Why We Should Give Elon Musk a Break
The argument against the schadenfreude of watching the powerful implode.
Here’s a message my dad sent me yesterday:
Happy Friday. Andy is coming over. What’s up with Elon Musk? I think he is imploding.
Unless you have been living in seclusion from the daily battery of tech and business news, you are aware of the renewed controversy surrounding Elon Musk, the (some-mix-of) cofounder/executive/leader of Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity, Neuralink, OpenAI, and The Boring Company.
Previously, opinions on Elon Musk have been mixed — you either didn’t care about him at all, looked up to him in reverent awe at his parallel entrepreneurship and desire to save humanity, or disregarded him as another inflated, reckless, and delusional tech titan who chases his whims at the cost of shareholder value, employee safety, and his companies’ overall wellbeing.
Recently opinions have shifted strongly towards the latter, following what seems an endless string of scandals: his ‘Pedo’ accusation of the Thai cave rescuer, his reckless tweeting about taking Tesla ‘private at $420’, his recent toke on the Joe Rogan show, and even the damning letter published by an anonymous Tesla exec detailing the “resistance” against Musk within Tesla.
For Elon-haters, all of this is wonderful, validating news. For those who look up to him, the previous months events are maybe enough to tarnish their opinion, but not enough for them to renegade. For shareholders, his actions and their repercussions are definitely aggravating. And for those who typically don’t care, the recent onslaught of news has simply provided a pleasant diversion: schadenfreude.
There is nothing that people seem to enjoy more than watching the powerful implode.
Maybe it is because they genuinely disagree with the opinions of technocrats, disapprove of the sweeping consequences that result from the decisions of a few, or just generally dislike the business titans born of our capitalist system. Yet for many, watching the powerful fall apart is simply enjoyable in its own right. It’s nice to see them fall victim to human shortcomings.
I’m not here to support the technocracy that has come to dominate our business civilization, nor to defend the reckless actions of large executives. I am here to make a case for giving Elon Musk a break, if not from the public battery of insults that he receives daily, at least from your own mental ire.
While this article is about Musk, the same argument can be made for other larger-than-life public figures. No one tends to come to their defense because they don’t seem to need it, and often don’t deserve it. But we owe it to ourselves to try and see the world from their shoes, if not simply for the sake of broadening our own horizons.
In no way could I make an equitable comparison between Musk and myself, but as someone who knows what it’s like to handle parallel entrepreneurial ventures, many of his actions become understandable. And watching the public vehemently attack him bothers me, because at the end of the day I see one thing in Musk:
An entrepreneur just trying to make it work.
No entrepreneur is trying to lead their company to failure, but many don’t know how to hold it together in the face of such a daunting threat. Take Holmes of Theranos infamy. I cannot bring myself to believe that she founded Theranos with the intent of defrauding millions from investors and the public. I think she founded Theranos believing that she could truly change the world — and made a series of decisions in pursuit of that vision which, in hindsight, were despicably stupid.
All to often we discount the external pressures of entrepreneurship and paint them as purely personal failures of the entrepreneur themself. We forget that for every founder making rapid, sometimes rash decisions about their company, there are a host of investors pushing them towards profitability by any means. There are hundreds — in some cases, thousands — of people whose jobs depend on the founder’s ability to make it work. And of course there are the media who capture (and distort) every blunder along the way.
It is no wonder that founders sometimes make bad, reckless, and even outright dangerous decisions in pursuit of keeping their company alive. And when they do make those decisions, they don’t have the luxury of private failures.
Whoever you are, I can safely assume that you are not the executive of multiple multi-million dollar companies. While you may be an entrepreneur, and thus privy to the unique stresses that founder status places on you, it is nearly impossible for everyday people to conceptualize the stress that someone like Elon Musk faces on a daily basis.
As the executive of any venture, when shit hits the fan, it hits you first. If you’re the executive of multiple ventures, you start getting hit with a lot of shit. It never stops. And suddenly it becomes very hard to formulate solid strategic plans because you are spending all day putting out fires.
As the founder, you are the one who is responsible for the failures of your company. If it doesn’t work out, you messed up, someway somehow. You didn’t put out the right fires and maybe you even started the deadly one. But even if the world is stacked against you, your venture’s downfall is your own failing. No matter how much is at stake, if it topples, it falls on you.
With Elon, there is a lot at stake. His ventures collectively employ over 50,000 people, and have taken on billions of dollars of investor money. Elon needs to make it work, or he risks not only losing his grand vision of a better tomorrow, but also destroying the livelihoods of those who believed in him and followed him through this shitstorm. Elon is trying to make it work, no matter what.
And he is nearly killing himself doing so. News of his excessive sleep deprivation made rounds shortly before the onslaught of scandals exploded, yet many people seem unable to tie the two together:
When you are exhausted, you make bad decisions. Elon is exhausted. He is making bad decisions.
When you are excessively sleep deprived, you lose your impulse control. You get angry and you yell even though you know doing so is unproductive. You make the wrong decisions and you tell your people to do the wrong things, and you only realize how wrong you were later. So you have to go back to your team and tell them to do it over again differently, because your judgement was off. That’s how your team becomes ‘enslaved’ to your ‘precarious whims’.
And you Tweet stupid fucking things.
If you have ever been excessively sleep deprived, Musk’s seemingly incomprehensible decisions to Tweet what he does makes sense. His volatile management style makes sense. His decision to take a (perfectly legal) hit off a joint on a radio show makes sense. The only difference between our reckless, sleep-deprived, misinformed actions is that ours play out in the bubble of our lives, and his on the national stage.
So we have an Elon that is excessively stressed and excessively tired. But there is another component we haven’t explored:
He is also excessively intelligent.
Discussing differences in intelligence is a topic that people tend to shy away from, probably because it’s contrary to our narrative of fundamental human equity. But in reality, there are people who are smarter than others. Everyone’s brains are wired differently, and sometimes that wiring results in people who are leaps and bounds more “intelligent” than those around them.
Elon Musk is one of those people. If you have ever explored his backstory, he literally taught himself rocket science. His parents recall that even as a child he would get lost in his own mind, deep in thought regardless of what was happening around him. He is obviously part of the hyper-intelligent club.
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing many excessively smart people. If you have ever met one of them, you know one thing: they think differently. Their minds are focused on different issues at a different depth. And while it’s easy to conceptualize the advantages of superior intelligence, we often give too little thought to the downsides. As Elon said on Rogan’s podcast:
“I don’t think you’d necessarily want to be me…it’s very hard to turn off.”
I have known super intelligent people who literally cannot sleep without drugs or deep meditation because their brain wont stop thinking. There is a constant onslaught of stimulation, thoughts about “what if” or “why not” or “how so.” It’s like a radio constantly playing in the background of your life that you have no hope of shutting off or even turning the volume down. The best you can do is ignore it and try to function.
The things that hyper-intelligent people tend to ponder extend beyond the realm of what occupies most people’s minds. They are thinking about gigantic, abstract, multifaceted problems: the destitution that ravages the world, our rapidly depleting environmental resources, the systemic corruption of big business and government that lets it all happen. Or perhaps they are caught up thinking about how quantum quarks spin, and what consequences that has on dark matter. Who really knows?
What we can say for sure is that they are not preoccupied with what their next Instagram post will be, or what car they should buy, or why that clerk was so mean to them despite their gregarious manner. They are often preoccupied with the big, abstract ills of the world that everyday people can safely ignore because they will either be dead before the consequences materialize, or because other people worry about these things so they can enjoy their consumeristic existence in peace.
So now imagine Elon. He has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and in his sleep-deprived state he’s pretty unequipped to deal with it. But on top of all of that, he has a brain that literally wont shut the fuck up long enough for him to get some rest. I’m willing to bet that a large part of the reason that he doesn’t sleep isn’t because he doesn’t try, but rather because when he does he is rudely awakened by the anxiety of either all the things he has to do, or of the failings of our modern world. Both of those lists are long.
But is the fact that he is smart and busy enough to insulate him from our ire?
After all, he brought many of these things upon himself. He is the one who decided to try to save humanity instead of living a peaceful life in academia. He is the one whose management style is harming his companies, the one who refuses to delegate to another executive. He is the one who can’t control his impulses long enough to not send a Tweet.
So here is another argument for why you should back off Musk: have some damn empathy.
Unless you honestly think that he wants to see his companies fail, then you can safely assume that he is trying his hardest to make them work. Sure he isn’t doing the best job at it, and sure many of the issues are his own fault. But at the end of the day he is an entrepreneur with a grand vision that he is trying to bring to life, and he is sacrificing everything to make it happen.
But furthermore, he is a human. Just like us. He may be a human with a lot of money and influence that you believe is being mobilized incorrectly, or even being put to utter waste. He may be a human that you disagree with, or dislike the idolization of. But he is still a human, and he is still deserving of our empathy.
So give the man a break for smoking a (perfectly legal) J on a radio show. Give him a break for cutting some corners to try to satisfy the ever capricious public markets and private investors. Give him a break for fucking up in the process.
The next time you find yourself taking joy in the headlines of Musk’s most recent gaffe, remind yourself that you are taking joy in an entrepreneur trying his hardest and failing. Remind yourself that you are basking in the mutual orgy of schadenfreude, and ask yourself if that’s aligned with who you are.
Musk is not perfect, and he is making some big mistakes. But we shouldn’t feel too good about ourselves if we are deriving joy from the suffering of another person, even if that person is an aloof, mercurial tech titan.
At least he’s trying to save the world. Are we?