Real Leaders

Elon Musk, Tesla, and Investing in Love

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Elon Musk is a true, Thomas Edison type genius. After years of skepticism critics are acknowledging that he is re-shaping the automobile (Tesla), the space rocket (Space X), and solar energy (Solar City) industries all at the same time. I just started reading his new biography and it is a fascinating story of a highly unusual human. The combination of sheer intellectual genius, business savvy and thrill-seeking-risk-taking is yielding astonishing results. One thing is clear… when he gets a vision he is willing to go all in. He nearly lost all of his billion dollar-plus fortune he made off PayPal in these new change-the-future ventures. A big brain and iron guts are a potent combination.

Yet for all his success he laments that one part of his life continually teeters on the edge of “personal” bankruptcy. He has two divorces and five children. He asked the author of his biography if he thought allocating 10 hours a week to a relationship with a woman would be enough to keep her happy. That’s not a silly question. Recent research reveals that one full hour every day in which you invest your undivided and non-judgmental attention in your partner will create both trust and intimacy. The problem is very, very few people consistently devote that one hour of undivided, non-judgmental attention. In most cases it’s the quality of attention that is the bigger problem than the time. In Elon Musk’s case his hyperactive business life and overly busy super-bright brain are probably his biggest impediment to intimacy. I find the same is true with many of the senior executives I coach.

I often ask “what if science had proven that there was one, absolutely key activity, in your life that would enable you to be both happy on a day-to-day basis and deeply satisfied at the end of your life… would you be interested in knowing what that is?”

I am sure you already know where I’m going with this. Since the dawn of recorded history humans have understood that sustained happiness is just not possible without sustained love in our lives. It sounds simple but it’s not. There are many kinds of love. We often confuse family or friendship loyalty with love. Some people even confuse the twisted bonds of an abusive relationship with love. But we know through extensive psychological research combined with brain scans that the kind of love that generates continuous waves of inner warmth and happiness is reciprocal advocacy. I know those are awkward words so let me explain.

Reciprocal advocacy is the mutual, active support of another person’s healthy quest for their own happiness and fulfillment. In simple terms when two people are each other’s biggest fans…love continuously expands. The qualities of reciprocal advocacy are these:

1. There is constant non-judgmental, non-critical engagement. This happens when two people are in a relationship that is characterized by continuous conversation about the substance of their individual and joint life together. The crucial relationship-changing element is non-judgmental support. It’s difficult not to have an agenda for the people closest to us. We want them to pursue happiness in a way that is convenient to us or matches our ideals. But loving advocacy requires that we actively support the ways our loved ones choose to pursue their happiness as long as it is not self-destructive. Relationships are the happiest when people are interested in the details of each other’s lives and there is a constant blurring of what is trivial and what is significant. This requires time, attention and patience.

2. There are high levels of expressed empathy. This means that when something good happens to a loved one (your partner or friend) you ask them to recount their positive experience of success in detail while you invest your full attention. This creates deep bonds because the positive neuro-hormones that were released when your loved one experienced their success are re-released in the retelling. When you give them your full attention you also experience the same positive hormonal changes which deepen bonds and create mutual joy. Likewise, when a loved one suffers a disappointment your patient listening to the retelling of their frustrating tale and gentle encouragement that their loss is temporary creates powerful bonds of support.

3. There is consistent co-creativity. Recent brain research confirms that creativity releases dopamine in our brains. That’s why most people who get involved in creative endeavors lose track of time and experience high levels of confidence and personal power. It’s why creative hobbies are so addictive. In personal relationships co-creativity is intensely satisfying and deeply bonding. Perhaps you’ve worked on a team that creatively solved a difficult problem, or created a new product or service solution that had a lot of ‘wow factor.’ If you did I’m sure you felt the deep bonds of mutual advocacy and appreciation for your teammates. Well, an even richer feeling is possible with your loved ones. Life throws up constant challenges and opportunities that beg for creative solutions. Relying on each other’s strengths to plan amazing vacations, or unusual yet delicious dinners are obvious examples of opportunities for co-creation. Co-creation generates the deepest bonds when it is focused on creating positive outcomes or new experiences. It deepens feelings of partnership and mutual respect. (My wife Debbie and I recently discovered chalk painting and are a repainting many pieces of our furniture in colors I had never considered and we love it. It gives us a chance to discuss and visualize what’s possible and work together to create simple things that we both enjoy.)

You’ll notice something about these three strategies that create high functioning love. It takes an investment of time and devoted attention. It is surely worth it. It turns out that reciprocal advocacy is a peak human experience and a deep source of meaning. End-of-life interviews consistently reveal that healthy love relationships are the greatest source of life satisfaction and near-death contentment.

As a person who’s been married several times and raised six teenagers I have gone through the heart-aches of emotional devastation. After my second exploded marriage I realized that I had succeeded at everything I’ve valued in life except the most important thing. That caused me to do a lot of research on this topic of high functioning love. I made it the transcendent goal of my life to do whatever it took to create the best love relationship I could imagine. Like any goal, I realized that this would require trade-offs since I have limited time and limited attention.

I can report that my investment of time and attention in the three, science-based love strategies listed above over the past 15 years of marriage continues to pay off with huge daily dividends of contentment, satisfaction and yes, zing. And please, I am not boasting. This only occurred after over 20 years of marital mud wrestling and crazy levels of daily anxiety.

So now I want you to do an experiment, right now, right this minute.

When I teach my session called Live Smart and Work Like a Genius, which is based on the latest science of how to live each day to produce both success and happiness, I ask people to write down the names of the most important people in their lives. Then I have them look over the list and identify anyone who might not feel how much they are loved by them. (While you may have loved ones that know you love them they may not be feeling it.) Next, I asked them to take out their cell phones and send a text to the person they identified expressing both their love and at least one thing they admire about their loved one. This nearly always generates a fast response from the recipient. Often they want to know if the sender is in an emergency room. And while that’s funny I think nearly all of us are in an emergency room regarding someone we love who is just not feeling our love right now.

So what I’m asking you to consider is nothing less than your priorities. Succeeding at anything takes a consistent over-investment of quality time and quality effort. Is there anything you are currently working on that is literally more important than the quality of your love life?

It is human nature to want the things we don’t have. Elon Musk evidently wants sustaining love. I think it’s possible for him to enjoy that kind of love if he’s willing to invest some of his his genius energy in the emotional bank account of someone who understands him.

It won’t be easy. In many ways it’s easier to succeed in our work than it is with our loved ones. We have bosses or investors who hold us accountable. We have projects and deadlines. We have coworkers and resources to help us succeed. But in our personal life we’re largely on our own. We have to take the consistent initiative to literally make love. All on our own.

So make some love right now… please send out a loving text and begin a conversation that needs to happen.

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