Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

You Don’t Need to be Elon Musk to be Successful

Written by: on April 6, 2023

Why I Could Never be Elon Musk 

For better and for worse, Elon Musk has been in the spotlight for years. People are fascinated by the genius billionaire – a real-life Tony Stark. Ferociously driven with intelligence few can parallel, when one thinks of an individual leaving his or her mark on the world, it is more than reasonable to have Musk in mind.

Personally, I have been fascinated by Musk for the past few years. Questions that come to mind include “What are the motivations that drive Musk? Does he ever relax?” One of the more insidious questions I wonder is “What can I learn from Musk in order to be successful?” Now, I am not striving to be a tech-genius billionaire. However, when I learn about how Elon lives his life, I wonder “What are the things I can learn and implement into my life in order to be successful?”

Fortunately, the pressure to emulate Musk faded when I came to this freeing realization: I could never be Elon Musk, nor do I want to be. I recall watching a video about the work culture Musk creates. He is described as a viciously intense, demanding boss. But he also is a risk-taker. For example, one former employee shared that “in Tesla’s darkest moment” in 2008, Elon put in his last million dollars, covered employee’s business expenses with his own credit card debt, and “couch surfed in Menlo Park.”[1]

When I look at my personality, I do not see a great risk-taker. I am far more cautious and agreeable in my working relationships. There is no need for me to try to be like Elon in order to be successful. That is not the recipe for success. But what is?


Summary of Personality

Before answering that question, I will summarize the work of Daniel Nettle in his book Personality: What Makes You the Way You are.[2] After this, I will share some of my personality traits with their strengths and weaknesses and then conclude with thoughts on how leaders can apply the lessons from Nettle.

Daniel Nettle, a professor of psychology at the University of Newcastle, brings his readers on a journey of exploring the mystery of why there is such great variety in how we live, interact with others, and see the world. Nettle focuses on the science of personality, why it exists, and extrapolates on psychology’s “big five” personality traits.[3] Nettle argues that personality is both genetic and influenced by the environment we grow up in. It is largely responsible for the direction of our lives. It is because of our personality differences that we have survived as a species. Without risk-takers, we would not survive attacks or make advances. Without people who are risk-averse, we would likewise not survive due to no one taking serious potential threats. Though there is a plethora of personality assessments, the big five personality traits are the most credible within psychology.


My Personality – Both the Good and the Bad

My personality is quite opposite to someone like Elon Musk. He is a risk-taker, and I am risk-averse. This is a benefit in that I would never do something as rash as getting into deep credit card debt to cover significant business expenses, or putting my final million dollars into a struggling business (I must admit, I would need to have a million dollars first). However, there are downsides to being risk-averse. Saying no to potential opportunities due to fear of failure or the potential risk involved is incredibly limiting for my life. This is something I must be aware of and, with wisdom, mitigate against when necessary. This brings me to the application of Nettle’s Personality for leaders and a lesson on how to be successful.


Be the Best Version of Yourself

The argument famously made that self-awareness is the most indispensable quality in leadership is reinforced by Nettle’s work[4]. In knowing ourselves and our unique combination of personality traits, we are better able to both lean into the strengths afforded to us by our personality, as well as mitigate against the potential weaknesses. This is, I would argue, the key to success. Instead of trying to be someone else whom we deem successful, such as Elon Musk[5], I believe the invitation is to be the very best version of ourselves. That means growing in self-awareness, emotional intelligence and health. In doing so, we will leverage our personality to be the best version of ourselves by leaning into our strengths and being aware of and growing from our weaknesses. As one who is risk-averse, I can leverage my strength in being cautious while recognizing this can be a weakness. Through this self-awareness I can discern when to push myself outside of my risk aversion or recognize a legitimate risk to avoid.

[1] Working for Elon Musk: Ex-Employees Reveal His Management Strategy | WSJ, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEikQP8-es0, 4:00-4:20.

[2] Daniel Nettle, Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are (Oxford University Press, 2009).

[3] These big five are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

[4]  Chinwe Esimai, “Great Leadership Starts With Self-Awareness,” Forbes, accessed April 5, 2023, https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellevate/2018/02/15/self-awareness-being-more-of-what-makes-you-great/.

[5] I would be remiss to not clarify that I do not see Elon Musk as the pinnacle of human success. Though outwardly impressive, it does not take long before one finds out that Musk hasn’t had the most healthy life style or family life to say the least.

About the Author


David Beavis

David is Australian by birth, was raised in Southern California, and is the Youth and Young Adults Pastor at B4 Church in Beaverton, Oregon. David and his wife, Laura, live in Hillsboro with their dog, Coava (named after their favorite coffee shop). M.A. Theology - Talbot School of Theology B.A. Psychology - Vanguard University of Southern California

7 responses to “You Don’t Need to be Elon Musk to be Successful”

  1. Michael O'Neill says:

    Great post, David. I have also been fascinated with Musk over the years. He is in many ways a great role model for a wide range of people, however, I also do not aspire to be him. I think he does a lot of good for humanity but he does not appear to believe in God, or at least the same way we do. Musk said, “I would say I generally agree with the teaching of Christianity but I’m not religious,” also that “You could say whatever caused the universe to be is God, depending on your view.” It’s unfortunate that someone with that much intelligence and influence is missing out on the one true thing that is most important in life. I still like to follow him on Twitter. He is funny, smart, and can not be purchased.

    Thanks for the great post and inspiration to be the best version of me.

  2. Tonette Kellett says:


    You write very well. I always enjoy your blogs. Thank you!

  3. Caleb Lu says:

    Like you were obsessed with Elon Musk for a while, I used to idolize the “mamba mentality”. After watching Kobe mixtapes on end, I would lean into my natural competitive nature and try to be just like him in all aspects of life. I also became a really angry and disagreeable person. Since my second year in college, I’ve been actively working to separate myself from my competitive nature. I wonder if there are times when we have to remove ourselves from our personality. I’ve appreciated how you have talked about James KA Smith in the past and spiritual disciplines. I wonder if there are small steps that we can take through spiritual disciplines and small habits that can change our personality to some degree as well.

  4. David,

    Another great introduction that really set up the rest of your material you presented. Well done!

  5. Alana Hayes says:

    You had me at Musk… I needed one more comment for Nettle and as I was scrolling I read your title and thought, “OH I HOPE THIS IS A NETTLE BLOG!!!”

    What is a trait besides risk taking that you liked about Musk?

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