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My Brush With Elon Musk

When I accidentally asked the Thomas Edison of our time what he did for a living, he lit up like a Christmas tree.

About five years ago, a close friend of mine and I had an idea for a television news program. As luck would have it, my friend had gone to high school with a guy who, at the time, just happened to be the president of NBC. We arranged to have drinks at a fancy hotel bar in Washington, just the three of us, to talk about the idea.

That day, Mr. NBC called to say he was bringing a friend along. No problem, I said. The more the merrier.

When the four of us sat down together and ordered beers, I turned to the tag-along. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t catch your name.”

“Elon,” he said. I answered: “Nice to meet you. What do you do for a living, Elon?” He lit up like a Christmas tree.

“I have a passion for technology,” he said, his hands gesticulating wildly. “I created this company. Maybe you heard of it? It’s called Paypal. And I sold it for, like, a billion dollars. Then I took the money and created another company called Tesla.”

“Oh my God,” I interrupted. “Are you Elon Musk?”

He was. I was so clueless that I’d asked the Thomas Edison of our time what he did for a living.

Of course I knew who Elon Musk was. He was the guy who created Paypal. He was the genius behind the electric carmaker Tesla and its long-life battery, which is on the road to disrupting the entire auto industry. He was the visionary behind SpaceX and the 600 mph “hyperloop” service that he says will whisk passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes by 2025.

Musk did most of the talking that night. He talked about entrepreneurship, he talked about technology, and he talked about alternative energy sources, including wind and solar energy. I agreed with most of what I heard, although I think he’s dead wrong about nuclear power being a “clean” fuel.

Musk said several other things that I can’t forget.

First, he said that the United States is falling behind other industrialized countries because we neglect our infrastructure. Building and repairing roads, bridges, and hospitals shouldn’t be controversial or political. It ought to be something we all agree we need. This country should have the best roads, bridges, and hospitals in the world. And we don’t.

Second, he said that our universities should be incubators to the greatest cutting-edge technologies in the world. But colleges and universities have become so expensive that many potential students just can’t afford higher education. As a result, we’re denying ourselves some of the best minds the country has to offer.

And third, he said that the United States is behind the curve – and the rest of the Western world – when it comes to tapping the full potential of solar and wind power. We’ve made a lot of headway since that chance meeting I had five years ago. But if you look at how much renewable energy we’re generating on a per capita basis, it could take us years to catch up to the Germans or the Scandinavians. Even the Greeks are ahead of us on solar power.

I listened, enthralled. I should have gone home, logged onto my brokerage account, and bought as many shares of Tesla as I could afford. I didn’t, though. My loss.

My friend and I never pitched our TV news show either. But we got a first-hand lesson in entrepreneurship from the man who’s arguably the country’s greatest living entrepreneur.

When it comes to our infrastructure, student debt, and alternative energy, our politicians could stand to get a lesson, too.

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