Hawthorne is as American as it gets. Smack dab in the middle of California, the little town of 90,000 takes its name from world-famous writer and novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne — who was born on July 4th, Independence Day.
Today, it hosts what may be the country’s greatest entrepreneur and his most magnificent endeavor: Take a right on Crenshaw Boulevard, turn into Rocket Road, and you’ll hit SpaceX headquarters, one of Elon Musk’s companies.
In June 2012, that’s exactly what VC rock star Tim Draper and his 40 students did. The pilot class of his now highly acclaimed startup accelerator took an in-depth look at Elon’s moonshot, including a Q&A with Musk himself.
Standing way in the back is a scrawny French kid, hoping, like the other 18-year-olds, for the most inspiring speech they would ever witness. “But instead,” Thomas Brag explains, “we got a brutally honest Elon-answer.”
And it wasn’t one any aspiring entrepreneur would want to hear.
The Man in the Arena
If someone dedicates one million dollars, 400 workers, and 14 years of their own life to carving a 60-foot version of your face into the side of a mountain, you must have done something worth remembering.
In the case of Theodore Roosevelt, the list of those things is quite long. He brought trust back into American capitalism by breaking up J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller’s railroad and oil monopolies. He conserved over 230,000,000 acres of U.S. land spanning five National Parks, 18 National Monuments, 51 bird reserves, and 150 National Forests. He opened the U.S. economy and enhanced global trade with the construction of the Panama Canal, and won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Russo-Japanese War.
To this day, Theodore Roosevelt is held as one of the most popular, capable, and overall best presidents in not just U.S., but global history. And so are some of his speeches. One year after leaving office, he gave his most famous one, glorifying the people who take action, in his words: “the man in the arena.”
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
If only Elon was as inspiring.
“I think it’s very difficult to start companies. And quite painful.”
Uhh, what? Thomas is startled. And what Elon says next isn’t any better.
“There’s a friend of mine who’s got a good phrase for doing a startup: ‘It’s like eating glass and staring at the abyss.’ If you’re sort of wired to do it, then you should do it. But not otherwise.”
And then, Musk ends with the most anticlimactic call to action in history:
“If you need inspiring words, don’t do it.”
Brag says it took him two years and having to shut down his first company to go from being annoyed to understanding and appreciating this advice. And while at first sight, it seems to have nothing in common with Roosevelt’s passionate speech, both the beloved president and controversial engineer share a deep belief in an idea that defines our culture today. It’s a message that runs right through the heart of modern society and that, as he tells the story, is spelled out in bold letters across Thomas’s t-shirt:
Of Humans and Plants
Over 100 years after it was given, Roosevelt’s speech has more fans than ever.
In 2012, Major League baseball player Mark DeRosa read it to his teammates, after which they won a pivotal game. That same year, Brené Brown titled her next bestseller after it. Cadillac used it in an ad, Obama endorsed Hillary Clinton with it, and LeBron James has #ManInTheArena written on his shoes.
A few years ago, Kamal Ravikant would’ve loved the speech too. He’d already had a proven track record as a successful entrepreneur and now, as the CEO of Revnetics, he would get his — the island money, the fuck-you money — once and for all. Like most of us, growth had always been important to him.
The first time I felt like I grew in a way that I was no longer the same, I was far better: US Army Infantry bootcamp. Was it intense? Yes. Was it difficult? Yes. Was it challenging? Every day. Was it happy or joyful? No way. Centuries of military protocol designed it to be miserable. But it’s something I’ve always looked at as a defining experience, one I’m proud of. I went in as an insecure eighteen-year old. I came out knowing I could handle anything thrown at me. That was growth.
Depending on its conditions, a plant is either growing or deteriorating. It’s binary. There’s no room for mere maintenance. Not too long after Roosevelt’s speech, American author William Burroughs penned a quote in this vein:
But then, something happened to Kamal. Something that shouldn’t happen to anyone who lives by this mantra: His company failed. And his life blew up with it. Money, relationships, health, it all went down the drain. For months, he was bed-ridden and depressed. After his recovery, he learned a big lesson.
In building my company, I came across as someone who was driven to succeed. Many told me so. I thought that as well until I loved myself. Then, one day, I woke up to a spotlight shining on that belief, except the truth was a slight twist: I was driven to not fail. Huge difference. No wonder my company went the way it did. The intense and consistent work to keep moving it forward, one step away from disaster, always somehow pulling it off, then moving to avert the next disaster. Never failing, but never taking off the way I knew it should.
By focusing so intently on the struggle, the supposed hardship of an entrepreneur, he fed and exaggerated those very things. Kamal asked for discomfort, and the universe obliged. Like it does for all of us.
Turn on the Light
Following his presidency, Roosevelt’s story took one odd turn after another. First, he tried to dislodge his own mentee from the White House, nearly being assassinated in the process. Failing to do so, he went on an animal killing spree in the Amazon jungle, also almost dying of tropical fever. At 59 years old, he begged the incumbent president to lead US troops to France in WWI.
Having been denied this request too, Roosevelt died just one year later. A blood clot in his lungs. The vice president found an appropriate comment: “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.” As impressive as he was, Theodore Roosevelt never made it out of the arena. He chose to stay. And so he spent his whole life fighting.
This is a pattern many of us share. We’re raised to. No pain, no gain. No sacrifice, no reward. And no growth without struggle. Struggling in life is how you grow. Or so we think. Critically assessing Roosevelt’s choices, Ryan Holiday comes to a similar conclusion:
Many of us share [his] affliction — being driven by something we can’t control. We’re afraid of being still, so we seek out strife and action as a distraction. We choose to be at war — in some cases, literally — when peace is in fact the more honorable and fitting choice.
Besides outer peace being more honorable, Kamal says we also miss a lesson about inner peace: it’s an equally, if not more powerful hotbed for growth.
Once the spotlight shines from within yourself, there is no going back. The patterns of the mind that held you back fall away on their own. With each insight, there is freedom, a sense of lightness. And growth.
This spotlight is either on or it’s off, but it’s a source of light we all carry within ourselves. And even billionaires must learn to hit the switch.
Billions vs. Billions
One of the oldest parts of our brain is called the reticular activating system, RAS for short. Think of it as your reptilian brain. Essential to survival, it primes our subconscious to look for certain external triggers over others.
The RAS is why new parents can sleep through an airplane takeoff, but wake up at their baby’s slightest noise. If you want to know what someone’s RAS is focused on, just look at the events happening in their life.
For example, while no one will deny any billionaire has faced extreme growth, there are some you wouldn’t want to trade places with.
Steve Jobs was chronically angry with employees, journalists, even about being a father, and died from cancer at just 56. Donald Trump is so engaged in Twitter fights, trade wars, and literally building walls that his life is a living hell. And Elon? He’d rather cause a shitstorm than get the sleep he needs, which is why the media love him more than any amateur sex tape socialite.
What none of them seem to know is that you can attune your RAS. Change on what you focus and you change what you attract. Kamal had to learn this too:
But what I didn’t know, until the practice of self-love showed me, was my belief about growth: real growth comes through intense, difficult, and challenging situations. Can you see how that would define the path of my life? It was immediately obvious where it came from. What we believe, that’s what we seek, it’s the filter we view our lives through. I’ve actively thrown myself at intense and difficult situations. All situations where I grew, but at what price?
Not all billionaires are created equal and so some of them live more calmly.
Growing Microsoft sure wasn’t easy, but now Bill Gates spends his time reading, learning, moving humanity forward, and convincing others to donate their money to said cause. Warren Buffett takes actual pride sticking to his little circle of competence. He knows himself well — and he likes that person. Same breakfast, same car, same house, same city. And he also mostly reads. Even the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, now had to defend himself in public for the first time in 25 years. Because he took every product, innovation and step at Amazon slowly and deliberately. Test cheaply, risk little, improve quickly. Not exactly a skydiving approach to business, is it?
All of our dreams are massive challenges in disguise. Hard choices, sacrifices, unwanted side effects, they’re all part of the deal anyway. Why ask for more?
A Different Kind of Yes
My very first article said leaving your comfort zone is a must. I’m not sure I still believe in that message. Thomas Brag does. The Youtube channel he runs with three friends, Yes Theory, has three million subscribers. The description?
We make videos where we travel the world setting challenges for ourselves and for strangers and getting out of our comfort zones along the way, all in order to grow.
In some of their videos, they ask billionaires to sleep in their mansions, swim in their pools, ride in their cars. I wonder if they met Elon again. And if he’d like their motto. “Seek discomfort.” Tim Draper does. Kamal has a yes-theory too. But it’s quite a different one. To find peace, he says yes to what happens.
“Most of our pain, most of our suffering comes from resistance to what is. Life is. And when we resist what life is, we suffer. When you can say yes to life, surrender to life and say: “Okay, what should I be now?” That’s where power comes from.”
Being in the arena is honorable, but only if we fight for the right reasons.
Everything in life has a price and, yes, we all have to make hard choices. But while you might always learn from your struggles, they’re not the only way you can grow. You can think. You can talk. You can do what you love, place small bets, and be consistent. And you don’t have to nuke your life in the process.
Thomas went to high school near Paris. He probably studied French-American writer Anaïs Nin, who once said about growth:
“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”
Nin was born just a few miles west of the Sorbonne, where Roosevelt gave his speech. Maybe Draper’s next class should take a trip to France. If they do, I hope they bring Elon along. He really needs to get out of Hawthorne.