Read an Excerpt
A colleague recently told me about a person who had managed to get a face-to-face meeting with Elon Musk, the entrepreneur famous for founding Tesla and SpaceX. Getting a meeting is not an easy feat. This is a man who once told his alma mater (the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania) not to call him more than once a year, and that even then, the answer is probably no. Musk’s net worth is around $20.2 billion, so each minute of his time is worth thousands of dollars, even calculated conservatively.
But the reason this story is noteworthy is not because an unknown, unimportant individual was able to get a meeting with him in the first place. It’s because Elon ended the meeting not more than thirty seconds later. As the story goes, he took one look at his visitor and said, “No. Get out of my office.”
It shows how difficult it is to actually get access to someone of that stature. (And how even if you do, it doesn’t ensure that you’ll be heard.) It emphasizes how the rich and powerful must be blunt and maintain unyielding focus on what furthers their own careers. It demonstrates that the time and resources of someone like Musk are so well protected that access—let alone any gains that might result—is near impossible.
As this person finished telling the story to me, he commented, “Anyway, I don’t know if this story is even actually true.”
To which I replied, “It’s true.” And I know it’s true because the person who got kicked out of Elon Musk’s office was me.
The meeting with Elon happened serendipitously. A friend of mine was in the audience when Elon was giving a university commencement speech and lucked his way into getting the billionaire’s contact info. And that was how this friend of mine, Byron (who generously invited me along), and I found ourselves waiting for our appointment with Elon, sitting in his SpaceX office.
Byron knew I was working on research that examined the challenges that start-up companies in the private space industry face as they go up against massive players such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and even the US government and NASA. We planned to talk to Elon about his thoughts on the future of private space tourism—the opportunity for normal people (“normal” meaning those who have two hundred thousand dollars to spend on a trip aboard a space shuttle) to take a suborbital flight to experience three to six minutes of weightlessness, a view of a twinkle-free star field, and a vista of the curved earth below.
Knowing how special this opportunity was, Byron and I had prepared well. We had put lots of hard work and effort into our research. We knew an immense amount about SpaceX and the private space industry. We knew Elon’s entire life history. We had a list of well-researched, intelligent questions on hand. We had specific topics in mind, an understanding of any current events he could have mentioned, and thoughtful perspectives on all aspects of his business (not just SpaceX but also Tesla, PayPal, and even Hyperloop). We even had some ideas for how we could help his companies, and we had a small gift for him. We were prepared.
Except that none of our hard work was going to make much of a difference. Because as I alluded to earlier, we got kicked out of his office (which was really just his cubicle in the corner of an open office floor plan, in case anyone was interested).
Almost. That’s where the story got it wrong. Elon did try to kick us out of his office. But somehow we were able to regain our composure and turn what was quite nearly a thirty-second disaster into an invigorating hour-long conversation.
It’s true that the first word he said to us was no. Literally, we sat down, he looked at me, and he said, “No.” I was totally disoriented, and looked at him blankly and asked, “No?” To which he replied, “No.” And then he told us to leave.
Somehow during this rather disorienting “oh shit” moment, I suddenly realized that his eyes weren’t, in fact, on us. They were on something Byron was holding: the gift that we had brought him.
I realized that Elon didn’t know we were academics. He thought we were entrepreneurs trying to pitch him and that the gift was a product prototype. He thought we wanted something from him: his endorsement, or his money, or some sort of support for the company that we were presumably starting. Of course he said no. This is a man who is constantly getting asked for things and constantly barraged with requests. His default response has to be no. Even when the requests come from completely legitimate and powerful people—but especially when they come from two young and seemingly unimportant people.
And so it was that this meeting almost ended disastrously—except that I did something out of the blue that somehow humored him beyond belief.
It was nothing special. It certainly wasn’t premeditated. I just started giggling. Maybe I should have simply nodded politely and left, but the giggling gave Elon pause. I sputtered through my uncontrollable laughter: “You thinking we’re pitching you? [more uncontrollable laughter] We don’t want your money. . . . What, like you’re rich or something?”
That threw him off completely, and then he started laughing uncontrollably. He realized that we didn’t want anything from him (or at least, not his money or endorsement for our “product”), and we endeared ourselves enough to him to at least not get kicked out of the meeting.
Truth be told, we crushed the meeting. We chatted, debated, riffed, and by the end, we were like old friends (okay, not really, but he did give me a hug on the way out).
And upon leaving, Elon gave us a card with the contact details of someone who headed up operations for SpaceX. He told us that he could help us obtain more information about what we were studying. In the end, he offered up exactly the kind of resources and connections that he thought we had initially wanted.
Why were we able to turn it around and endear ourselves to him?
We gained an edge. We gained an edge over one of the richest, most powerful men in the country.
What do I mean by “edge”? Having an edge is about gaining an advantage, but it goes beyond just advantage. It’s about recognizing that others will have their own perceptions about us, right or wrong. When you recognize the power in those perceptions and learn to use them in your favor, you create an edge.
Certain people seem to be endowed with a unique advantage in which they can execute faster and better and get the things they need, because they are positioned in such a way that others help them move forward. These people have a well-oiled path to success, something that just makes success and achievement flow more easily. It is like rowing with the current carrying you.
In some circumstances, this might be you. But in many circumstances—those that are nonetheless important and critical—it’s not.
Gaining an edge is about knowing that even without certain endowments, you can create an advantage for yourself, especially in the circumstances that are most challenging and consequential.
Let me say more.
People generally underestimate two things:
1. How hard it is to get your foot in the door as an outsider (whatever “outsider” means to you).
2. How wide doors are open once you’re on the inside.
That is what this book is about. You can create your own edge and open doors—wide-open doors—for yourself.
Gaining an edge is critical in nearly all situations. Sometimes, it’s about taking charge of tough challenges in the moment, such as in pitch meetings, job interviews, or public presentations. But it’s also about furthering your career strategically over the long term. Structural inequity and bias are real, and we must acknowledge that they play a significant part in whether people will be successful. This book is about going beyond those whom we see as typically having an advantage, and how having an edge transcends gender, race, ethnicity, age, and wealth, so that you can thrive and flourish regardless of these factors. We will all find ourselves at a disadvantage from time to time. Creating an edge means that we give ourselves the ability to turn those disadvantages into unique assets—to turn adversity into an advantage.