As someone who considers themselves up-to-date with the latest news and trends on everything design and innovation, I was taken aback when I saw a Facebook post back in December. My friend was calling out Elon Musk for being a jerk (and no it wasn’t one of the those Facebook friends that rants about everything). He was referring to a Twitter battle between Musk and Jarrett Walker, a public transit policy consultant with a PhD in humanities.
Their Twitter feud began because of Elon’s comments at an AI Conference. Musk had called out public transportation for being a “pain in the ass” and that you could end up sharing a ride with someone “who might be a serial killer.” This led to a series of tweets by Walker aimed at Musk, saying that Musk wanted to create a public transportation system designed for the protection of the elite. To which Musk simply responded, “You’re an idiot.”
Up until this point, I had always thought of Elon Musk as a great leader and an innovation guru. I had nothing but respect for him. But these comments really shook me. After a quick Google search, I saw a couple of other articles that cast him in a negative light. This made me wonder if I was the idiot for thinking he was a great guy all along. It also made me realize I didn’t really know that much about him. This left me with one burning question: Is he a jerk or an innovative leader that we should aspire to be?
With Christmas quickly approaching, I added Elon’s biography, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, to my wishlist. I decided that this internal debate could only be answered with thorough research. What follows is my quest to answer this question. During my journey through Ashlee Vance’s incredible book, my thoughts on Musk would swing back and forth seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of him. So I decided to break down Musk’s life into 6 stages highlighting each of these different sides. Only after seeing all parts was I able to come to a conclusion to this question.
Little Kid Musk
- The Good: As a boy, Elon had an insatiable appetite for learning. He would often read a book a day. His most remarkable achievement came after he convinced his dad to buy him a Commodore VIC-20 (an old ass computer). According to the manual it’s supposed to take about 6 months to get through the all of the BASIC lessons. He stayed up for 3 straight days and finished the whole thing. Then he designed an entire video game on it; the source code of which was published in a magazine netting him $500.
- The Bad: He was teased and bullied a lot growing up. Sometimes this went as far as physical violence. On one occasion he was beaten up so badly that he blacked out and was hospitalized for an entire week.
- The Ugly: His dad seems to be darkest and most private aspect of his life. It appears that he may have been abusive - maybe not physically but at least mentally. While Musk talked to the author about most topics, he refused to talk about his father saying “He’s good at making life miserable. I don’t know how someone becomes like him.”
First Business Musk
- The Good: He left South Africa on his own without anything or anyone. He went to Canada where he stayed for a while - without a permanent home - until his brother met up with him. They made their way to Palo Alto and started their first business. Zip2 was basically mapquest before mapquest (which was Google Maps before Google Maps). It would end up selling for $307 million. Cha-ching.
- The Bad: While Elon and his brother were able to create a successful company, they had problems with their investors’ powers. The investors forced the product towards Media companies as more of a business directory instead of the B2C direction that Musk had hoped. To make matters worse Elon also experienced his first canceled merger catastrophe (#foreshadowing).
- The Ugly: Less than a decade after being essentially homeless in Canada, Elon was now Silicon Valley’s latest rich guy. It’s here we see the first signs of Elon potentially turning into a jerk. He purchased one of only 62 McLarens (really expensive car) in the world. He drove it around so much in the Valley that he started to get a dick reputation.
The Young and Rich Musk
- The Good: Aside from the McLaren purchase, Elon poured all of his money into his next venture, a company that would change the banking industry. At the time people said he was crazy and that consumers would never trust the security of the internet for online banking. His company, X.com, was more successful than anyone had ever thought possible. He even beat out his biggest competitor, PayPal, started by Peter Thiel as they agreed to merge together with Elon becoming the largest shareholder.
- The Bad: ‘Wait, I thought Elon founded Paypal?’ - you might be thinking to yourself. Well, while Elon was on a plane beginning his honeymoon one of the nastiest Silicon Valley coups of all time occurred. After the plane landed he headed straight back to try to save it only to be forced out as CEO. They later rebranded as PayPal.
- The Ugly: After another horrible merger process, Elon finally had some time to step back and go on his honeymoon. However, he ended up getting malaria in South Africa and almost died because of it. One doctor said he was a day away from dying. After 6 months and 45 pounds lost, he survived. This was just in time for eBay to purchase PayPal for $1.5 billion - netting Elon $250 million. Cha-ching! While this might sound like a great thing, a book entitled The PayPal Wars published right after the deal that painted Elon as the villain of the entire company.
Starting SpaceX Musk
- The Good: After his near-death experience, Elon revisited his childhood dreams of going to Mars. He visited NASA’s website one day and found no plan or even mention of going to Mars. Taken aback, he headed to Russia to see if he could buy a rocket himself. After being pushed around with ridiculous prices, Elon dove into books studying how rockets are built. On their plane ride home from Russia, he declared he would build the rocket himself with a spreadsheet detailing how to do it. This was how SpaceX was born.
- The Bad: While SpaceX was in full startup mode, Elon’s first son, Nevada, was born. Unfortunately, he died of sudden infant death syndrome.
- The Ugly: At SpaceX Elon quickly gained a reputation as a staunch leader. One employee said “If Elon was not happy, you knew it. Things could get nasty.” Even one of SpaceX’s greatest employees, Steve Davis, experienced Elon’s lack of caring. Davis was once assigned a task that seemed so impossible that another engineer said, ‘any other engineer at any other aerospace company would never have even attempted’. The assignment was to take a part that was quoted for $120,000 and built it on Elon’s proposed budget of $5,000. Davis spent nine months and poured his life into it. In the end, he was able to able to make it for only $3,900! Davis sent Elon an email detailing his greatest accomplishment to which Elon simply replied ‘Ok.’
‘Founding’ Tesla Musk
- The Good: Elon had always seen a future of all-electric cars. So when Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning approached Musk to become the first investor in a company called Tesla, Elon was all in. He wanted the car to be an image of the sustainable future. He wanted it to be a luxury brand and not some 'silly looking Prius'. Because of that, he had a lot of say with setting up the company in Silicon Valley (as opposed to Detroit) and with the visual design of the car.
- The Bad: As soon as Tesla created their first workable concept car, they decided to have a big press event. The event was a success with 30 high profile clients preordering the car for $90,000. The bad news for Elon was that in the press release he wasn’t listed as a founder. To make matters worse, a NY Times article about the company also left Elon Musk out. He was pissed.
- The Ugly: As Tesla was beginning to work on fulfilling their first round of pre-ordered cars, things weren’t going so well. The parts for the car were way too expensive and everything was behind schedule. Musk was not happy, so it was his turn to plot a coup. He called for the board to replace Martin Eberhard as CEO. They agreed and the original founder of the company was gone. After an interim CEO, Musk took over in 2008.
Leading SpaceX, Tesla, Hyperloop, SolarCity, and the Boring Company, Musk
- The Good: By this point, Elon has become an expert in leading multiple companies under extreme pressure all at once. In 2008 things were not looking great for Tesla and SpaceX. By Musk’s calculations, he only had enough money to save one company. Instead of panicking, Elon was able to keep his cool for long enough for SpaceX to win a contract to become NASA’s official supplier for the ISS. A similar ‘Tesla might go out of business’ situation happened again in 2013. It was so bad that Elon actually had a handshake deal with Google for them to buy and save Tesla. This never happened as Tesla’s sales team was able to beat projections and their stock went through the roof.
- The Bad: Elon’s leadership style continued to stay fierce (to say the least). To crank up the pace of the Tesla Model S design, they had two sets of employees working 24 hours a day. To quote the author, “It’s just never enough for Musk.” For example, in 2010 SpaceX had just successfully launched their Dragon capsule; and right before the party Musk called in his top executives to yell at them (in tuxes in front of their significant others) because one of the parts for a future rocket was behind schedule.
- The Ugly: Since managing multiple companies at once, his ugly side definitely reached its ugliest heights. Elon got divorced and his ex-wife, Justine, wrote many nasty articles on her blog about him. He was sued by the original founder of Tesla, Martin Eberhard, for his ouster from the company. And the crowning jewel of his ugliness came from the treatment of his longtime executive assistant, Mary Beth Brown. She basically did everything for him at every company. She never left his side. So one day she asked to get paid like an executive. He told her to take a 2-week vacation and that he would try to see if he could do her job. When she returned he told her he didn’t need her anymore. [Note: He did deny this on Twitter 2 years after the book was published.]
The Universal Theory of Musk
Throughout Elon’s evolution, I struggled to find one event that would define him. There are so many ups and downs that I couldn’t just point to one moment and say ‘Yep, he’s a jerk because of this.’ or ‘Yep, he’s someone we should aspire to because of that.’ I had to look at the totality of his life in order to make sense of it all.
What was clear throughout the book is that Elon operates differently than most other successful people today. Jeff Hammerbacher, an early Facebook engineer, claims that “The best minds of our generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” And Elon agrees with him saying “I think there are probably too many smart people pursuing internet stuff, finance, and law. That is part of the reason we haven’t seen that much innovation.” But it’s this statement that reveals Elon isn’t after these little innovations. He’s always in pursuit of his larger purpose.
I would like to die thinking that humanity has a bright future. If we can solve sustainable energy and be well on our way to becoming a multiplanetary species with a self-sustaining civilization on another planet… I think that would be really good. - Elon Musk
In the final paragraph of the biography, the author ends with “I asked Musk directly just how much he was willing to put on the line. His response? Everything that other people hold dear. I would die on Mars. If my wife and I have a bunch of kids, she would probably stay with them on Earth.”
Seeing Elon in this light connects a lot of dots. The objective of the video game he created as a kid was to save the world from an alien space freighter. In college, he wrote papers detailing his plans for sustainable energy in order to ensure that “civilization can continue to progress.” Even the founding all of his businesses were not driven by lucrative desires, but rather he was working to create a system of interconnected companies that can help our species in the short term as well as in the long term.
So with this universal understanding of Musk where does that leave us with our initial question?
It leads me to conclude that Elon cares about one thing above all else: saving our species. He cares so much about this that it doesn’t matter if people think he’s a jerk. To him, the greater good is more important that one individual’s feelings (even his family’s). So at the end of the day, I have to say that Elon Musk is a jerk, but he’s also an innovative jerk that we should aspire to be.
I wrote a follow-up to this article pondering one powerful question:
To become an Innovation Legend, do you have to be a jerk?