Issue 3.12 | November 2012

In this Article: if it doesn’t take you decades, the difference you make may not be one history will remember.

by Jonathan Wilson 

Many of us want to make a difference in our lifetime.  Those of us who do imagine making that difference on planet earth.  Not so Elon Musk, the technology entrepreneur.  One of his passions is to enable humanity to live on Mars.

In a recent interview with The Economist, Musk declared his intention to “… achieve full and rapid re-usability of a rocket…” for it represents “… a fundamental breakthrough that’s needed for humanity to ultimately become a multi-planet species.”  Few people could say this with a straight face, and fewer yet could receive it with a straight face.  But Musk has a knack for declaring the extraordinary as if it were ordinary, and the interviewer simply nodded in approval.  The reason for this is that this 41-year-old man raised in a middle-class family in Pretoria, South Africa, has proven his ability in space travel.  And not to Mars.  Not even close.  No, Musk has simply shown that he can get a rocket to an orbiting space station with greater efficiency and cost-effectiveness than those giants of space exploration, NASA.  Even as they closed down their Shuttle program this year, NASA contracted SpaceX, Musk’s rocket company, to provide them transport services to space.

While Musk’s vision of the future is breathtakingly ambitious, this is not what marks him out as a difference-maker.  Many dream grand dreams.  A few pursue them.  A smaller fraction achieves them.  Three things distinguish those who make a difference from those who simply dream about it.


History is shaped by those who break their grand vision down into incremental building blocks.  When my parents entered the Yali tribe of New Guinea in 1971 they had a vision for the transformation of that people.  A wise colleague counselled my father, “If you want to transform the Yali, don’t.  Start with a few individuals, and they will transform the Yali.”  Twenty years later the Yali saw themselves as entering a Golden Age for their tribe: a time of greater social stability, physical health, knowledge and agricultural productivity than they had ever known before.

As a young college student, Musk identified three crucial areas “that I thought would most affect the world”: the Internet, renewable energy and space exploration.  He went on to build successful companies in each of these areas: PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX.  In the latter two companies in particular, Musk is engaged in narrowly-scoped projects that to many seem worthy enough on their own – a high-performance electric car, re-usable space rockets.  For him, however, they are only stepping-stones to something much bigger, namely the ubiquitous use of zero-emission cars and the preservation and advancement of the human race by putting people on other planets.


Failure is crucial to making a difference.  It helps you to identify and correct your bad assumptions about your good ideas.  It is a gift to be welcomed even though it is often harsh to experience.

Today Musk is the darling of the tech and business media.  In 2008-2009 he was regularly pilloried by the same, and derided for pursuing unrealizable ambitions.  Despite having made hundreds of millions from the sales of previous start-ups such as PayPal, he was selling personal possessions and borrowing money to keep alive his dreams.  Tesla was losing money and SpaceX was not yet turning a profit.  Presidential candidate Mitt Romney commented during the American 2012 election campaign that Tesla should be lumped among “loser” companies that were bad investments.

Yet SpaceX is today a profitable enterprise.  This is remarkable for an industry as wasteful as the space transport industry.  Tesla’s electric-only Model S sedan is praised for its superior engineering and its astonishing performance, and has just been awarded the prestigious Car of the Year award by Motor Trend magazine, who described it as a “damned good car you happen to plug in to refuel”.


Difference-makers understand that shaping history takes time.  The rapid successes of the likes of Mark Zuckerman are, thus far, historical anomalies that have misled many an aspiring difference-maker.  Forty-two years passed between Nelson Mandela’s introduction to political activism and the realization of his dream, in 1994, of a democratic South Africa in which the black majority could fully participate in choosing their government.  It took 46 years for British activists to abolish slavery.  Apple Inc. was established in 1976 but it wasn’t until the late 2000s that it truly began to reshape both its industry and consumer behaviours.

History shows that whatever the sphere of your dream, be it technological, social or political, it needs decades, not years, to come to fruition.  It is clear that Musk takes the long view: “The companies he’s started are executing against a vision measured not in years but in decades”, says Peter Thiel, Musk’s cofounder of PayPal.

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Outcomes

You and I may or may not be the difference-makers that are remembered in the next century’s history books.  But we can still be a part of the difference that history remembers as mattering.  To do so, we need to:

“… work quietly away at limited objectives [that address major human problems] … the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can. To avert or postpone one particular war by wise policy, or to render one particular campaign shorter … is more useful than all the proposals for universal peace that have ever been made.” C.S. Lewis


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