The ancient Greeks developed many useful concepts which we, in our current vaunted era, would be wise to revisit. One such concept, arete (Ancient Greek: ἀρετή), was used extensively by the Sophists. In its most basic sense, arete means excellence of any kind. It implies effectiveness and it is exhibited whenever and wherever full potential is realized.
When I watch the news, surf the internet and scan the world around me I am always on the lookout for arete. It is the crème de la crème of what the world has to offer and is therefore a very small percentage of what human beings create from moment to moment.
If you’ve watched the news at all lately, you probably caught a glimpse of the story of Elon Musk, a relatively young entrepreneur whose professional achievements have revealed a certain élan, and I would argue, a fair measure of arete. Elon’s first major achievement was the co-creation of Paypal, an invention which earned him the capital necessary to launch other daring and large-scale projects. He parlayed his experience into the creation of a car manufacturing company, Tesla Motors, which produces a fabulous all-electric sports car capable of competing with their competitors which run on fossil fuel, and SpaceX, a company dedicated to building the world’s most advanced rockets and spacecraft.
The SpaceX team recently made history by becoming the only commercial (as opposed to governmental) enterprise to successfully attach to the International Space Station. The craft, Dragon, was launched into orbit from Cape Canaveral on May 22, delivered supplies to the International Space Station on May 25 and is scheduled to be released later this week. Previously only four governments – yes I said g-o-v-e-r-n-m-e-n-t-s – the United States, Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency have accomplished this formidable task. When asked about Dragon’s historic capture, Elon Musk, the 40 year old Chief Designer and founder of SpaceX stated: “Just awesome.” I have to agree. Pure arete.
When asked in a 60 Minutes interview about why he started SpaceX he noted that it was important for us to become a multi-planet species, so that we don’t remain confined on earth until our eventual extinction. One of my goals in life, incidentally, is to help make us a species worth saving.
The discussion of purpose aside, what stood out to me more than Elon Musk’s remarkable achievements is the way he carried himself after being asked how he felt about key members of the space establishment, such as Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Capt. Gene Cernan (Ret.) not supporting his efforts through their objection to the commercialization of the space program. Elon Musk was inspired by these American heroes early in life and their rejection was understandably painful, but displaying arete, he didn’t react, complain or retaliate, he simply extended an invitation for them to come and see the work his team was doing. How better to address their concerns but through firsthand experience?
Well done, Elon. Well done.