Elon Musk has made a name for himself as an innovative entrepreneur in banking (PayPal), cars (Tesla Motors), rocketry (SpaceX), and alternative energy (SolarCity). He's a very driven, very smart man. He's a billionaire, the 20th richest person in Los Angeles. But at today's California Institute of Technology graduation is Pasadena, he was surrounded by more brainpower than even he's used to, and it was humbling.
Musk's commencement address capped an impressive few months for the CEO. The model for the Tony Stark character played by Robert Downey, Jr. in the "Iron Man" and "Avengers" movies just completed the first successful commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station. In a week, Tesla will begin deliveries of its Model S sedan. He's on a roll.
But so is Caltech. So the 526 graduates of the 2012 class at all academic levels were ready to receive Musk's inspiration and wisdom. He didn't disappoint. "You guys are the magicians of the 21st century," he said. "Don't let anything hold you back. Go out there and make some magic."
Musk delivered his speech in a disarmingly halting, unpretentious manner. He spoke of his own childhood and his quest to make a career out of his boyish realization that "inventing things" was what excited him.
He broke up his futuristic, save-the-world message about creating a sustainable energy industry and becoming a multiplanetary species (he wants to retire in Mars) with witty asides about his life in entrepreneurship — both the spectacular successes and potentially demoralizing failures.
He was clearly pleased with his recent successes and ready to bask in the (temporary as he surely knows) glow of achievement. But he was also clearly nervous to be standing in front of a group of living and potential Nobel Prize winners who, as Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau told me, "are very even-keeled people, a group of scientists and engineers." It was a tough crowd that, if anything, Musk was going to need to prove himself to.
Because although Musk taught himself how to design rockets after selling PayPal to eBay and developed the first truly exhilarating electric car, there were at least a few Caltech grads who have already forgotten more about aeronautics and engineering than Musk has ever learned.
That said, Musk defines the terms "risk-taker." He used the world "cool" several times in his address. But he also used the world "crazy." And that's what you need to go from being simply brilliant to being the reigning rock-star of the innovation economy.
A healthy dose of the crazy.
"I started SpaceX against the advice of everyone I talked to," he said, dressed in a black graduation gown over an impressively tailored gray suit, sipping occasionally from a bottle of water. "One person made me sit down and watch videos of rockets exploding."
SpaceX endured its share of mishaps explosions on its way to last month's triumph in low Earth orbit. In one of many stories that drew laughs from the assembly, he explained that he went to Russia "three times" between 2001 and 2002 to "buy a refurbished ICBM, because it was the best deal."
"You can keep the nuke," he told the former Soviets. "They thought I was crazy" — that word again — "but I did have money." So O.K., he wasn't completely modest.
He also discussed SpaceX's early disasters. After the first failed launch of the Falcon 1, he recalled "picking up bits of rocket" as he walked around the launch site. Two more failed attempts later, SpaceX was almost out of cash, but on its fourth launch, the Falcon 1 slipped the surly bonds of the planet's gravity well.
"A lot more has to happen for humanity to become a spacefaring people," he said. "But it's imperative for the preservation of consciousness and civilization."
He added, "I'm optimistic about the future of Earth — things will most likely be O.K." But he argued that even a one-percent chance of catastrophe means that we should reach for the stars. "Back up the biosphere with planetary redundancy" was the geekadelic phrase he used. In other words, colonize Mars, his most ambitious dream.
"It's right on the border of impossible," he admitted. But that's where the magic part comes in, and SpaceX will need Caltech magicians to make it a reality.
After the ceremony, graduates mostly praised Musk's performance, which will be compared, inevitably, with the late Steve Jobs' commencement address at Stanford in 2005. "Great" was the word most often heard. One young woman was grateful that Musk spoke of the "failures that you have to go through before you succeed." Another said it was "inspiring to hear that it really is possible to do something that everyone else thinks is impossible."
However, this is a guy who has almost seen both SpaceX and Tesla Motors go out of business several times. He flies by the seat of his pants. He's been married and divorced twice. "There were some pretty good moments," said a grad, clutching he new B.S. degree from the world's top-ranked research university, a ticket to almost certain employment in one of the worst job markets for college graduates in decades. "But I thought he winged it!"
The student conceded that Musk "is an innovative guy — I liked the funny parts."
So it was a speech with something for everybody. "It's a perfect match," President Chameau said. "Caltech is about great ideas and innovation. Elon wants to change the world. With Tesla and SpaceX, he's always pushing the envelope. It's a cliché, but he's always looking at disruptive technologies, at trying to change the game. That's what Caltech is all about."
Plus no small amount of magic.
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