This article was originally published on Inc.
A little over a year ago, I picked up Ashlee Vance’s excellent biography of Elon Musk and couldn’t put it down. It inspired me to work harder, get smarter and strive to be better at everything I did.
While we all can’t be child prodigies (and real-life models for superheroes like Ironman), we can certainly study the lives of such people and learn from their examples.
One anecdote from Vance’s book particularly grabbed my attention. It involved Russia, missiles and a hypothetical trip to Mars.
Is your interest piqued yet?
Here are a few lessons I learned from that story, which I believe are instructive and inspiring for any entrepreneur.
1. Let Them Spit On You
In the late fall of 2001, Musk flew to Moscow with a couple of friends to buy a used intercontinental ballistic missile. He was looking to save money and figured Russia might sell him one for cheap.
His purpose for the rocket was to deliver some seeds to Mars and grow a garden.
The Russians weren’t interested. Jim Cantrell, who accompanied him, reported that “One of their chief designers spit on me and Elon because he thought we were full of s—.”
Starting a small business isn’t easy. We learn from the U.S. Small Business Administration that only half of all new small businesses survive five years or more; about one-third will make it 10 years.
Square up and ask yourself what you’re willing to risk to become successful. You’re going to experience failure. You’re going to get turned down for loans repeatedly.
If you want it badly enough, none of that matters. You’ll wear dismissal and defeat as badges of honor, because you know in your heart that achievement and suffering always go hand-in-hand.
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2. Let Them Spit On You Again
Musk flew back to Moscow at the beginning of 2002, filled to the brim with cash and optimism. Surely the Russians would see sense this time–and if not, millions of dollars might help.
They didn’t and it didn’t. “[The Russians] sat there and looked at him,” Cantrell recalled. “And said something like, ‘Young boy, no.'”
When I started my first small business, I got rejected for every kind of financing conceivable. Sometimes, the stress was so great and the obstacles were so overwhelming that I had to fight to get out of bed.
I got out of bed anyway. I painstakingly improved my credit until banks and suppliers began looking at me more favorably.
It was hard. Sometimes it was humiliating. But it was worth it. Stick to your guns, and you’ll look back on your struggles with pride.
3. Get Scientific and Solve Problems Yourself
After their second rebuff, Musk and his team returned to the airport and boarded a plane for home. As Cantrell and a companion settled back with a drink, they noticed Musk sitting in front of them typing busily away on his laptop.
“We’re thinking, ‘F—cking nerd,'” said Cantrell. “What can he be doing now?” Musk turned around and showed them a spreadsheet.
“‘Hey guys,’ he said. ‘I think we can build this rocket ourselves.'”
One of my favorite expressions is “nerd out.” To nerd out is to think like an engineer: to get excited about solving problems, to dig deep into a project and love it for its own sake.
It’s how Musk approaches every task, and it works.
Robert Zubrin, the head of the Mars Society, said that Musk “didn’t know a lot about space, but he had a scientific mind.” Vance wrote that, prior to his misadventures in Moscow, Musk had been “devouring books” with titles like Aerothermodynamics of Gas Turbine and Rocket Propulsion.
To a layman like me, that’s not a sexy subject. But it was to Musk, because he wanted to grow a garden on Mars. He understood that it would remain a pipe dream unless he did some serious homework on rocket science.
So master your subject like Musk mastered his. Thanks to the internet, you’ll have more learning resources at your fingertips than I did within a hundred miles when I launched my career.
Take heart, my fellow business nerds. We’re all in this together. Recommit yourself today to doing whatever it takes to win, and do the same thing tomorrow and the next day and the next.
Grow your own garden on Mars.
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