Entrepreneurs

For Elon Musk, Everything Is a Side Project. Why That’s Pure Emotional Intelligence

On Tuesday, Elon Musk appeared via video for an interview at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. I was there, along with a few hundred other people, to hear Musk talk mostly about the growth and rollout of Starlink. 

If you aren’t familiar, Starlink is Musk’s plan to carpet the heavens with low-orbit satellites to reach sparsely populated areas with high-speed internet. “There’s a need for connectivity in places that don’t have it right now, or where connectivity is very limited and very expensive,” Musk said during the interview. That’s an understatement, but it is clear Musk has ambitious plans for the company. 

“We are on our way to having a few hundred thousand users–possibly over 500,000 users within 12 months,” he continued. As Musk talked about the company’s goal of signing up a half-million subscribers within the next 12 months, something occurred to me. I don’t know if it was the casual way Musk talked about it, but I couldn’t help but think that Starlink isn’t Musk’s main thing. It’s really just a side project.

Actually, to be accurate, it’s a side project within another of Musk’s side projects–SpaceX, the rocket ship company for which Musk serves as CEO. Sure, SpaceX and Starlink are both doing interesting things–like sending people to the International Space Station. And, clearly, Musk is passionate about all things Space and rockets and satellites, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s basically a side hustle. 

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed clear to me that really everything Musk does is just a side project, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I guess you could argue that Tesla, the electric vehicle and solar manufacturer, is his main thing. It is, for sure, the thing that made him one of the three wealthiest people on the planet, but Musk isn’t even a full-time CEO at Tesla. 

Some people are able to dedicate themselves entirely to one cause or mission. That’s noble, but it certainly isn’t the way everyone is wired up, and it might not even be the best option for many people–especially entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs tend to have more big ideas than they can ever fit into one company or project. It comes with the territory of being creative and having the drive to bring ideas out of your head and into the world. A lot of really great things came into the world first as side projects. Gmail. Pixar. Slack. Even Nike. 

Look at Musk’s primary rival for the title of “world’s wealthiest man,” Jeff Bezos. Sure, Bezos is best known as the founder and–at least for few more days–CEO of Amazon, but he’s also the owner of Blue Origin, another space-focused endeavor, as well as The Washington Post. One of the primary reasons he cited that he was stepping down as CEO was so that he could spend time on other interests.

Sure, you can argue that billionaires like Musk and Bezos have an advantage here because they have enough money to be choosy, but I’d argue that it’s their choice that made them so successful in the first place. That’s because having a side project has several advantages. In Musk’s case, he amplifies those advantages because he treats everything like it’s a side project. 

Here’s the emotional intelligence part. When something is your side project, you treat it differently than you do your day job. Mostly that’s because it’s usually something you do not because it’s a job, but because it’s something you love.

That’s important because when you do something because you love it, it gets your best effort. You’re willing to sacrifice and take risks and pour yourself into it. Of course, it’s great if your side project makes money, but then there’s always the risk that you start treating it like a job. Don’t. 

The beautiful thing about having a side project is that it gives you an outlet for the urge to be doing something different. It gives you a place to direct your creative energy, which makes it easier to focus on the things you have to do. 

That brings us back to Musk, who is clearly one of the most innovative entrepreneurs of his generation. I don’t think there’s any question that’s largely the result of the fact that he treats everything he does not like a job, but like a creative outlet and a labor of love. Or, said another way, as a side project.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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