We idealize childhood as a time of innocence and freedom from responsibility.
But the truth is being a kid can be really rough.
In part, this is because of other children. They can be awful to each other. Mean.
When I was a kid, the smart creative kids who dared to dress differently or speak up were often picked on during PE, recess, or lunch.
My older brother was bullied so badly in elementary school that my parents took him out of the school and moved him to another 20 miles away. He’d had rocks thrown at him. He went to the doctor once because a spitball got stuck deep inside his ear. The kids didn’t like my brother because he’s creative and vocal. Not a conformist.
Maybe you know a kid who gets bullied because he or she is different — smart and special, and the other kids want to tear him or her down.
If so, tell that kid the story of Elon Musk. Today, the world knows Musk as a wealthy, imaginative genius — the man who is making electric cars mainstream and putting rockets in space.
But when Musk was a kid growing up in South Africa, he got it bad from the others.
In 2012, his mother, Maye Musk told Esquire magazine writer Tom Junod that Elon was “the youngest and smallest guy in his school” and that he was picked on all the time.
Musk’s brother, Kimbal, says “Kids gave Elon a very hard time.”
““It’s pretty rough in South Africa,” he says. “If you’re getting bullied, you still have to go to school. You just have to get up in the morning and go. He hated it so much.”
Musk’s first wife, Justine, says “I don’t think people understand how tough he had it growing up. He was a really lonely kid.”
Junod says that Musk survived the bullying in two ways.
The first was that a sort of mental escape provided to him by his family. The Musks talked about themselves as a special family — one that could do great things.
He grew up in South Africa without ever really considering himself South African. Like the rest of his family, he was just passing through. The Musks were a race nearly as much as they were a family, with a specialized awareness of themselves as wanderers and adventurers. Every Musk is able to tell the story of forebears whose accomplishments serve as an inspiration and whose energy endures as an inheritance — a grandfather who won a race from Cape Town to Algiers; a great-grandmother who was the first female chiropractor in Canada; grandparents who were the first to fly from South Africa to Australia in a single-engine plane. “Without sounding patronizing, it does seem that our family is different from other people,” says Elon’s sister, Tosca Musk. “We risk more.”
Musk’s second avenue of escape from bullying was through computers and business.
“He was on computers as soon as they were available to us,” his sister Tosca says. By the time Musk was 17, he’d already tried to start his own business, a videogame arcade near his high school.
“We had a lease, we had suppliers, but we were actually stopped,” Kimbal says. “We got stopped by the city. We couldn’t get a variance. Our parents had no idea.”
Soon enough, computers and business became Musk’s life. He started an Internet company. Eventually, it merged with PayPal. Then PayPal went public in 2001, and Musk netted $170 million.
He didn’t stop there.
He took over an electric car company, Tesla, when electric cars were considered a silly dream. Now wealthy Americans buy more of his electric cars than they buy BMWs or Mercedes. He created another company, called SpaceX, which builds rockets and launches them into space. Musk also has a family: five kids and ex-wife who remains in a relationship with him because she wants to make sure he is taken care of.
The point is: In childhood, Musk survived terrible bullying. In doing so, he learned that he could do things the other kids told him he couldn’t do. So he did, and he hasn’t stopped yet.