Let’s get this out of the way up front: if you’re here expecting more snarky piling on about how stupid Elon Musk is, you’re going to have to get your schadenfreude fix elsewhere. Frankly, I think he’s a genius. A singular individual of our time that most fairly should be compared with Thomas Edison. But the whole Twitter thing really bums me out, because it makes obvious just how easily an unchecked strength can become a stunning downfall. It’s worth a few words; hopefully ones that will add a little bit of thoughtfulness to a mostly empty public “conversation.” We will see.
First let’s review a couple of the things Elon Musk has contributed to the world.
I’ve long been a believer in space exploration, so it’ll be no surprise that I have followed SpaceX since its earliest days. Back in 2002, Musk made a trip to Russia to acquire rockets at a commercially-reasonable price. The Russians basically told him he was an idiot and that it couldn’t be done. ON THE PLANE HOME, he put together a spreadsheet that showed that he could. His own people though he was nuts at first, but he was right. He surrounded himself with experts ranging from amateur to professional. He seeded money to folks and watched what happened. And most importantly he read, and read, and read. To call out just a few specifics he has cited:
- Aerothermodynamics of Gas Turbine and Rocket Propulsion
- Rocket Propulsion Elements
- Fundamentals of Astrodynamics
… and then he made it happen. Bigtime. SpaceX is still today*** the only American company that can launch people into space. He puts satellites up for about $1,200 per pound (the Shuttle was $30,000). He has used the capability to launch Starlink, bringing the Internet to people and places previously left behind. The scope of what he has done here is stunning. No gimmicky “tourism.” He has never flown himself. He is simply knocking down real problems, one after another, while most others just second-guess from the sidelines.
Think space doesn’t matter? You’re dead wrong, but OK. How about climate change?
It seems I can’t go a day without hearing Fleetwood Mac shill Chevy “EVs for Everyone.” Just like every other car company, Chevy would love you for you to believe that this was all their idea, but in reality they (together with all the usual suspects) have been slow-boating electrics since the 1980s. Not so Elon, who first invested in Tesla in 2004, and launched the Roadster in 2009 as CEO — more than a decade ago. We got our Model X in 2018 and it is straight up the best car I’ve ever owned.
What made the difference with Tesla was not new science, but a willingness to buck conventional wisdom as to what was “production ready.” Rather than whine about a lack of charging infrastructure, they designed the Supercharger and deployed enough of them that I’ve comfortably road-tripped the entire west coast of the USA multiple times. For daily use we haven’t even installed a dedicated charger of our own — we do just fine with a standard wall outlet. Software completes the package: we can safely leave our dog in a climate-controlled car; get automatically-recorded video of accidents or attempted theft; watch Netflix in the ferry line; verify that the doors are locked from our phones; ask it to extract itself from a tight parking space. I’m not allowed to take my hands off the wheel quite yet, but the Tesla drives itself way more than I do — stops at lights, changes lanes, you name it.
And sure they’ve been expensive so far, but at a base price of $47k the Model 3 is within striking distance of “normal” cars. It’s not a stretch to say that the EV industry is at a tipping point today directly because of what Elon has accomplished with Tesla over the past thirteen years.
But wait, there’s more. Tesla has used learning from the cars to become an energy company. One of my son’s best friends is kept busy way more than full-time installing Tesla Solar Roofs across the western half of the country. The Powerwall uses software to optimize power management — even automatically “topping up” the charge when severe weather is in the forecast.
I could keep going like this for a long time. And it’s easy for folks to talk about how nobody should be a billionaire or whatever, but he earned his money creating and selling things people want. His start in business was a $28k loan from his dad — a nice advantage to be sure, but turning $28k into $200B (legally) is a pretty good record and doesn’t happen by accident.
So then WTF happened?
In almost every case, Elon’s success has come down to “just doing” things that conventional wisdom said couldn’t be done. But it’s not a Zuckerberg “move fast and break things” vibe. He really listens to the arguments and the experts and the ideas — he is smart enough to understand what he learns — and only then he makes his call. Educated, but not encumbered, by those that have come before him. It’s just damn impressive.
The thing is, though, a key reason he can ignore the preconceptions of others is that he doesn’t have a ton of empathy for them (clinically it seems). Honestly he said it best himself on SNL:
“To anyone who I’ve offended [with my Twitter posts], I just want to say I reinvented electric cars, and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?”
It’s funny because it’s true. The same quality that helps him ignore naysayers also keeps him from understanding the positions of folks that attack him (rightly or wrongly). Especially in the anonymous public sphere. I mean, it’s hard for anybody to turn the other cheek online — throw in some mental instability and it’s just not a shocker when he reacts without thinking.
With Twitter, this all just spun wildly out of control. He’s mad that people are mean to him on Twitter, and because he’s the richest guy in the freaking world his answer is to just buy it and kick off the people he doesn’t like. Obviously he regretted this just days after he set it in motion. But he’d gone too far and was legally required to finish what he started. And the real kicker this time is that — in stark contrast to his other ventures — with Twitter he didn’t do his homework. So in practice he’s just another clueless a$$hat money exec who shows up assuming he knows better. But he doesn’t. And that is exactly what we are seeing play out as he flails and reacts, flails and reacts, flails and reacts.
It just makes me really very sad.
I’m not asking you to feel sorry for the richest man in the world. And I’m not making excuses for this complete sh**show; it could have serious negative implications for all of us. It’s just a bummer to watch it unfold. I hope that history is able to remember both sides of the Elon story, because we’ll all still be benefiting from what he’s built long after people forget what a tweet was.
*** Between the time I wrote the first draft of this piece and published it, NASA finally launched the behemoth that is Artemis on its first trip around the moon. They haven’t put humans in the capsule yet, but it does appear we’re going to have a second option. Awesome, but that program feels a bit like a relic from the 80s. I hope it goes ok!