Editor’s note: This article was drafted before the death of Tom Petty last October. We are printing it in the original tense used before Tom’s passing.
People remain awestruck by Elon Musk’s accomplishments. Writers continue to write about him. Readers continue to read about him. This writer’s interest has been drawn to the underpinnings which formed the man that Elon is today. When first musing over Musk, it occurred to me that Elon was tracking the mythical “Hero’s Journey,” which sponsored the essay “What Do Elon Musk, Frodo Baggins, & Luke Skywalker Share In Common?“
Still focusing on the building blocks that make people be the way they are and do the things they do, the question is posed today: What do Elon Musk, Bono, and Tom Petty share in common? They, along with scores of other famous people — from Henry Ford to Steve Jobs — share a common yet less known component. It’s not music. Musk doesn’t have any Grammys to my knowledge. Plus, each man was born in a different decade. And their significant other relationships have all played out quite differently.
One thing the men certainly have in common is extraordinary success in their respective fields. But why them, and others like them? The reasons are surely manifold, but one element is that they all were rebels. Angry rebels at that. Such people have an inner fire burning that propels them forward when others may have folded their hands after contemplating the deck that was stacked against them. For these men, though, their rebel drive comes from interactions with their parents at a young age. They all experienced what is usually termed a “difficult childhood.” It is arguably the dynamic between each child and his respective parents that tempered them enough to withstand the extraordinary rigors they would face in adulthood.
Now hold on a second. This is not going to be one of those articles where the author tries to play psychoanalyst and tells you what he thinks motivates these three people. Rather, it’s going to be one of those articles where the people will speak for themselves.
In the Peter Bogdanovich Rockumentary “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream,” author and MTV executive Bill Flanagan had an interesting conversation with Tom Petty on the topic of his early childhood. But first, expanding on a theme Flanagan had previously locked onto, Bill relates a conversation he once had with Bono of the Irish rock group U2.
Flanagan: “I was always struck by how many great rock musicians lost their mothers when they were very young. That would be Lennon and McCartney, the guys in U2, Madonna, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, Sinéad O’Connor. It becomes an incredible list … if you look for it.” … “I said that to Bono once — both he and Larry Mullen of U2 lost their mothers when they were kids. …”
Bono: “It seems like the untold story of rock-and-roll is either your mother died or your father hated you. … And, if like me, you were lucky enough to have both, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish!”
In the same documentary, Tom Petty explained how his fraught relationship with his father along with his mother’s premature death ignited his ambition, creativity, and rage.
Says Petty, “Those two factors, the dangerous shadowy figure of a dad and the sweet mum who left too early in your life, gives you a certain drive. There was an extreme rage in me that from time to time would show its head. … Any sort of injustice just outraged me. I just couldn’t contain myself. And this comes from my dad just being so incredibly verbally abusive to me. He was certainly physically abusive at times and would give me pretty good beatings.”
Flanagan notes, “Some kind of anger … beyond normal teenage rebellion, like a rocket fuel, draws artists like Petty into taking stands in adulthood against malevolent forces.” Petty built his band’s worldwide fan base over 35 years with great songs and music, but also by famously refusing to make the normal compromises many artists make to get ahead. One giant record company tried to grab Petty’s publishing rights to his songs. Another sought to exploit the growing popularity of “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” by raising record prices across the board.
Petty strenuously fought both record companies, telling them “Look, I will sell fucking peanuts before I give in to you.” The music business collectively gasped when both record companies eventually caved, finally realizing that Petty was never going to back down.
Flanagan sums up a core component of the drive that Bono and Petty share: “You don’t get to where you got to, from where you started out, unless you have something to prove to somebody who’s not listening to you.”
If you read the Ashlee Vance biography of Elon Musk, you soon learn that Musk too had a difficult childhood. In Vance’s biography, Elon is quoted as saying “It would certainly be accurate to say I did not have a good childhood.” Although Elon did not lose his mother, he speaks of mostly growing up on his own, his parents not all that present (they divorced when he was 8). In a telling Rolling Stone interview from last November, Elon quipped “I was raised by books. Books, and then my parents.”
So there it is. Each of the them — Bono, Tom, and Elon — experienced a form of what could be termed “A Boy Named Sue” syndrome. A lyric from that famous Johnny Cash song — where Cash comes across the father who abandoned him and is now going to kill him — plays like this: “So you ought to thank me before I die, for the gravel in your gut and the spit in your eye. ‘Cause I’m the son-of-a-bitch that named you Sue.”
Although each man in our story expresses it differently, the catalyst was similar. For Musk, both Vance’s biography and the Rolling Stone piece paint a picture that Elon felt he was not supported in achieving greatness. Now some would say that greatness came to Musk not because of his upbringing, but in spite of it. But that misses the point. Greatness came to Elon as a direct result of his childhood experiences. Those events were the grains of sand that formed the pearl. What appears on the surface as highly negative encounters — both at home and at school — were arguably the exact circumstances required to steel him for success in his extreme career path. To move forward no matter what. To drop the word “impossible” from his vocabulary. To never back down.
As Flanagan says … rocket fuel.
What Does It All Mean?
Elon Musk, Tom Petty, and Bono were formed as square pegs in a rounded society. But rather than allow themselves to be worn down to fit the mold … they broke it. Does that mean all those troubled childhood rebels out there will become wildly successful by going their own way? Of course not. It seems there are a lot of moving parts with regard to what molds a human being, not the least of which are fate, destiny, and, some would say, karma. But there may be a lesson to learn from this trio’s experiences, even for those with so-called normal childhoods.
We, all of us, share something important with these three men. They were each wounded. They were emotionally scarred. That’s the commonality. Do you know anyone who is not emotionally wounded in some way, either bruised by their parents, societal oppression, or from the effects of some other circumstances? I had a psychologist tell me once that human beings aren’t designed to withstand the rigors of life (a rather profound statement).
The lesson may be that there is a flip side to the damage we incur as children and/or adults. Musk, Petty, and Bono leveraged their wounds in a productive way … in a manner that has had profound effects on others. We can’t all be great lyricists, musicians, engineers, or entrepreneurs, but we can take notes from those who found a way to make lemonade from their lemons. Maybe we can — for lack of better words — recontextualize our emotional scars in such a way that we are not victims of them.
For some of us, it may begin with a reckoning of our own scar tissue. We tend to cover our wounds with pretense. We disavow them. Which of course doesn’t work. But we keep trying. Sometimes all our lives. What if we instead did the opposite? What if we looked at our wounds straight on and asked how we may have benefited from those experiences? Our three heroes in this essay share one other commonality in that they have all spoken openly about their childhoods. The message: Maybe someone actually did you a favor when they wounded you. Whether they knew it or not. That’s a startling notion, but regardless, at the end of the day, are we not free to hold such events in whatever light we choose? What would it be like to acknowledge the wounds — at least to ourselves — and choose to see them in a new light? To realize that all of us humans are in the same boat, and take inspiration from others who have used all their gifts to make a difference.
In his frank honesty, is it possible that Elon Musk has done us all yet another service?
“Cicely” — An episode of ’90s TV show Northern Exposure. An inspiring tale of the trials faced by two determined people who changed a world.