Elon Musk's Commencement Address: "Magicians of the 21st Century"


When I was young, I didn’t really know what I was going to do when I got older. People kept asking me. But then eventually, I thought the idea of inventing things would be really cool. And the reason I thought that was because I read a quote from Arthur C. Clark which said that, “A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And that’s really true.

If you go back say, 300 years, the things we take for granted today, you’d be burned at stake for. Being able to fly? That’s crazy. Being able to see over long distances, being able to communicate anywhere. ..having access to all the world’s information instantly from almost anywhere on the earth. This stuff really would be magic in times past.

So I thought, well if I can do some of those things – basically if I can advance technology, then that is like magic and that would be really cool.

[In 1995] The Internet started to happen. And I thought well I could either pursue this technology [trying to improve the energy density of electric vehicles], where success may not be one of the possible outcomes, or I could participate in the Internet and be part of it. So, I decided to drop out.

The initial thought with PayPal was to create a conglomeration of financial services. You would have one place where all of your financial services needs could be seamlessly integrated and would work smoothly. And we had a little feature, which was payments through email. Whenever we’d show the system off to someone, we’d show the hard part, which was the conglomeration of financial services, which is quite difficult to put together. Nobody was interested. Then we showed people email payments, which was quite easy and everybody was interested. So, I think it’s important to take feedback from your environment. You want to be as closed loop as possible. We focused on email payments and tried to make that work. And that’s what really got things to take off. But, if we hadn’t responded to what people said, then we probably would not have been successful. So, it’s important to look for things like that and focus on them when you seem them, and you correct your prior assumptions.

When I started SpaceX, initially, I thought that well, there’s no way one could start a rocket company. I wasn’t that crazy. But, then, I thought, well, what is a way to increase NASA’s budget? That was actually my initial goal. I thought if we could do a low cost mission to Mars and land seeds in dehydrated nutrient gel, and hydrate them upon landing. . .you’d have this great photo of green plants in a red background. The public tends to respond to precedence and superlatives. And this would be the first life on Mars and the furthest life had ever traveled as far as we know.

Starting SpaceX was against the advice of pretty much everyone I talked to. One friend made me watch a bunch of videos of rockets blowing up. Let me tell you he wasn’t far wrong. It was tough going there in the beginning. Because I never built anything physical. I mean I built like a model rocket as a kid and that kind of thing. But I never had a company that built any physical. So, I had to figure out how to do all these things and bring together the right team of people.

It’s worth noting that Earth has been around for 4 billion years, but civilization in terms of having writing has been about 10,000 years, and that’s being generous. So, it’s really somewhat of a tenuous existence that civilization and consciousness has been on earth.

I think the overreaching point I want to make is you guys are the magicians of the 21st century, don’t let anything hold you back. Imagination is the limit. Go out there and create some magic.

Full video here.

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