I used to be a pretty decent fan of Elon Musk. I don’t think it’s hard to be. As someone with a great love for scientific endeavor it’s so easy to love what Elon is doing with his life. There are so many powerful people spending their money on another banking venture or real estate monopoly scheme. To see someone with a great love for science fiction – trying to turn things into science fact – is refreshing.
Supermen and Titans
Our society, like all successful societies, raises heroes on a pedestal. We promote success for the dual purpose of both inspiring others, and continuing to benefit those who may through their success continue to benefit us. We want our heroes to “keep doing what they’re doing” as much as we want to be like them.
One unfortunate thing we tend to do with our heroes, is lionize them far beyond what they deserve. It is from this effect that we find the origin of the term ‘hero worship’. Franky, we often take it too far. You can see this all the time with folks who praise the successful. They often appear to have a wildly overstated view of the abilities of their heroes. They will defend them to the death against the complaints of others.
I think this can be see as the result of a complex in which folks accept the existence of ‘supermen’. We like to tell stories that include seemingly impossible feats on the parts of people both real and fictional. These stories in the form of fictional depictions of ‘superheroes’ are wildly successful. We will often also assume nearly superhuman status on the part of those who are successful. There are likely a number of reasons for this – but one of the most obvious ones is that we want to assume they had some special quality that got them where they were. Something that would give us an excuse for not being as successful. (Or even more pathologically, we think ourselves supermen like them, and want to directly emulate them – assuming we can have the same success since we’re just as ‘powerful’.)
While many folks are willing to accept that luck and privilege play a huge part in success. Especially for those who think modern western society is largely ‘meritocratic’ – for them to be okay with having not ‘failed’ they need to assume a superman outcompeted them. I think this is in large part an explanation for the generally ‘right leaning’ love for Elon Musk. Conservative folks tend to believe more consistently in meritocracy and therefore are less likely to accept that Elon got where he did through a complex combination of privilege, luck, hard work, and talent.
Elon has long seemingly enjoyed the superman status handed to him by his fans. In his attempts to understand and grow his own identity he has at least in public latched on tightly to the assumed or implied moniker of “world’s smartest man”. But anyone who is paying attention can tell this is hardly the case.
Let’s be fucking frank. Being an executive is sometimes very hard. It is also sometimes and in some ways very easy. One of the most disgusting things about zealous executives is their constant talk about how many hours they “work.” It is one thing to “work” as a member of the C-Suite. It is entirely another to work on an assembly line. An executive who gets nearly complete autonomy and power to do as they please all day, has absolutely no right to invoke the number of hours they work to argue that an assembly line worker making in a year as much as they make in an hour should “work harder”.
Elon is certainly not alone in this misbehavior however. Frankly, it is because of the fact that in many ways being a successful executive is very easy dollar for dollar that Elon is somewhat interesting. There are definitely traits that Elon has that have helped him become successful. He is in many ways a better executive than many – though he is certainly not better than most people in the population.
Everyone has their own special way of being. I’m sure you could write a book about all the little details that set apart many folks in business. Maybe Elon’s “morning routine” is special fancy. But I really don’t care. The things that Elon does that are genuinely special are:
- Unabashedly express himself
- Be smart / interested enough to understand his engineers
- Be ungrounded in his ambition
Unabashedly Express Himself
Elon has absolutely no qualms about saying or doing just about anything at this point. This is a rare trait in an individual, and an especially rare trait in someone as successful as him. Despite his fans that seem to hang on his every word as ‘genius’ Elon is most certainly not. But he is willing to take chances and make mistakes. He also will fight and claw his way through issues in front of him in a sort of ‘out of the box’ style.
Elon has publicly revealed he has aspergers syndrome. Though I’m sure he’s not alone as a successful business leader, I have to wonder if the collection of traits related to any such diagnosis might help explain his individuality. As opposed to some folks on the spectrum, it seems that Elon has not retreated inside of himself – but rather chosen to truly ‘forge his own path’ chasing after his interests. Presumably his autistic traits might make it easier for him to shirk off the criticism that would otherwise keep someone else from feeling too self conscious to pursue things as genuinely as he does.
His unabashed expression of himself without respect to general social norms has supported the next two things he does well.
Be smart / interested enough to understand his engineers
Elon gets a lot of ‘smartest man in the world’ fanboys. He most certainly is not. But he’s no dummy either. In pure cognitive ability Elon is likely somewhere north of the 95th percentile, but he’s no ‘one in a million’ genius. He is certainly not the next Einstein. Elon does appear to have a knack for engineering however, and he uses it well. He surrounds himself with very very smart people many of whom are more cognitively talented than him – and he does something more business leaders should learn to do – he spends real time working to understand and support them.
Elon is not a scientist, but he may be one of the most dedicated science fanboys in all of the business world. He knows enough to be ‘dangerous’. He knows and cares enough to take good advice from the scientists and engineers working for him and to make the informed business decisions that a traditional executive with less passion for science and engineering might struggle with.
There is a quote from Elon back when SpaceX was getting off the ground about how he (paraphrased) ‘read a book about rockets’ then decided to just go for it. Many of his fanboys took this to mean that Elon somehow was such a genius that he could read one rocket related book and then design and handcraft a rocket himself. This is a pop-culture idea of what engineering looks like (think Tony Stark in a cave). But anyone who knows how real engineering works knows this is a fairytale.
Elon very well may have just read one book and then taken a crack at ‘it’. But for him – ‘it’ is listening to real scientists and making business decisions based on what they tell him.
But that’s actually really important still – and is something that most other CEO types are genuinely not doing correctly. Is it cringe that he seems to think he is the ‘genius’… yes. But he is doing something right and very important in a good business leader because of how badly he wants to be.
Be ungrounded in his ambition
It seems that Elon is constantly caught in the trap of overpromising entirely fantastical ideas. In some rare cases – they actually come through. Take the very famous video of two falcon stages landing at the same time. That only came to reality because Elon was completely unhinged in his pursuit of a sort of ‘science fiction becomes reality’.
Love it or hate it, this is one of the traits that makes Elon so successful. Less due in part I think – to his ‘risk taking’. Just about anyone can take risks and win or lose – many do. But mostly because Elon chases genuinely fantastical ideas that many others would be entirely too afraid to consider. He is a man on a mission – sometimes inspiring and sometimes cringe. But it is his passion for what he does – and the shared passion that humanity has for the same subjects that have given him immense soft power he is able to use to motivate others to support him and to work their absolute minds off to try and get his dreams off the ground.
The reason this works, is because they’re not his dreams. Elon is pursuing dreams that a large many of us share. We would be happy to do the same if we were in the right place in life and so seeing him success we want to cheer him on.
Elon makes non-stop use of this skill. Even with his new Twitter venture, it would appear that he has found a mission (though allegedly he was trying to desperately abandon that mission until he was sued). He wants to use Twitter as ‘the public square’. When everything he does has a higher calling of sorts. Many folks will support and follow him – and work themselves dead for him.
What Does Elon Need?
Elon needs to be defeated; for his sake. I don’t mean like “he must be stopped”. I mean that Elon has built an identity around himself that is entirely manufactured out of his own myth. He has literally figuratively drank his own kool-aid. Many folks who dislike him call his antics out as ‘childish’. Though that is a drastic oversimplification – they’re not entirely wrong. Elon has a personality that has grown out of his massive obsession with his dreams – and with the work he has done to realize them. His continued success has only reinforced some of the worst aspects of who he has become.
Take for example his apparent “mission” (there’s always a mission with him) to use IVF to impregnate multiple women so he can create ‘genius children’. He has literally tried to write off knocking women up as him helping humanity because he’s “smart”. That’s not the antics of the smartest man in the world, that’s a cringe Dunning-Kruger mess straight out of r/iamverysmart.
Elon talks a lot about how hard he has had to struggle to get where he is. But from watching the way he acts it is exceptionally obvious that he has never understood struggle in the way that many folks do. Elon may have had it harder than many of the highly privileged and successful people he knows. And he may be smarter than many of them. But he is in very many ways a very small fish when he steps into any other pond.