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Published on June 12th, 2016 | by Steve Bakker

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What Do Elon Musk, Frodo Baggins, & Luke Skywalker Share In Common?

June 12th, 2016 by  

Since reserving a Model 3, I’ve been streaming every video about Tesla and Elon Musk I can get my hands on. As the information regarding Mr. Musk’s background and career came streaming in, it suddenly dawned on me that the man had completed the classical tale of “The Hero’s Journey.” Are you familiar with the myth? If you don’t think you are, you actually are. You just haven’t gotten around to reading any Joseph Campbell and putting a name to it. If that is the case, may I fill you in on the myth and how well Elon fits into it?

Joseph CampbellMythologist, writer, and teacher Joseph Campbell popularized the idea of “myth” for his generation back in the middle of the 20th century. In his early 20s, sometime after graduating college with an MA in Medieval literature as well as a number of athletic awards for track and field events, Campbell decided that the next chapter in his life would be about going up to Woodstock, NY, to live alone in a shack for five years … and read.

When Campbell emerged from the woods, he brought with him a deep knowledge of ancient civilizations and their mythologies. Campbell had discovered that there are certain stories … tales … myths … that are common to all societies. Even remote civilizations having no contact with the outside world shared in these archetypal stories. One of the most popular of these myths is the tale of The Hero’s Journey, which Joseph relayed in his first book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The gist of the story is that a child growing up in the village is not entirely content with the world, and in fact is a bit of a misfit. The individual is not cut out to follow the path pursued by most others in the tribe, and at some point answers a calling to depart from home and embark on a journey of self-discovery and transformation. The departure of the hero often occurs at a time when the community has been exposed to a great danger. The hero steps into a new, seemingly magical world, meets many people, and has many adventures. During the journey, the hero undergoes a life-threatening ordeal in which great suffering is experienced. Ultimately, the hero not only survives the test (often with the aid of supernatural forces) but discovers a treasure, or what Joseph Campbell termed an “elixir” of great value. The hero returns home with the elixir and uses it to free the village from danger.

We see The Hero’s Journey played out repeatedly in classic literature, with tales such as Beowulf, Odysseus, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz … as well as in modern mythological tales such as with Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, Neo in The Matrix, and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. George Lucas was a fan of Joseph Campbell and credits the scholar with inspiring the Star Wars saga. Luke goes through the entire cycle of the hero myth: a darkness overshadowing the land, Luke being called to service, declining at first, being forced from his home to pursue an adventure, finding the courage to follow his path, and even receiving assistance from a “wizard” who saves his life (“You don’t need to see our identification” and “This little one’s not worth the effort… come, let me get you something”) and later urges Luke to victory (“use The Force, Luke”). Luke survives his ordeal to triumph over evil and free his people from tyranny.

Star Wars

But The Hero’s Journey is not just a template for storytelling. It plays out in life. Elon Musk’s life story fits into the myth amazingly well. In a Bloomberg “Risk Takers” documentary, Elon commented on his youth, describing himself as a misfit: “I was this this little book wormy kid, and probably a bit of a smart-aleck… so, this is a recipe for disaster… so I read a lot of books and tried to stay out of people’s way during school.” (Editor’s Note: There’s even a story told elsewhere of Elon being almost killed by bullies who threw him down some stairs and beat him unconscious.)

In the same documentary, his brother Kimball Musk commented: “When Elon was 10 years old he got tested by IBM, and he was found to have one of the highest aptitudes they had even seen for computer programming.” (The force is strong in this one.)

With conscription into the evil empire of apartheid looming, Elon chose to skip military service and leave home at the age of 17 in search of his own path. So began his journey. After a few years, he found his way to Silicon Valley, the place where he would discover his fortune. Elon has shared that before ever seeing Silicon Valley he had thought of it as much an idea as an actual place, stating: “I didn’t even know where it was… it sounded like some mythical place.”

There are several points along Elon’s path where the notion of facing death plays out. At the physical level, there is the instance of contracting Malaria, and later the near-James-Dean-style high-speed crash of his beloved McLaren F1. There’s the staircase story mentioned above. In a metaphorical context, a number of his extreme business enterprises (where virtual death is easy to come by) faced almost certain termination at some point. In fact, the challenges came to the hero lumped together in a mega-failure setup in which SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity were all on the verge of being ploughed under amidst the financial Armageddon occurring on Wall Street. Not to mention that Elon’s eight-year-old marriage was running out of gas. In a Hollywood-style climax, Musk puts the very last of his fortune into play, going all-in on a gambit to save Tesla. Venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, who knew Elon from when the inventor first landed in California, characterized the move as an “act of heroism” that incited others to follow him into the abyss (with further funding). Elon characterized the late 2008 events as “facing imminent death.” He’s also spoken of the notion that entrepreneurs must “eat glass while staring into the abyss … if you don’t chew the glass, you’re not going to be successful.” This can be construed as a euphemism for stepping into the path of danger and facing whatever comes.

In spite of what’s clearly been a remarkably painful experience, the hero summons the courage to continue. At various points in the journey, helpers have emerged at the right moment to give the hero a boost, such as Alan Cocconi of AC Propulsion appearing with an ideal powertrain for an electric car, and “angel” investors popping up with 11th-hour funding. I found it noteworthy that after three SpaceX failures, Elon, who does not appear to be a very religious man and has in fact been quoted as rejecting the idea of any sort of “master intelligence,” moments prior to the 4th and what might have been the final launch, is recorded on tape saying, “I’m just wishing to any entities that are listening, please, bless this launch.”

Elon MuskSuddenly, the ordeal is complete. The launch is successful. Tesla is saved. SolarCity takes off. The hero has passed the test and returns with treasure, not just for the village, but indeed all mankind. And an incomparable treasure it is. The elixir is not just existing technologies being put to work in new and productive ways. It’s not simply opening the door to affordable space exploration, or to sustainable energy production. It’s arguably the promise of a new chapter in world history as an age-old system of thinking introduced by Aristotle (“first principles reasoning”) is reactivated by Musk as a tool to plan the future.

Elon Musk aviator glasses

Elon Musk photo by Steve Jurvetson (some rights reserved).

Many have taken The Hero’s Journey. Elon Musk happens to be an extreme and very public example. You likely know of someone who has embarked on or completed the ordeal. Perhaps yourself. We can look to Elon’s story for inspiration to find the courage — at the moment it’s needed — to press forward on your own path. Elon was tested perhaps more severely than others … and survived. His journey gives us a contemporary reference model to go by.

But take care. People have a tendency to idealize their heroes. Heroes are not perfect. I promise you, Elon Musk is a flawed, imperfect human being, just as you and I are. Deficiency is baked into the cake. If we think of our heroes’ as blemished, then we won’t be disillusioned when they make mistakes. We won’t have illusions in the first place. Most people, fail or succeed, are doing their best, and Elon Musk is no exception. Consider giving him some leeway when he fails to meet your expectations. Most importantly, forgive yourself whenever you “fail” on your own journey. Failure is part of the process. Without failure, there is no success, just as without darkness, there is no light.

Let’s close with quotes from both Campbell and Musk. Joseph: “Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid … and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” Elon: “Never give up … really like what you do.” (2 of his 10 rules for success).


References

Most of the quotes in this post come from the documentary Elon Musk, How I became the Real ‘Iron Man.’

Speaking about a ‘master intelligence’ (22:15)

Short video with Elon explaining “first principles reasoning” and 10 rules for success.

Tells story of McLaren crash as part of an informative one hour interview.

More info on The Hero’s Journey:

Wiki article.

Short video presentation.

A 7-minute video on the subject.





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About the Author

is a semi-retired teacher, writer, and technologist who is currently passing time by attempting to cure his ignorance as to how electric cars work.



  • YeahRightPal

    What a steaming pile of BS. Elon is a entrepreneurial con man.

    The only rule of success Musk has is to “find out what pie-in-the-sky, utopian pipedream product or service the current administration is in love with, ‘invent’ it and accept the largesse of various federal, state and local government agencies.

    Good luck with that Model 3 reservation. Did Tesla try to upsell you to the S yet? Take it as a warning.

  • A. Max

    Thank you for writing an article that is up to par with Elon. YAWN to the naysayers. Elon is courage personified… a visionary who is the real deal & doing so much to help save our beautiful sacred Earth and humanity. Tell me the last time a billionaire put his personal fortune on the line and would do it again to save Earth? Thank you Elon ? We love you and support you, even when some of us are too jealous to admit it ? He is indeed one of the main heroes in our story of Earth. Go Elon!

  • Ha. Interesting 😀

  • Necro Nomaken

    I’d like to point something out. We have so many super hero movies out now that one might forget that there is a much much much lower bar for a “hero”. Superheroes are extraordinary people who do extraordinary things. Heroes are just normal people who do extraordinary things. I think it’s arguable that musk qualifies. He has founded 4 different, successful companies. 3 of which are iconic namebrands now (paypal, tesla, and spaceX), 2 of which are ground-breaking(tesla and spaceX) and 1 of which is the first PRIVATE company to launch and orbit spacecraft. And 3 of those ventures are companies EXPLICITLY founded and developed to make the world a better place and advance the human species(solarcity, tesla, and spaceX). If musk stopped right now, he’d be a historical figure on par with Henry Ford. And he’s probably NOT going to stop.

  • Necro Nomaken

    They’re all pretty boys?

    • Ross

      While Elon isn’t bad looking he’s not hollywood good looking.

      • Necro Nomaken

        He isn’t wearing make up. You give him the same treatment as they gave mark hamill or elijah wood and all the boys and girls will swoon.

        • Ross

          I’m sure the actor playing Elon in the inevitable biopic will be a stunner.

          • dRanger

            Sure – just look at the guy with the electric airplane idea in the the first Ironman movie. Awesome.

          • brunurb

            I see what you did there 🙂

            btw it was Iron Man 2:
            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EuG2AVFB-g0

          • dRanger

            After watching politics for a while, I think I too am entitled to my own reality and my own set to of facts. In my world, it was the first movie. 😉

          • You can always change your mind in a few moments, and then change it back, depending on who you’re talking to and whether they prefer facts or fiction.

          • dRanger

            Yeah, you know, pandering used to be a big issue with some voters. Remember republican concern over Kerry’s “flip-flopping” in 2004? Big big deal.

  • Hridayesh Gupta

    Tim,

    A job title does not make a hero. A cop, firefighter or soldier does not make a hero. Spraying water on a burning building is not heroic. That is part of job description. Entering into a a burning building and saving a life while risking one’s own life is heroic. Saving lives by it self is not heroic. Doctors do it all the time but that again is part of job description. One needs to go beyond what is normally done.

    Whatever Elon is doing, will happen eventually. Elon is a hero because he has the audacity to not believe in the slow progress. Instead of preaching from the sidelines, he is trying to tackle the problems of tomorrow today. In this process he takes big risks and that makes his actions heroic.

    • Timothy A Clawson

      Yes, but firefighters do more then just pour water on a fire. Their duties often require them to enter burning buildings, to get better access to a fire, or to check if there is anyone trapped inside. As a result they put themselves at risk of injury or death (That follows your definition as a hero). Musk is not actually entering burning buildings. He is not risking his life in any way. All he is doing selling expensive cars to the wealthy. Yes he is doing it for environmental problems, but millions of men and women in the world are working to save the environment. Also many large companies (such as Nissan, Toyota, Panasonic, LG, Solarworld, Cree, etc) are contributing more to green products then Musk is doing with Tesla, and they are doing it at a more affordable price.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Actually, Toyota is doing about nothing.

        And I’m afraid you still haven’t grasped what Musk and Tesla have accomplished. As long as you’ve got that great big solid block of “All he is doing selling expensive cars to the wealthy. ” you aren’t likely to figure out why so many of us admire what Musk (and the other folks at Tesla) has done.

        Pay attention. People are giving you information that you probably ought to have on board.

  • Timothy A Clawson

    Why are we glamerizing Elon Musk anyway. Why are we treating like he is a hero or a god. He is no more a hero then Jim Kelly of the Buffalo Bills or mo more a god then the Beatles. Elon Musk is a overpaid business man making toys (Teslas) for the super rich. There might be people in the world that deserve to be called a hero (Police Officers, Firefighters, cops, etc) Elon Musk is not one of them.

    • Frank

      Depends on your definition of hero, but Elon is 1 in a billion. Any “”insert explative” can sit back and criticise. What he did took large measures of skill, tenacity, and he took huge personal risk, and what he accomplished is huge. What have you done that even begins to compare?

    • Bob_Wallace

      Tim, perhaps you’ve heard about climate change? About how if we don’t quit using fossil fuels we will truly screw our planet.

      Musk is moving technology that will let us quit using petroleum for transportation and quit very rapidly.

      You obviously don’t understand what Musk and Tesla are doing if you think they’re all about making toys for the super rich. The luxury car they produce is the route to building their company up in order to build a mid-price range EV for those who would otherwise by lower priced BMWs, Mercedes, cars in that price range. And the mid-price range EV (Model 3) is expected to grow the company larger so that they can start manufacturing long range EVs that will compete with Camrys, Civics, and that level gasmobile.

      Without Tesla the car industry would probably have taken a decade or more longer to bring out affordable long range EVs. Tesla, and Musk, are forcing the industry to change much more rapidly.

      • Timothy A Clawson

        Yes but how about making a car that I can afford. Teslas cost more then my house. Affordable electric cars (such as Nissan leaf) are also costly and are too limited to be useful (I can’t go on a 700 mile road trip to visit my father in Tennessee without having to stop 7-14 times to recharge)

        • Bob_Wallace

          Tesla, Round 1. A very expensive roadster (The Roadster).

          Tesla, Round 2. A very nice sedan priced considerably less than the Roadster (The Model S).

          Tesla, Round 3. A very nice 20% smaller sedan priced about half as much as the S. (The Model 3)

          Tesla, Round 4. We don’t know anything about what this car will look like but we know that Tesla intends to market a long range EV for a price less than the Model 3.

          BTW, if you were to purchase a $35,000 Model 3 it would cost you the same monthly out of pocket as a $28,000 gas or diesel car.

          (100% financing at 4.5% with a 6 year payoff. 13,000 miles per year. 12c/kWh electricity and $3/gallon fuel.)

          That’s without the federal subsidy. Take the fed subsidy and the Model 3 would cost the same as a $22,000 gas or diesel car.

          If you can afford a Camry then you could afford the Tesla Model 3. If you act quickly enough to get the subsidy before it runs out.

    • Joe Viocoe

      Sports and Music may not matter, other than to give entertainment. But to enable an alternative to transportation without the need for pollution or furthering our impact on climate change… is indeed something to praise.

    • john

      Yes the first vehicles were built for the better off which financed the situation that the company can now build vehicles that the not so blessed can buy and once the Model 3 is bedded down the next iteration will be a very affordable vehicle that will be absolutely compelling.
      The ethos of the the company is not about making a heap of money but actually doing something to change the direction in one area of society.
      If this just happens to be profitable perhaps the underlying value of the product is noteworthy and the correct product to put on the market.

    • Marion Meads

      Remember that many Americans consider Donald Trump as a hero. Would you rather have Donald Trump or Elon Musk? I would write-in Elon Musk as President over Hillary or Trump.

      • Yikes….

      • brunurb

        except Elon is not eligible for the Presidency…. but I get your point 🙂

      • Timothy A Clawson

        Sorry but I’m a Bernie Sanders Supporter. Elon Musk would be certenely be better then Hillary or Trump but I don’t know how a Mult-imillionare businessman llike Musk would fare as a president. Wold he have any concideration for little people like me or just favor his millioare buddies. He certenely does not make cars for us little people can afford.

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