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Technology

Elon Musk: The Troubled Genius

Words by Conor Purcell

Genius or unhinged CEO with too much on his plate – whatever you think about Elon Musk, he’s never dull. We pick over the complex mind of Tesla's top dog

Poor old Elon Musk. The South African-born billionaire has had something of a hard time of late. Not content with trying to resuscitate Tesla’s falling reputation (and stock price), he’s got involved in a number of Twitter spats with people he has never met.

Witness the tweets directed at one of the divers who helped rescue the Thai schoolboys over the summer. When the British diver Vernon Unsworth criticised the mini-submarine Musk had delivered to Thailand, Musk called Unsworth a ‘pedo’.

Although Musk later apologised, it was a symptom of what some observers believe is Musk’s increasing inability to think before he speaks. (In late August Musk followed up that tweet with this: “You don’t think it’s strange he hasn’t sued me?”)

Maybe we should be grateful – Musk is a different breed to the majority of the world’s CEOs, who are about as interesting as a quarterly earnings report.

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Getty Musk used to consume eight cans of Diet Coke and several coffees every day.

Of course, the thing you need to remember about Musk is that is he is not normal. This is a man who set up no less than three billion dollar companies.

A man who worked more than 100 hours a week for 15 years. That 100 hours. That’s 14 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s starting work every morning at 7am and not finishing until 9pm, Monday-Sunday. He claims not to have had a week off since 2001. That. Is. Not. Normal.

Part of us knows that Musk is an aberration, a quirk of genetics, luck and upbringing, yet we still expect him to interact with others as we might do. To behave like we would behave. This makes no sense. If you spend hundreds of millions of dollars of your own money attempting to colonise Mars, you are clearly not part of mainstream life.

Elon Musk did have a few things in his favour. Genetics? His grandfather once won a race from Cape Town to Algiers. His great-grandmother was the first female chiropractor in Canada.

His grandparents were the first people to fly from South Africa to Australia in a single-engine plane. His father was an electromechanical engineer, pilot, and sailor, possibly planting the engineering bug and the desire to explore new worlds, new boundaries that Musk clearly has.

Elon Musk was also severely bullied as a teenager in South Africa, once being beaten unconscious by a gang of teenagers after they had pushed him down a flight of stairs. Those sorts of memories can instill a drive that normal people lack.

Yet, the question remains, why would Musk get involved in a Twitter spat with a man on the other side of the world he has never met? Why get involved in arguments, when Musk knows full well they can have a disastrous effect on stock prices and investor confidence. There is a lot about Musk that doesn’t fit neatly into any business school case study.

Musk in a Twitter spat. Surprise?

He invested in Tesla and ousted all the founders. He started SpaceX with $100 million of the money he made from PayPal. His iron will to succeed is matched by an insatiable work ethic, one that he expects his staff to share. One quote comes from a talk that Musk gave at SpaceX a few years ago.

The punchline: “Not enough of you are working Saturdays.” Musk does of course. And he expects everyone who works with him to do the same. Given that SpaceX is trying to fly a man to Mars (and establish a permanent colony there), it’s unsurprising that most SpaceX staff are willing to go above and beyond – they are trying to change the world after all. Things get a bit more complicated at Tesla, who are, let’s face it, just a car manufacturer. The standard of employee is lower, the issues facing the company more mundane.

Inc magazine reported that Musk used to consume eight cans of Diet Coke and several large cups of coffee every day. “I got so freaking jacked that I seriously started to feel like I was losing my peripheral vision,” Musk has said. He claims he has now cut back: “Now, the office has caffeine-free Diet Coke.” Musk of course has to divide his time between two companies and three side projects. He spends roughly 40 hours a week at Tesla, 40 at SpaceX and two to five hours each at The Boring Co, Neuralink and OpenAI.

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Most of Musk’s staff seem so excited by what they are doing that any of his tantrums are seen as the price of doing business. Fans of the tech giant are nicknamed MuskBros. How often do you get a chance to work for a true visionary? And let’s be clear here, Musk is a visionary. You could argue that his first venture, PayPal transformed online payments. As well as attempting to colonise Mars with SpaceX and revolutionise the electric car market with Tesla, he co-founded Neuralink, a neurotechnology company focused on developing brain-computer interfaces, and is its CEO. In December 2016, Musk founded The Boring Company, an infrastructure and tunnel-construction company.

Musk doesn’t really have a contemporary in the modern business world. Most CEOs have deep knowledge in one field and spend their careers mastering the details of the narrow section of the world they have chosen. Musk probably has more in common with someone like William Randolph Hearst or one of the first railroad barons. Given Musk’s vision, it’s easy to forget he’s an engineer at heart.

Yet an engineer he is, and therein lies the problem. While most CEOs are happy to steer the ship and focus on strategy and long-range planning, Musk gets involved in the minutiae of the products he makes. “First of all, when Elon says something, you have to pause and not immediately blurt out, ‘Well, that’s impossible,’ or, ‘There’s no way we’re going to do that. I don’t know how.’ So you zip it, and you think about it, and you find ways to get that done.” That’s Gwynne Shotwell, the President and CEO of SpaceX.

For every satisfied employee, there’s someone who balks at the relatively low pay and long hours that Musk demands. And it’s not just employees who are giving Musk a hard time. The media loves nothing more than to cut someone with ideas beyond their station down to size. And what could be more arrogant than attempting to colonise Mars? When a recent report claimed that Mars had insufficient amounts of CO2 to ever be colonised, the media had a field day. The tech website CNET led with: ‘Sorry, Elon Musk: NASA says plans to terraform Mars won’t work.’ An Astronomy magazine subhead: ‘Sorry to ruin your plans Elon.’ ‘Elon Musk Wants to Terraform Mars, and He’s Refusing to Back Down,’ wrote Inverse. Another headline: ‘Elon Musk’s ‘supervillain’ plan to NUKE Mars to help humans live on red planet rubbished by experts.’

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In some ways Musk is simply the most visible of the growing billionaire class, who are criticised for their relentless pursuit of free market capitalism. Critics also point out that Musk has been a grateful recipient of government subsidies (more than $5 billion). Musk has also been criticised for his labour practices – Tesla workers earn between $4 and $8 less than the average auto worker, and are apparently forced to do mandatory overtime.

“The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth, but publish only enough to sugar-coat the lie, is why the public no longer respects them.” – Elon Musk lays into the press for what he saw as unfair coverage.

After the ‘pedo’ tweet, Musk apologised and insiders hoped that he would focus on the not inconsiderable challenges his companies faced. Yet only weeks later, in the middle of August, Musk tweeted that he had funding lined up to take Tesla private. That sparked a law suit from a short seller, who claims Musk’s tweet was fraudulent, and that Musk violated US Securities laws which prohibits CEOs from spreading false information. He backed down a week later, writing a blog on the company website that said, “Although the majority of shareholders I spoke to said they would remain with Tesla if we went private, the sentiment, in a nutshell, was ‘please don’t do this’.”

It may be impossible to have Musk the indefatigable entrepreneur, without having Musk, the thin-skinned reactionary. If he turns Tesla around and manages to colonise Mars, then no one will care. If he doesn’t? Well, Musk might find out that even geniuses can live and die in the court of public opinion.

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