Elon Musk Is All About the Nonstop Grind. And He Can’t Stop Talking About It.

Since his first startup almost 30 years ago, the billionaire entrepreneur has epitomized the hustle culture of Silicon Valley that is all about grinding out late nights at the office. (REUTERS)
Since his first startup almost 30 years ago, the billionaire entrepreneur has epitomized the hustle culture of Silicon Valley that is all about grinding out late nights at the office. (REUTERS)


  • Billionaire tries to motivate workers with focus on sacrifice as many push for work-life balance

Elon Musk endures a lot. Just ask him.

In recent weeks, he has again expounded upon his long workdays and his infrequent vacations, all while mocking workers who prefer working from home as living in “la-la land."

Since his first startup almost 30 years ago, the billionaire entrepreneur has epitomized the hustle culture of Silicon Valley that is all about grinding out late nights at the office. His public discussion of pain and sacrifice has helped him create a demanding culture at the companies he runs, including the car company Tesla and the rocket maker SpaceX.

Now, with the social-media platform Twitter, which he gained control of late last year, that approach is being tested anew as he races to remake the company and its remaining workforce, an effort that he has described as “quite painful."

His live-at-work ethos, through which his own suffering is put on display to motivate others, runs counter to the work-from-home ideal embraced by a new era of employees openly questioning one’s commitment to a job. Their “quiet quitting" while working has helped fuel a broader debate about how much one should give over to the daily grind.

From Musk’s view, a lot. His approach raises questions about how best to motivate workers and get results. Is it giving them flexibility and focusing on work-life balance? Or is it trying to fire them up by working insanely hard and making clear they are expected to do the same?

Musk, 51 years old, recently called working from home “morally wrong," igniting blowback on social media from those unhappy with being pressured to return to their offices in the midst of child-care costs, commuting hassles and desires to keep flexible schedules.

Facebook parent Meta Platforms this past week was the latest Silicon Valley giant to declare that more in-office time was needed as companies in general worry about the teamwork and productivity of their employees working from home.

Asked at The Wall Street Journal CEO Council Summit in May about managing his workload, Musk said he tries to divide his time predominantly between one company each day, such as Tesla on Tuesday, though he might end his day working on Twitter. Musk has said that with the acquisition of Twitter his work has exploded to more than 120 hours a week.

“My days are very long and complicated, as you might imagine," Musk said last month.

A week earlier, Musk suggested to CNBC in an interview that he takes off two or three days each year. “I work seven days a week, but I’m not expecting others to do that," he said.

Still, Musk sends a message, sometimes not so subtly, that he expects something close to that.

In the early days of his Twitter ownership, Musk asked his new employees to commit to long hours and “extremely hardcore" work to reinvent the social-media company to his liking, a theme he has used at Tesla when looking to motivate the troops.

A recent lawsuit filed by former Twitter employees claims Musk ordered that conference rooms at the company’s San Francisco base be converted to “sleeping rooms" to give exhausted workers a place to nap. Musk also wanted a bathroom installed next to his office, according to the complaint, so he “didn’t have to wake his security team and cross half the floor to use the bathroom in the middle of the night."

Twitter hasn’t responded to the lawsuit, filed in a Delaware federal court.

In a recent BBC interview, Musk described the “painful" work of taking over Twitter, similar to how he has long talked about struggling for years at Tesla before it became consistently profitable. In 2021, he described his experience at the automaker as amounting to two-thirds of all his life’s “personal and professional pain combined."

Going back to his first startup, Zip2, which worked to help newspapers go digital in the late 1990s, Musk showed signs of reveling in stories of triumph over hardships.

Jim Ambras, who was Zip2’s vice president of product development, remembered the 20-something Musk expressing admiration for Sumner Redstone and how the now-deceased tycoon had overcome personal adversity to become a media mogul.

In 1979, at age 55, Redstone was badly burned in a hotel fire that left him with a gnarled hand, but that didn’t stop him from going on to build a business empire that included CBS and Paramount Pictures.

“He liked people who did really hard things even at the cost of personal suffering," Ambras said.

Musk has been known to praise those willing to give their all. He expressed admiration for Chinese workers last year during an interview at a Financial Times conference.

“They won’t just be burning the midnight oil. They will be burning the 3 a.m. oil. They won’t even leave the factory type of thing, whereas in America people are trying to avoid going to work at all," Musk said.

In China, that mind-set has received pushback. And Musk’s approach can make him look uncaring.

Earlier this year at Twitter, for example, during one of the company’s purge of workers as it looked to slash costs, Haraldur Thorleifsson, an employee, tweeted to Musk that access to his work computer was cut off. “However your head of HR is not able to confirm if I am an employee or not," he wrote. “Maybe if enough people retweet you’ll answer me here?"

Musk responded in a string of biting tweets. “The reality is that this guy (who is independently wealthy) did no actual work, claimed as his excuse that he had a disability that prevented him from typing, yet was simultaneously tweeting up a storm," Musk wrote. “Can’t say I have a lot of respect for that."

Thorleifsson has a form of muscular dystrophy and is known in Iceland for his work on disability issues. He joined Twitter after his company was acquired by the platform before Musk’s takeover. Once Musk realized the full story, he apologized.

Musk’s own sleeping habits are often part of the narrative regarding whatever challenge he is tackling.

When I interviewed Musk in 2018 at the Fremont, Calif., factory during troubles with Tesla’s Model 3 sedan, Musk kept a pillow nearby and told me he was sleeping under his desk. “I haven’t left the factory in three days," he said. “If I look a little unkempt, that’s why."

Around the same time, he gave CBS’s Gayle King a factory tour and pointed out the couch he had slept on. “It’s terrible," he said. Then he conducted a telephone interview with the New York Times, which it dutifully noted occurred at 3 a.m., to talk about his effort.

Later, he explained his reasoning to Bloomberg Businessweek: “The reason I slept on the floor was not because I couldn’t go across the road and be at a hotel. It was because I wanted my circumstances to be worse than anyone else at the company. Whenever they felt pain, I wanted mine to be worse."


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