The Life-Changing Magic of Being Punched in the Nose

When I was 17, I did some soccer tricks with a friend in our driveway. At one point, we were catching the ball on our backs behind our necks, rolling it over our heads to toss it up, and passing it to one another this way. On the umpteenth round, I threw up the ball, and for some reason, we both went for it. The result was a full-on, frontal collision of my nose with my friend’s forehead. Ouch!

It really, really hurt. My nose kept bleeding. I was afraid it might be broken. The next day, however, it wasn’t quite so bad. Eventually, it mended, and I didn’t think twice about it. Until, a few weeks later, I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed a distinct bump on my nose. “Uh-oh.”

While I still carry that bump years later, and my then-cracked snout will probably remain crooked forever, that’s about as close as I’ve ever come to being punched in the nose. You know who experienced the real deal, and more than once? Elon Musk.

Escape from Pretoria is one of the most intense movies I’ve ever watched. The film details the real-life story of three prisoners escaping from the grueling Pretoria Central Prison in 1979 after being convicted for their anti-apartheid crimes. That same Pretoria, back then a city full of violence, racism, and open aggression, is where Elon grew up. He was eight years old at the time.

Though not exactly a prison, Elon was repeatedly sent to veldskool over the summer, “a paramilitary Lord of the Flies,” as he recalls it in Walter Isaacson’s new biography of the man. The idea? Give kids minimal food rations and let them fight it out to see who’s a survivor — sometimes literally. “Every few years, one of the kids would die,” Elon explains. “The counselors would recount such stories as warnings.”

In the early days, Musk was beaten up a lot, and not just at veldskool. One time, a bully and his gang pushed him down a flight of stairs and beat him so badly, he had to go to the hospital for a week. Thankfully, Elon grew to six feet by the time he was sixteen. Suddenly, he was able to defend himself. His special move? Punching people in the nose. “I realized by then that if someone bullied me, I could punch them very hard in the nose, and then they wouldn’t bully me again. They might beat the shit out of me, but if I had punched them hard in the nose, they wouldn’t come after me again.”

Whenever I see someone attacking Musk on Twitter, calling him spoiled, stupid, rich from the beginning, or overly aggressive in his business dealings, I ask myself how much they know about him and his story. You can’t understand someone without knowing where they came from, and Elon — like any other person, famous or not — is no exception. As I was catching up on his Pretorian past, this sentence really hit me: “If you have never been punched in the nose, you have no idea how it affects you the rest of your life.”

It made me remember the cracked-nose incident, and it also allowed me to realize: “Wow. I really have never been punched in the nose. How lucky am I? That must be a huge privilege.” On the one hand, this privilege has probably kept me weak and soft in many aspects. I’m not a big fighter, physical or otherwise. I walk away from things easily, and I’d often rather run and let people believe whatever than stand up for something I’m not 150% convinced will matter in the long run. On the other hand, my gentleness has made me kind and empathetic, both traits Musk doesn’t exactly have in spades.

Every experience comes with a plus and a minus, and so does getting punched in the nose. Where Elon might be headstrong and quick to defend himself, those attitudes have also helped him succeed in business on an astronomical scale. If he can see it, he can push you to help achieve it, and if you attack one of his companies, he’ll usually come back swinging.

It’s impossible to judge someone without taking their whole life into account, let alone based on a single event or action — and yet, for all we know, that single instant made all the difference. Had he not been punched in the nose, would Elon have grown into who he is today, Tesla, SpaceX, and all? Would I still be a writer if I had been? Who knows? 

What we do know is that every human behavior happens for a reason — and just because we can’t always see those reasons does not mean they aren’t there. The least we can do, both for ourselves and when interacting with others, is to dig for them. And even if we can’t find them, we can still remember that, somewhere, a point of origin exists — and that makes tolerance much easier.

What’s something you’ve never experienced that someone you struggle to understand might have? Was your mother raised as an only-child? Did your dad start all the way from the bottom? Perhaps a friend seems annoyingly cheap, or a coworker is a bit of a control freak.

If we’re not to judge a book by its cover, perhaps we should also not judge a human based only on what we can see today. Maybe, in a distant land long ago, someone punched them really hard in the nose, and that changed their life forever — affecting them all the way until right here, right now.

Keep looking for the full story, and though I can’t exactly speak from experience, I’d still recommend trying not to get punched in the nose.