Race to Saturn

Do the ambitious thing

After Elon Musk made money from the sale of PayPal, he set his sights on a long-time hope: Get humanity to Mars.

When he jumped into the project, his plan was to launch a greenhouse on a rocket, landing on Mars and establishing life–a small greenhouse of plant life–there.

His hope was that the launch would get wide-spread coverage, and then the fact that humans could group plants on Mars would capture the world’s imagination. And that would inspire humanity to get the motivation it needed to tackle the challenge of getting humans to Mars.

It would be a publicity event–a “stunt” really–but one with the chance of starting us down the road he wanted humanity to take.

After investigating different possibilities, Musk concluded that to bring his plan to fruition, he’d have to buy the rockets himself that his greenhouse would use. That led him to Russia, and frustrating negotiations with Russian sellers who, in his eyes, continually disrespected him. Musk came close–very close–to buying 3 rockets, but at a dinner to celebrate the deal he learned that the Russians were going to be asking triple the price that Musk thought was in the agreement. He got up, left the dinner, and abandoned his quest to buy the rockets.

On the plane ride back to the U.S., Musk’s frustrations and passions led him to a decisions that he hadn’t been able to face before: He would have to just build the rockets himself. Ones that could be advanced enough, and cost effective enough, to eventually get humans to Mars.

With that, Musk’s plan wouldn’t be to indirectly inspire people to build what he wanted. Instead, he would build the thing himself.

His case is like a lot of cases. If you have something you really want to do, be skeptical that an indirect path is the right one. Instead, think seriously about just doing the thing you really want to do.

For Musk, the less ambitious, indirect plan was still mighty complicated, costly, and frustrating. When he committed to doing the ambitious thing directly (in this case, building rockets), that vision became the force behind SpaceX.