Tesla’s most noteworthy achievement isn’t what you might think it is. Although Tesla has several noteworthy achievements, is constantly breaking its own records, and has become the loudest voice for sustainability, there is one achievement that I think is most often overlooked.
It’s not the millions of electric vehicles, the community or community-related events, the factories, or even its leading voice for sustainability. Granted, these are all excellent achievements, but what is most often overlooked is something that Elon Musk brought up during his TED Talks interview with Chris Anderson last week.
“It’s important to understand what has Tesla actually accomplished that is most noteworthy. It is not the creation of an electric vehicle or creating an electric vehicle prototype or low-volume production of a car. There have been hundreds of car startups over the years — hundreds.
“And, in fact, at one point, Bloomberg counted up the number of electric vehicle startups and I think they got to almost 500. So, the hard part is not creating a prototype or going into limited production. The absolutely difficult thing which has not been accomplished by an American car company in 100 years is reaching volume production without going bankrupt is the actual hard thing.”
Tesla almost went bankrupt in 2018, and it was a pretty hard time for those working at Tesla then and also for Elon himself. He was living in two different factories for three years at one point just trying to be there to save Tesla from failing. He elaborated on this and touched upon the struggles Tesla and its team had while bringing the Model 3 to mass production.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh, jeez, I guess if we’d just done more manual stuff things that would’ve been fine’ — of course not. That is definitely not the case.
“We are basically messed up almost every aspect of the Model 3 production line, from cells to packs to driving motors, body line, the paint shop, final assembly, everything. Everything was messed up.
“I lived in the Fremont and Nevada factories for three years fixing that production line, running around like a maniac through every part of that factory, living with the team.
“I’ve slipped on the floor so the team who was going through a hard period could see me on the floor; that they knew that I was not in some ivory tower. Whatever pain they experienced, I had it more.”
Anderson pointed out that Elon’s closest friends thought he was making a terrible mistake and driving himself to the edge of sanity almost. They worried that Elon was in danger of making bad decisions. Anderson said,
“In fact, I heard you say last week, Elon, because of Tesla’s huge value now and the significance of every minute that you spend, that you are in danger of obsessing over spending all this time to the edge of sanity. That doesn’t sound super wise. You’re completely sane, and centered, rested time and decision making is more powerful and compiling than that sort of ‘I can barely hold my eyes open.’ So, surely, it should be an absolute strategic priority to look after yourself.”
Here is where Elon opened up about the struggles of 2017, 2018, and 2019, and as he spoke, one could see the pain in his eyes as he recounted the rougher times that he, Tesla, and their team endured — the sacrifices they made for Tesla’s success.
“I mean, there wasn’t any other way to make it work. There were three years of hell. 2017, ’18, and ’19 were three years; was the longest period of excruciating pain in my life. There wasn’t any other way and we barely made it, and we were on the ragged edge of bankruptcy the entire time.
“It’s not like I want pain. I don’t like it. Those were so much pain, but it had to be done or Tesla would be dead.”
Tesla’s most notable achievement was an extremely painful lesson for Elon Musk and his teams who were working tirelessly. Although that hard work paid off, I don’t think we should forget the lesson here.
In 2018, I’d just started following Elon Musk and didn’t really know anything about Tesla. I was going through my own pain. Pain isn’t fun, but it is transformative. It teaches you, strengthens you, and through it, you become a stronger, more resilient version of yourself.
For Tesla, this pain resulted in the birth of the machine that builds the machine. The lessons learned from the 2017–2019 experiences paved a way for the gigafactory in Shanghai. And one key lesson I took away here is that no matter how loud the haters get, focus on your goal and work hard to make it come to pass.
During this time period, the majority of the media was (and still is at some times) like that crowd of onlookers cheering in glee at a Roman arena. The more blood, the more crazed the crowd would get. Yet Tesla prevailed and is massively successful. Getting there wasn’t easy. The most notable achievement for Tesla was doing practically the impossible — reaching volume production without going bankrupt.