Discover more from Unartificially Intelligent
Is There No Success Without Pain?
Were Elon Musk and others only successful because they endured intense pain?
Some of the greatest works of art, science, and business have come following some of the greatest periods of pain. When channeled properly, pain can be a powerful motivator.
But is pain a necessary condition of success? Do great achievements require at least some degree of pain?
Elon Musk’s biographer suggested that childhood trauma led to Musk’s greatest successes
I recently purchased Walter Isaacson’s new biography on Elon Musk. I’ve always loved Isaacson’s books, dating back to his biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger.
Although I haven’t finished reading the Musk biography yet, I listened to Isaacson describe some of his findings after following Musk around for a couple of years while he conducted research.
Isaacson attributes much of Musk’s drive to his upbringing. In the interview I listened to, he described the emotional scars inflicted on Musk by his father. He explained that they caused Musk to become “a tough yet vulnerable man-child with an exceedingly high tolerance for risk, a craving for drama, an epic sense of mission and a maniacal intensity that was callous and at times destructive.”
Although, despite all of this childhood trauma, Musk has decided to have numerous kids with multiple women, while running numerous companies, and likely almost never regularly seeing his children.
So if his childhood was so traumatic, it wasn’t traumatic enough to inspire him to be more attentive and present than his own father.
Musk - like other Isaacson subjects: Steve Jobs, Jennifer Doudna, and Albert Einstein - had a difficult childhood.
Jobs was adopted and had a longing sense of rejection.
Doudna was told throughout her adolescence that girls don’t do science.
Einstein was dyslexic and couldn’t speak for the early part of his childhood.
All went on to have enormous successes in technology and science. So is pain, specifically during childhood, a prerequisite to massive success?
One Silicon Valley veteran strongly disputes this idea
I tend to agree with Paul Graham. Who, if you don’t know, was one of the first (and maybe best) bloggers, in addition to being a programmer and investor. One of the Silicon Valley O.Gs.
Encouragement prevails over pain every time. If a person has positive influences in their life, whether parents or mentors, they will go far.
While pain can undoubtedly be a powerful motivator - mainly to prove people wrong - it’s often a major obstacle to overcome. And not everyone is nearly as fortunate as the people I listed above. In fact, the pain often wins, sending someone into a depression-fueled downward spiral of which there is sometimes no return.
Positive encouragement on the other hand has no such obstacle. By understanding self-worth and the value of creativity and hard work, a person can achieve enormous success. Even if they had the most privileged of childhoods.
Look at Bill Gates. He was the son of a prominent Seattle lawyer. Very privileged. But he had positive influences all around him, and a great, useful friend in Paul Allen. Success inevitably followed.
Can you imagine if the opposite were true? If the only way to achieve great success on the scale of Musk, Jobs, Doudna, or Einstein is by having a difficult childhood? Or if you needed to experience intense pain?
Parents would be incentivized to abuse their children. To place intense pressure on them.
It’s a dangerous idea. But one I’ve flirted with recently as I’ve experienced my own pain through death.
Death in my family has opened my eyes like never before
As I wrote in this article following my dad’s recent death:
“I never dwelled on death before.
Now I do. In my early thirties, I knew death was inevitable, but it seemed far off. Not visible beyond the horizon. There was an infinite feeling to life.
Then my dad died this year at age 65. When he was diagnosed with stage 4 terminal cancer about two years ago, the prospect of death hit me like a sucker punch. It was the first time someone very close to me stared death directly in the face.
It was also a stark realization that I — at age 35 — may already be past the halfway point of life. I guess I had always assumed I might be like my grandpa and live into my nineties. But few of us are so fortunate.”
And now, just this past week, my dad’s father - my grandfather - just passed away. He had lived a long life, far more fortunate than my own father. My grandpa was 95 years old.
Regardless of age, these two events, separated by approximately two months, have lit a fire under my ass like nothing before them.
They have given me a sense of urgency to be present in my own child’s life. To create as much as possible. To write as much as possible. To read. To explore. To live.
We never know when the reaper will come for any of us.
Yet I’ve always been motivated to do all of these things. Those men and other people in my family have been very positive influences on my life. They ushered me on the path through law school and into the work world where I had success.
They taught me how to be a respectable man. How to build a family. How to be a loving husband and father.
None of that came from pain. None of that came from childhood trauma.
And none of that came from defining success purely in economic, business, or power terms.
There are far more ways to be successful than simply amassing a fortune or obtaining power. Especially if the cost of amassing those things is sacrificing home life and family.
Success does not require pain
Sure, I have not had nearly the economic “success” that Musk or others have experienced. Probably never will.
But as I highlighted with someone like Bill Gates, intense pain and childhood trauma are not necessary conditions for achieving this level of success at scale. Many great leaders, thinkers, and entrepreneurs have smoothly sailed the waters of business success relative to Musk and other Isaacson subjects.
That’s not to say they didn’t struggle at all. But they didn’t all have episodes of intense depression, trauma, or loss either.
Those episodes, however, can be intense motivators when channeled properly, as I’ve learned in my own life.
But there is nothing better than positive encouragement and influence. As Paul Graham said, “The best way to make people ambitious is to encourage them.”
Success is possible without pain. If you’ve experienced any success yourself, however you choose to define it, pay it forward by encouraging others to achieve even more.
The world could certainly use it.