope my story here helps you see ahead that there is likely going to be a time you will need to choose something important over the other, and you'd better be ready to live with your choice.
I love this and appreciate your vulnerability. I've often had these thoughts as a teacher when I look at all of these writers who have been published and made an impact and "what have I done???" But I know that I've made an impact on certain individuals and the books are still out there to write and here I am on Substack writing as well. I don't want to lose myself or my family to make a difference. I can do both, just on a smaller scale.
Whenever I’m thinking that I need to do something big and to change the world I will remind myself of this Chinese saying: 修身，齊家，治國，平天下. You can Google the meaning of this to have a better understanding.