Some Rules of the Modern Workplace: Elon Musk

1) It’s very important to like the people you work with, otherwise life and your job is gonna be quite miserable. – Elon Musk

I learned the hard way that when we get into an argument with a co-worker, it can make our life will be miserable for as long as that argument lasts. Depending on the work we do, and how often we do it, employment situations can trap us into spending more time with people we can’t stand than those we love. With that in mind, if we get into an argument, we need to forgive and forget with strength.

“I won’t back down,” we say, “and I have a very difficult time admitting I’m wrong, especially when I’m not!” In interoffice squabbles, it really doesn’t matter who’s at fault. No matter how great people are, they will make mistakes, and if we want to be happy in the office, it’s important that we recognize that, especially when we enjoy the work we do.

It can make matters even more difficult when it’s the other party’s fault. If it’s our fault, and we’re living in absolute misery, all we have to do is apologize to end the stupid, irrelevant argument. When the other party refuses to apologize, it lengthens and strengthens the tension. I’ve done the wrong thing so many times that I learned that the best way to end relatively benign interoffice squabbles is to apologize, forgive and forget, and do it with a noteworthy level of strength.

I got into an interoffice squabble with a co-worker, and in this instance, she was in the wrong. She immediately called me to apologize. “I’m going to forgive you and forget this ever happened.” I said that with an unusual (for me) level of anger and force, “and I don’t want to hear your excuses or explanations, so I’m now going to hang up on you now.” I heard her say, “Wait, I just want to say …” before I hung up.

Who says, “I’m going to forgive you” with strength? The source of true power, we all believe, lies in refusing to forgive. We can lord their slip-up over them for weeks, months, and even years, if we do it right. Anyone who has tried to maintain an angry facade knows it can be foolish and a little exhausting. I’m not going to talk to this person at this time when I always do, we think, and when it comes to that party, I’m going to purposely walk by them without saying a word. That will get her. We have to teach people how to treat us, and this is going to extremely effective. There are only so many punctuation marks we can put at the end of a sentence. Do we pound the point home with three proverbial exclamation points, and how often do we do it before they truly understand that we’re mad!!! We’ve all been through these mistakes, and we’ve all missed out on the good times we witness across the party room floor when we see her laughing with the group we’re normally in, but we won’t step foot in because she’s there, and we’re mad at her. A simple, powerful acceptance of an apology can be so shocking that the recipient might repeat what you said in their head a number of times.

This co-worker was a very sweet, young woman who messed up big time. We both knew it, and we both moved on to have a very good relationship in the aftermath.

In another situation, I messed up bad. I was 100% to blame for committing an almost unforgivable transgression against a very sweet co-worker. I called her up the next day and apologized. She, being a very sweet person, offered me all sorts of outs and excuses. “I appreciate what you’re doing here, but I’m not going to accept that. I want you to know that what I did was wrong, and I apologize. Full stop.” I allowed a few seconds to tick by, “Now that I’ve apologized in an unequivocable way, let me tell you what I intended to say.” I then told her that, and how it was intended to mimic what she said about herself previously, and how I mangled it up so poorly. I told her how I would’ve interpreted what I said, if someone said the same thing about me and how horrible I would’ve felt. She agreed with my summation, and she offered me total and unequivocable forgiveness, and we are good friends to this day.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made, in such situations, is to enter into it from a position of weakness. Strength in the face of what should be a weak moment can be surprising, but if we remain strong throughout, we’ll experience long-term dividends for our actions.

Our relationships with our co-workers are just as important as our other relationships. If we want to have a happy work life, we need to work as hard at them as we do all of our other relationships in life, and accepting an apology with force and strength can be as effective as offering a strong, unequivocable apology.

Having said all that, there is a small percentage of horrible people in every walk of life, and some of them seem to enjoy making our lives a living hell. There are some people, as the quote from Cool Hand Luke says, “You just can’t reach. So, you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it; well, he gets it.”

2) Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough. – Elon Musk

What a great antonym to “failure is not an option.” That famous quote, I think, refers to ultimate or final failure, and I think it leaves some room for small failings as long as we learn and adjust going forward. Musk’s “Failure is an option” almost liberates those who fail. As with the famous quote, it gives room for some failure, as long as we learn, but some of the times we read “failure it not as option” as a threat to avoid trying new things. Imagine being an employee in an innovative tech company, and your boss has a “failure is not an option” plaque on his desk. We might not try that adventurous idea, because we know it’s fraught with failure, so if failure is not an option, we might not explore the possibilities of our idea. It’s a subtle difference that might not deter a strong mind, but we’re all subjected to the opinions of authority, and we all try to please them in a way that creates vulnerabilities. Am I the right man for such a bold, adventurous idea? What if I fail? Try, fail, learn. How will we ever learn, if we don’t try. How will we ever learn if we don’t fail in the beginning and every once in a while, on the trail?

The bassist from The Who, John Entwistle, once said of Jimmy Page’s idea of a New Yardbirds group, “That’s going to go over like a lead balloon.” Jimmy Page loved that condemnation so much he changed the name of his new project to match it. Instead of calling the project the New Yardbirds. He called it Led Zeppelin.

3) Pay attention to negative feedback and solicit it, particularly from friends. Hardly anyone does that, and it’s incredibly helpful. – Elon Musk

How many of our friends and family tell us that our ideas are destined to fail. Some of them don’t know why we’re destined to fail they just know a screwy idea when they hear it. Some of them know don’t know what we did wrong, but they know how to fix it. Rather than dismiss them entirely, because they’ve never tried anything so unique, weird, and adventurous, listen to them. In my experience, there’s usually a nugget, a 10% of the 10% advice they give that actually could, slip into your round hole and come out the other side looking quite different and more beautiful.

There is a certain percentage of people who are cheering you on in life. There’s a percentage who envy us, dislike us, and think we’re fools and morons for believing in ourselves in a way they can’t. Our job in life is to find that percentage who believe in us so much that they offer us the type of constructive criticism they think we need. They’re not always right, but their head and heart is in the right place, and if we need to listen to them often enough, we might find something we can use. It rarely happens in the moment, and some of the times it takes so long to see the merit of what they’re saying we can’t remember who said it, but every once in a while we can find a nugget to chew on.

4) Any product that needs a manual to work is broken. – Elon Musk

As with a joke, if a story requires too much explanation, then it probably wasn’t the Great American Classic we thought it was while writing it.

As someone once said of the great Russian authors. “Yeah, they’re great and all that, but some of the times I read them and think, ‘Just get to the point already.’”

I appreciate the need for character development and setting. Writers need to help us empathize with their character, and we have to be there, but as with everything else there is a tipping point. I’ve read 1,000+ page books, but I’ve rarely read one that couldn’t use at least a little trimming.

5) You shouldn’t do things differently just because they’re different. They need to be… better. – Elon Musk

I began my writing career, trying to be weird for the sole purpose of being weird. My favorite books, music, and movies were weird, and I wanted to explore the deep dark caverns of my mind for the weirdest possible plot lines I could think up.

The problem was no one understood it, and I enjoyed that. It felt great to say, “You just don’t get it,” because that made me feel like a complicated, misunderstood artiste. Yet, I’ve found that if no one understands it, then no one is going to understand it. If this is you, then you’re truly writing just for yourself. “Right, that’s what I’m going for.” The authors I love all said that, so I said it. Unfortunately, I neglected learning how to intertwine writing for myself and writing for others. The authors I loved already conquered the latter, so they could go forward writing for themselves.

My advice, don’t forget the context. Context makes your writing so much more entertaining for the reader.

As John Hughes wrote for Steve Martin in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles:

“[In me you’ve] got someone who will listen to your boring stories. I mean, didn’t you notice on the plane when you started talking, eventually I started reading the vomit bag? Didn’t that give you some sort of clue, like hey, maybe this guy is not enjoying it? You know, everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that, that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You’re a miracle. Your stories have none of that! They’re not even amusing accidentally! “Honey, I’d like you to meet Del Griffith. He’s got some amusing anecdotes for ya. Oh, and here’s a gun so you can blow your brains out. You’ll thank me for it.” I-I could tolerate any, any insurance seminar, for days. I could sit there and listen to them go on and on with a big smile on my face. They’d say, “How can ya stand it?” And I’d say, “‘Cause I’ve been with Del Griffith. I can take anything.” You know what they’d say? They’d say, “I know what you mean. The shower curtain ring guy.” It’s like going on a date with a Chatty Cathy doll. I expect you have a little string on your chest. You know, that I pull out and have to snap back. Except that I wouldn’t pull it out and snap it back, you would. And by the way, you know, when, when you’re telling these little stories, here’s a good idea. Have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!”

6) I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself. – Elon Musk

I see articles that provide updates: “Edited on May, 6.” Are we supposed to do that? If I did that, my articles would all be 10,000 words, and most of those 10,000 words would be the notations on all the updates, edits, and revisions. I change everything from the big to the small. I rarely read one of my articles and think that’s just complete. There’s always something to delete or add. I take time away and re-enter with a fresh perspective.

I went to another blog on the subject of errors, rewrites, and editing. Most of the writers wrote that they know their readers will accept a certain error rate, so they don’t go back to fix their article and correct every stupid thing. “Every passionate writer is going to commit some errors, so I don’t go back and edit,” they write. “I leave it raw, as is, and I think my readers understand.”

My first thought was that these people must be way smarter than I am to survive the fear of everyone seeing our there, their and they’re type errors. I see errors in big time writers’ articles every time, and I’m mortified for them. I see errors in my own work, the ones I catch anyway, and I shudder. How many readers saw this, I think. They’ll probably never be back. Every article I write an article, it’s edited at least ten times before I hit publish, then I go back and try to catch whatever errors I missed the first 309,000 times through, and I always find something. I don’t know how these writers, who presumably write something once and never go back, live with that fear that someone out there knows that they’re less than intelligent. All the power to them for being so strong, but I could never do it.  

7) People work better when they know what the goal is and why. It is important that people look forward to coming to work in the morning and enjoy working. – Elon Musk

I went to work for two promising, young companies at different points in my life. The only thing these companies had in common was they didn’t know what they were doing. I found this confusing and exciting when I was younger. I was on the ground floor of a ground-breaking company that would eventually become a Fortune 500 company. The rules would change on almost a weekly basis, and our method of operation, as employees, would have to adjust accordingly.

“This customer is telling me I’m doing it wrong,” I would tell the help desk operator. I called them for nothing more than confirmation of my knowledge.

“You are doing it wrong,” the operator would say. “Check your email from May 23.” The changes were so drastic, so often, that an employee could get dizzy simply sitting in their cubicle desk. Every supervisor and manager said, “The minute you get comfortable with a standard method of operation, it will change.” Working in various cubicles for as many years as I did, I got used to that overused line, but I never worked for a company where that was actually true. It was, as I said, confusing, dizzying, and a little exciting.

I went to work for another promising, young company again, later in life, and I quit quite early on. The sentiment in Musk’s quote was a primary reason why. I didn’t want to go through all that humbling humiliation all over again.


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