What Elon Musk just taught us about becoming indispensable

Billionaire Elon Musk, the CEO of three companies, is a busy man who is trying to colonize the solar system, stop the A.I. takeover, and make electric cars go mainstream in our lifetimes. But these visionary goals come at a cost.

Multiple anecdotes from employees and partners have shown that Musk can prioritize his work at all costs — even at the expense of his professional and personal relationships.

According to a biography of his life by Ashlee Vance, Musk once told a Tesla employee who complained of being overworked that Tesla employees “will get to see their families a lot when we go bankrupt.”

In that same biography, a story about his longtime personal assistant asking for a raise story teaches us two lessons, depending on if you take the side of Musk or the assistant in this story. If you agree with Musk’s decision to fire his assistant from her role, it teaches you the importance of making yourself as indispensable as possible before asking for a raise. If you side with the assistant, it’s a valuable reminder to not go years with being underpaid and undervalued.

According to the Vance biography portrayal, Mary Beth Brown was more than just an executive assistant to Musk; she was also someone who made business decisions for his companies. And by 2014, she had decided she would like to be paid as more than an assistant.

Musk: Before you get this raise, I’ll do your job

In the biography, Brown decided that she wanted to be paid like a SpaceX top executive. When she went to Musk about a raise, he said he was open to the idea — but first, he would conduct an experiment to decide if she merited an executive salary.

For the next few weeks, Musk gave Brown time off and took over her duties. When Brown returned, Musk decided that he didn’t need her anymore and that her job was no longer available.

“That Musk was willing to let Brown go and in such an unceremonious fashion struck people inside SpaceX and Tesla as scandalous and as the ultimate confirmation of his cruel stoicism,” Vance writes.

In Vance’s interview with Musk about this story, Musk said that “my conclusion was just that the relationship was not going to work anymore.”

Musk offered Brown another position at the company, but she turned down the offer, and he gave her 12 months’ severance.

The story is corroborated in a Quora post made by Musk’s ex-wife, Justine Musk, who said that she was also submitted to a similar experiment.

“This reminds me of something similar he once said to me, many years ago, after I came back from a week’s visit with my family in Canada — that his life had operated quite smoothly in my absence,” she wrote. “He was letting me know that I was an incompetent house manager.”

No employee is indispensable, but you can make it harder for you to be replaced

As a general rule, rating your personal relationships like science experiments won’t endear you to your partners. As an employee, however, you should always come prepared to assess your value before you ask others to rate it for you in a salary negotiation.

Making yourself valuable is often a key to winning raises. Workplace expert Lynn Taylor told Business Insider that she advised employees to do regular audits of their responsibilities so that they could evaluate how integral they were to their company’s success.

Bottom-line: no employee is truly indispensable, but by taking on projects and responsibilities, you can add value to your organization and make yourself harder to replace.

If you notice that your work is being consistently undervalued, you also have the right to make your case, and leave if the offer’s not good enough. When you’ve gone years without a raise, maybe it’s not the time to reevaluate what you can do better, but what your company should be doing better.

According to the biography, that’s what Brown decided. After having her salary raise rejected and turning down the other position, Musk told Vance she never showed up at the office again.