Musk Says a Future Mindset Helps the Common Good

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Elon Musk" by Ashlee Vance. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is a future mindset? How does a future mindset help humanity as a whole rather than just the individual? Why does Elon Musk believe so strongly in this concept?

A future mindset is when all of your goals and actions are motivated by the future. Elon Musk applies this mindset to just about everything he does. However, that’s not always a good thing.

Keep reading to learn more about Elon Musk and his future mindset.

Elon Musk and His Future-Oriented Motivations

Ashlee Vance, the author of Elon Musk, believes Musk’s goals and actions are all motivated by the future. He puts present-day concerns aside to create a better future for humanity. Musk believes the survival of the human race depends on becoming a multiplanetary species—or living on Mars—and by creating sources of sustainable energy. The missions of Tesla and SpaceX are based on those two goals. Musk’s future mindset doesn’t prioritize his companies’ financial success over his goal to improve the future—to him, these aspects are inherently tied together. 

In 2014, he revealed that Tesla would open-source all of its patents, meaning they’d be available to the public. This might seem like an unwise business decision since Tesla would be giving competitors the blueprint to making great electric cars. But Musk believed it was the right thing to do. By sharing Tesla’s technology and ideas, it would speed up the process for other car companies to develop their own electric vehicles, thus encouraging consumers to transition away from fossil fuels. Musk believed moving to sustainable energy was more important for the future than hoarding valuable information for profit. 

A Future Mindset Helps Musk’s Infinite Game

In prioritizing the future, Musk is thinking of the “infinite game.” In The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek explores the differences between finite games—where players play to win—and infinite games—where players play to survive, thrive, and keep playing the game

Sinek discusses Musk’s decision to release Tesla’s patents as a smart move for an infinite game. Musk saw his real competition not as other electric car companies, but as a lack of a full electric car market—so in releasing his technology, he hoped to create an industry and thus foster worthy rivals. Being the only player would have hurt him in the long run, as it wouldn’t have fostered innovation or competition. Worthy rivals help you focus on improving and the process, rather than winning and the outcome. 

Tesla’s infinite-minded move aligns with Sinek’s concept of viewing competitors as worthy rivals, but with a caveat: While Musk sees other EV brands as worthy rivals, he views combustion-engine brands as rivals to beat. His sharing of patents is clearly aimed at putting EV engines in a stronger competitive position to combustion engines in a win-or-lose game. In this way, Musk seems to play both an infinite and a finite game at the same time. Yet this finite game also fits within Musk’s ultimate infinite game—humanity’s survival. 

The Common Good vs. The Individual

Vance explains that Musk is more concerned about the future of humanity as a whole than about one person’s needs. While this future mindset affects Musk’s business decisions, it also directly impacts his work ethic, as well as his employees. Vance believes he puts humanity’s needs ahead of his own, driving him to work nonstop, sleep on couches, experience weight fluctuations due to stress, and rarely take vacations. 

But his future mindset doesn’t always leave a good impression on his employees, causing Musk to seem callous toward individual employees, and he has been accused of a lack of loyalty and a harsh leadership style. 

For instance, Vance describes how one employee missed a Tesla event to witness his child’s birth. Musk expressed his disappointment and told this employee to consider where his priorities were. This incident demonstrates how his beliefs don’t favor the individual in a compassionate way. 

(Shortform note: Following the book’s publication, Musk denied this claim in a series of tweets, stating that the biography was never independently fact-checked and that he supports pregnancy-leave. Vance responded to Musk’s denial, saying he stands by everything he reported in the book.) 

Should We Rely on Billionaire Philanthropy?

While Vance argues that Musk is more concerned with the greater good than the individual, Musk’s status as one of the richest people in the world might seem to inherently contradict this idea. Some people point out that if he really was concerned about other people’s well-being, he could do much more than he currently does philanthropically.

To his credit, Musk seems open to the idea of using his wealth for a more tangible philanthropic mission than traveling to Mars. In 2021, he set up a $100 million carbon-removal prize
But, other actions of his hint at less altruistic motives: that same year, the UN challenged Musk on Twitter to give $6 billion to stop world hunger. Musk said he would sell Tesla stock and donate the money if the UN could provide a detailed plan of how that money would be used. The UN eventually responded with a plan. Soon afterward, records revealed that Musk had indeed sold almost $6 billion worth of Tesla stock to donate it—but there was no evidence of where this money was donated. Experts believe Musk may have placed it in a donor-advised fund (or DAF)—not the UN—which is a kind of investment account where investors can claim an upfront tax deduction with the promise that the money will eventually go to charity. 

This sequence of events sparked a debate about philanthropy and led people to question how much of any billionaire’s donations—not just Musk’s—actually make it to the public. 
Musk Says a Future Mindset Helps the Common Good

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  • A look into Elon Musk’s childhood and early companies
  • Musk's roles in SpaceX and Tesla, and later, in SolarCity
  • The traits and management methods that helped Musk succeed

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