Whatever you think of Elon Musk, there’s really no question that he qualifies as one of the most successful entrepreneurs of his generation. He is currently worth more than $160 billion, making him one of the three richest men in the world. The bulk of that wealth comes from the stock he owns in Tesla, one of several companies he leads.
I think it’s also fair to say that Tesla, as well as SpaceX — the other high-profile company led by Musk — are doing things that almost no one has been able to do. SpaceX, for example, is sending missions to the International Space Station. They’re about to send people to the ISS, and eventually hope to send a colony of humans to Mars.
As for Tesla, the carmaker has done more to bring electric vehicles (EVs) to the mainstream than any other company. The Model S is still the flagship EV, despite the fact that its sales have slowed over the past few years. The Model 3 was the first mainstream, relatively affordable EV. The Model Y is the most popular EV, outselling all other non-Tesla models. It’s also one of the top-selling cars, period.
Oh, and the Model 3 was just named the most American-made car.
In many ways, Tesla is a classic American business success story. At the same time, that journey hasn’t been without challenges. In fact, for all of its success, Tesla has been involved in plenty of setbacks. Production of the Model 3 was notoriously problematic, to the point that Musk has said that it almost bankrupted the company.
You could chalk that up to the fact that Tesla is doing things in ways that no other company has ever done. You could also chalk it up to the fact that its CEO is one of the most eccentric people leading a high-profile tech company. I actually think there’s something else worth noting.
At the B Word Conference, a cryptocurrency conference that also included Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey, Musk got personal for a minute. “I would say I’ve had some pretty tough life experiences, and Tesla’s probably responsible for two-thirds of all personal and professional pain combined, to give you a sense of perspective there,” Musk said.
Look, no one should feel sorry for Musk, and he’s certainly fair game for criticism. He’s done plenty of things to bring himself “personal and professional pain.” That isn’t a judgment, but it’s also not a free pass. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that he highlights an important truth about success — it’s often very painful.
You probably already knew that at some level. Maybe you’ve tried something that succeeded with a great deal of struggle. Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe it failed. Maybe you’ve experienced “personal and professional pain.”
The reason I bring it up is because there is a temptation to look at others’ success and miss that it too is usually the product of challenges, perseverance, and often luck. That’s important to recognize, because otherwise we end up with the wrong idea of how to become successful.
Most success stories don’t happen overnight. They only look that way because you only see the after, not everything that led up to the moment when something that started as an idea made it into the world.
But, as Musk says, perspective is helpful. Stepping back and counting the cost of success is a useful exercise because it gives us perspective on our own success, as well as that of others.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.