Here's What It's Like to Interview Elon Musk

What is it like to interview Elon Musk? originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question.

Answer by Alexander Zhang, Managing Director of LavaLab, on Quora:

Quite honestly, it was scary as hell.

We invited Elon Musk to attend a routine Thursday dinner and fire-side chat with our incubated teams that semester at LavaLab, USC's student-run incubator program. Surprisingly enough, he agreed and showed up on time in his blacked out Tesla. Shocker right? He showed up on time!

I take it what you are really searching for is the overall experience, the quirks, all the nuances independent from the content James Altucher so clearly covered for us already. Below are a few of these nuances that I picked up over dinner and an interview fireside chat with Elon Musk in October, 2014.

1) He's intimidating.

He's 5' 11" with a built frame and a head the size of my chest. Imagine a cranium large enough to hold his brain! With the boots he was wearing that night, I give him an easy 6 feet. He's massive. He's poised. I recall standing with him in an elevator and chuckling because here I was, a 5'7", 140 pound, 19 year old standing next to Elon Musk, and most intimidating of all was his stare.

I base all of my conversations on facial feedback and as humans, most of us do. For example, if you and I were having a conversation and I was telling you one hell of a story, I would almost subconsciously scan your face to tell whether or not you were engaged. If all the signals pointed YES, I would milk the climax, draw out the suspense, and really put everything I had into delivering an experience. However, if your eyes were darting or you appeared disinterested, I'd quickly end our story and steer our conversation elsewhere probably asking you if you had to use the restroom. With Elon Musk however, he provides no facial feedback, just quick nods here and there and comments. As an interviewer, I had no means of gauging how the conversation was going, if he enjoyed what I was saying, or if he hated what I was saying.

Before dinner, I gave him a quick tour of our co-working space, the Blackstone LaunchPad, and attempted to impress him with our 3D printed prosthetic hands and flashy arduino kits. No facial feedback. Then again, he oversees the construction of spaceships and rockets so I'll count that one a draw. Every joke I told, every line of conversation exchanged, I could tell he was very much present but he just stared at me, or what felt like through me, as if understanding and evaluating every single word I was saying. Let me make this clear though. He's intimidating but by no means rude. In fact, he's got in an incredible sense of humor.

2) He has a great sense of humor.

The first thirty minutes of the fire-side chat went well, not splendid, just okay because I was so nervous and intimidated, perhaps by his lack of facial feedback, that I stiffed up and reserved my usual playful nature. However, something finally clicked. I'm sitting down and interviewing a man that will probably be written in my children's textbooks and if I don't take charge of this once in a lifetime opportunity, I'd be a fool. And so, I remember taking a deep breath, loosening up my legs, and criss-crossing them in the most casual of postures. Immediately, the atmosphere changed. He loosened up, I loosened up, and the jokes began. We were all invited to experience such an incredible sense of humor, personality, and charm.

Months later, I ran into him at an after party and we joked about a KCRW playlist he made. Song selections involve Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Fly Me to the Moon - Frank Sinatra. He really does have a unique sense of humor.

3) He's calculated and precise.

Paired with his astute listening abilities was an overwhelming sense of calculation and precision. Many claim that Elon isn't the best public speaker but I disagree, he's an incredible speaker--in the right setting. Perhaps not the most theatrical of speakers, he does, however, choose every word with precision and purpose. Calculation with his words and calculation with his actions. He's a man that always plans two steps ahead, and it was clear through his responses and stories that he isn't one to let his emotions get the best of him.

4) He's scientific. 

Elon views himself and the world around him via the most technical and scientific of processes. One of the questions I had asked him that night was to elaborate on his theory of reductionism, boiling things down to their fundamental truths and then reasoning up from there and to provide an example of this theory in practice. From the very examples he provided of quality control to his own leadership style, he bases everything in positing hypotheses, testing them, and then moving forward from collecting data. Almost every emotional intelligence-based question that I threw at him was quickly answered with how things technically went. As a matter of fact, I had to frequently steer him back down to earth when he would go on tangential, extremely detailed explanations of why certain things happened and how certain things reacted the way they did, often going over the heads of our audience members in the small crowd that night.

It was really a privilege for myself and LavaLab to share this remarkable experience. All the rumors of his charm, passion, and drive are all undoubtedly true. I would love to speak more to the content that was shared, but there was a promise made between all of us that his personal stories, both ups and downs, would stay within that room. Thank you for understanding.

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