Elon Musk’s career advice for young people: Don’t ‘try to be a leader for the sake of being a leader’
When he’s not pontificating about missions to Mars, self-driving cars and freedom of speech on Twitter, Elon Musk has some surprisingly practical career advice for young people.
On a December 2021 episode of the “Lex Fridman Podcast,” hosted by MIT computer scientist Lex Fridman, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO recommended that young people should never pick a career based on whether or not it could make them famous. Rather, he said, focus on something much simpler: Find a job that you’d be good at, and matches the skillset you’ve built over time.
“[Don’t] try to be a leader for the sake of being a leader,” Musk, 51, said. “A lot of times … the people you want as leaders are the people who don’t want to be leaders.”
The idea that power-hungry people don’t make for effective leaders is backed by scientific research: Last year, researchers from the Technical University of Munich found that “highly narcissistic leaders can derail teams independent of context.” Correspondingly, a 2015 study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that humble and empathetic leaders often improve team performance.
To become that humble and empathetic leader, Musk advised that young people focus on the job immediately in front of them — and trust that overperforming in that role will help them rise up the career ladder. A desire to be in the spotlight won’t necessarily help, he added.
“Try to find something where there’s an overlap of your talents and what you’re interested in,” Musk said.
Musk himself didn’t initially set out to be a tech entrepreneur: After graduating from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1997, he applied and was rejected from a job at Netscape, an internet software company in Silicon Valley, according to the 2015 biography “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.”
In book, Musk told author Ashlee Vance that he likely didn’t get the job because he didn’t have a computer science degree, essentially forcing him into entrepreneurship as the only way to get a job in tech. He and his brother, Kimbal Musk, sold their first web software company Zip2 to the now-defunct computer company Compaq in 1999 for roughly $300 million. Musk used that money to start X.com, which eventually became PayPal.
More recently, Musk seems to have strayed from his own advice: The serial entrepreneur and tech billionaire has a track record of launching companies and installing himself as CEO. He currently sits at the helm of both SpaceX and Tesla, and also plays a major role at other companies he founded, like The Boring Company and Neuralink.
But Musk, who has a large fanbase, and enjoys a healthy following on social media platforms like Twitter, doesn’t publicly attribute his multiple leadership positions to a passion for the spotlight. Rather, he told Fridman, his intention is to be useful, just like young people should aim to be.
“I have a lot of respect for someone who puts in an honest day’s work to do useful things,” Musk said. “It’s very hard [to contribute] more than you consume. To try to have a positive net contribution to society, I think that’s the thing to aim for.”